About the “ineffectiveness of torture”

A friend of mine posted a commentary about the ongoing torture debate. He was appalled about people arguing that torture doesn’t work. “Why stop there,” he asks. “Does rape work? Let’s have a debate! Is genocide effective? Get some pundits to discuss pros and cons! Does sexual abuse of children yield results? Get some experts on screen!” This line of inquiry prompted me to consider whether the ineffectiveness of torture is ever an acceptable argument against it.

To consider the issue on a broader level, one can imagine “pundits” of other times hotly debating effectiveness of slavery, systemic censorship, forced prison labor, or gladiator battles.

The debate over torture has revealed the ugly fact that torture is widely supported by Americans, and the support has risen in the last several years. I see it as a result of a careful propaganda campaign that made skillful use of the naive portrayals of torture popular in fiction, and especially in pulp. Fiction tends to show torture as the only measure available to defeat infinitely evil opponents. This is so wide-spread that the tvtropes site documents a number of torture-related tropes, such as the “ticking time bomb”. When Americans support torture, they envision this scenario, a fact the agencies promoting their own use of torture happily embraced. If one’s thinking is confined to the ticking time bomb scenario, their moral judgment (and, one might add, decency and good taste) is suspended; they ask themselves nonsensical questions with leading answers, such as “would you torture one person to save a hundred?” (or a thousand, million, etc.) The fact that this scenario is an unrealistic fictional invention fueled by non-fictional propaganda machinery never enters their mind.

Given the way Americans think about torture, it is probably simply easier, and more efficient in the short term, to point out the ineffectiveness of torture than to debunk the ticking-time-bomb image. But in the long run, I would argue that relying on the ineffectiveness argument is an extremely bad idea. Imagine future interrogators and their teams of psychologists and rogue doctors perfecting techniques to use torture effectively and start extracting reliable information from tortured enemies and suspects. An argument against torture hinging on its ineffectiveness would immediately fall apart.

The dilemma whether to use scientific data to back up what is essentially an ethical choice is present elsewhere. For example, lack of measurable differences between races has been cited as argument against racism, sometimes extended to a complete dismissal any notion of race as a “social construct”, like ethnicity. But what if geneticists do discover measurable and important differences between races? Basing what is essentially an ethical judgment on scientific data positions it on thin ice because all scientific views can (and must be allowed to) change. This is why I am against drawing the ineffectiveness argument into the discussion against torture, even if it appears useful in the short term.