Just for a moment, let’s pretend that there is no moral, legal or
constitutional problem with torture. Let’s also imagine a clear-cut case: a
terrorist who knows where bombs are about to explode in Iraq. To stop him,
it seems that a wide range of Americans would be prepared to endorse “cruel
and unusual” methods. In advance of confirmation hearings for Attorney
General-designate Alberto Gonzales last week, the Wall Street Journal
argued that such scenarios must be debated, since “what’s at stake in this
controversy is nothing less than the ability of U.S. forces to interrogate
enemies who want to murder innocent civilians.” Alan Dershowitz, the
liberal legal scholar, has argued in the past that interrogators in such a
case should get a “torture warrant” from a judge. Both of these arguments
rest on an assumption: that torture — defined as physical pressure during
interrogation — can be used to extract useful information.
But does torture work? The question has been asked many times since Sept.
11, 2001. I’m repeating it, however, because the Gonzales hearings inspired
more articles about our lax methods (“Too Nice for Our Own Good” was one
headline), because similar comments may follow this week’s trial of Spec.
Charles Graner, the alleged Abu Ghraib ringleader, and because I still
cannot find a positive answer. I’ve heard it said that the Syrians and the
Egyptians “really know how to get these things done.” I’ve heard the
Israelis mentioned, without proof. I’ve heard Algeria mentioned, too, but
Darius Rejali, an academic who recently trolled through French archives,
found no clear examples of how torture helped the French in Algeria — and
they lost that war anyway. “Liberals,” argued an article in the liberal
online magazine Slate a few months ago, “have a tendency to accept, all too
eagerly, the argument that torture is ineffective.” But it’s also true that
“realists,” whether liberal or conservative, have a tendency to accept, all
too eagerly, fictitious accounts of effective torture carried out by
Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question
is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to
believe that it works. At the moment, there is a myth in circulation, a
fable that goes something like this: Radical terrorists will take advantage
of our fussy legality, so we may have to suspend it to beat them. Radical
terrorists mock our namby-pamby prisons, so we must make them tougher.
Radical terrorists are nasty, so to defeat them we have to be nastier.
Perhaps it’s reassuring to tell ourselves tales about the new forms of
“toughness” we need, or to talk about the special rules we will create to
defeat this special enemy. Unfortunately, that toughness is self-deceptive
and self-destructive. Ultimately it will be self-defeating as well