Asking The Wrong Question About Torture

May 11, 2011

In 1958 a communist French newspaper editor sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence called Henri Alleg published “The Question”, a short account of his interrogation under torture by French paratroopers:

“The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breathe in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn’t hold on for more than a few moments.

I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save me from suffocation… three times I again experienced this insupportable agony. In extremis, they let me get my breath back while I threw up the water. That last time, I lost consciousness.”

Despite being water-boarded, subjected to electric shocks, burned, beaten, and drugged with pentothal, Henri Alleg did not give his captors the information they were after – the name of the individual who had hidden him from the authorities.

Alleg’s account of his treatment heavily influenced the public backlash against the French government’s policies, this in turn ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Fourth Republic. In Algeria, the brutal methods of the French colonial forces drove new recruits to the FLN in droves and by 1962 the French had lost the struggle and Algeria was independent.

I mention all this because in the past week the old debate about the efficacy of torture has resurfaced in the wake of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs.

There has been frenzied speculation in the media that intelligence gained by the use of water-boarding may have helped to pinpoint bin Laden’s hideout.

Partisans of torture, like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, have pounced on this possibility as vindication of their ‘hard-line’ position.

However, we should note the snippets of information allegedly obtained by coercion were demonstrably insufficient to lead the Bush administration to bin Laden. So, it’s hardly the magic bullet its proponents claim.

Furthermore, the fact that the US discontinued the use of water-boarding as long ago as 2005 and that techniques outlawed by the US Army Field Manual on Interrogation have been banned by Executive Order since January 2009 suggests that the loss of these coercive techniques did not impede the hunt for bin Laden in any significant way.

The commentariat has been barking up the wrong tree. There is no evidence that in this instance torture has been in any way indispensable.

Indeed, professional interrogators like Matthew Alexander of the US Air Force and the CIA’s Glenn Carle contend that a more traditional non-coercive approach might have actually gained better information by eliciting cooperation rather than simply compelling speech.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told Time magazine earlier this month that hardened terrorists “are like everyone else. There are very few that have not in some way cooperated for some period of time.” The law enforcement approach works.

The real story is just how damaging our flirtation with torture has been and how little we have gained from it. The record shows that some people talk, and some don’t. However, we pay a high price for the information we tear from the lips of those on the rack.

When we resort to torture we become criminals, and the distance between those who commit acts of terrorism and ourselves diminishes. We cannot stand credibly for the powerful democratic values that have revolutionized the Arab world this past spring when we stoop so low.

In the end torture never works. It failed the Nazis, it failed the right-wing dictatorships of Latin America, and it failed the left-wing dictatorships of Eastern Europe. Yet, much like a road traffic accident, it still seems to extert a powerful attraction over those with a morbid frame of mind and little faith in human nature.

In his foreword to “The Question” the great existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote:

“Whispered propaganda would have us believe that ‘everybody talks’, and this ignorance of human nature excuses torture.”

The reality, as Henri Alleg’s account reminds us, is that torture is as uncertain a method for gaining information as anything else. The only thing we can guarantee that torture will produce is torturers, and, if history teaches us nothing else, it is that torturers never prosper.