Fear Hath No Shelf-Life: Our Torture Dilemma

"While torture is bad, the thoroughly humane approach, contrary to our desires, has its limits."

The torture debate is critical not only because it gets us to the core of our values, but because the danger to American cities is not from tanks and armies, but from individuals and their intentions. Saving thousands of American lives may come down to the gifts of a talented interrogator and the tools at his or her disposal. Remember that usually only in the movies does a prisoner spill the beans on an upcoming plot. As interrogators will tell you, information about terrorist activities tends to come in fragments that are assembled from scores of interrogations, even as the truth is distilled—accidentally almost—from a spewing forth of lies and subtle evasions. The front line of our defense against al-Qaeda and its offshoots is painstaking, tedious work that rewards those best able to fill in the blank spaces from a shattered jigsaw puzzle.

Interrogators, because they deal with a single combatant face to face for hours at a time, often develop more sympathy for the enemy than any one else in our security establishment. After all, the combatant, because he has a real face, becomes human to them. Such sympathy is necessary if they are to do their jobs well. “To defeat the enemy you first have to love them—that is, their culture,” an army special forces lieutenant colonel told me years ago in Afghanistan.

Good interrogators become masters at discerning body language and eye movements in the person they are questioning. Their worst enemy is not the inability to torture, but their own bureaucracy, which often doesn’t share vital information with its constituent parts. There is a lot we can do to improve the quality of our interrogations without torturing people.

Also see:

'The Interrogators' and 'Torture': Hard Questions
(January 23, 2005)
Robert D. Kaplan's review of Chris Mackey and Greg Miller's The Interrogators in The New York Times.

And yet the problem is not that easily solved. It nags at one. Stating flatly that torture doesn’t work is a narrow version of the truth. Torture may not work, but the fear of it can work wonders. When a prisoner is captured, you may want him to be roughly handled, and put in grim and disorienting surroundings, for that heightens the fear of what might happen to him next. “Fear is often an interrogator’s best ally, but it doesn’t have a long shelf life,” write Chris Mackey and Greg Miller, authors of The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al-Qaeda, a very wise book by a former interrogator and a journalist. Fear can by extended for a time through clever techniques such as spreading false rumors. Example: the authors report that they received added cooperation from prisoners in Afghanistan after deliberately spreading a rumor that they were going to be sent back to their home countries in the Middle East in return for a $100,000 payment per man. But ultimately, as the weeks pass, and nothing bad happens to him, the prisoner’s fear fades and he becomes less useful. While torture is bad, the thoroughly humane approach, contrary to our desires, has its limits. And that is our dilemma.

Spreading rumors, rough treatment, grim conditions are all the very beginnings of a slippery path toward much worse things. To say that we cannot step even one foot along that path is impractical, for that would deprive the nation of vital intelligence and threaten to leave it defenseless. But to go far along that path is morally unbearable. So the debate is really about how far we do go.

The extreme example that’s frequently discussed—Should we resort to torture in the event of a ticking bomb?—is interesting but statistically not very useful, since most scenarios are much more ambiguous. And again, a single prisoner is more likely to reveal a shard of evidence than the where and when of a plot.

The authors Mackey and Miller describe a group of interrogators who solved their moral dilemma through the use of a technique called “monstering.” That is, if the interrogator had to put up with the same ill-treatment as the prisoner, then it wasn’t immoral. To wit, sleep deprivation combined with long interrogations was allowed if the interrogator himself went without sleep for the same amount of time. But to double-team the prisoner, with one interrogator sleeping while the other worked the prisoner over verbally, was considered immoral. Monstering was a matter of who broke first, the interrogator or the prisoner. And if the prisoner broke first, even part of the time, it was worth doing.

Of course, one could carry this logic as far as waterboarding, since many of our own special operations forces and combat pilots have been waterboarded as part of their training at Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School. Indeed, far more Americans have been waterboarded than prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But while the Americans who have been waterboarded have been physically and psychologically trained to perfection beforehand, and experience it only for short periods, unsuspecting detainees experience waterboarding under far more onerous circumstances. So what is hard, tough training in one instance, can be torture in another.

But if we can’t—or shouldn’t—waterboard, then how far do we push the envelope? Because if we don’t push it somewhat, we face what I call the 15 percent dilemma. Let me explain.

If we act like angels, and another, even more massive attack occurs in the United States, then the public might cry for blood, as it did to an extent in the immediate days and weeks after 9/11, when torture was occasionally spoken of in different terms than it is now. Remember that some Bush Administration policies were drawn up in the context of one public mood, and carried out in the context of another. Were that to happen, detainees’ rights might decline by, say, 50 percent. But if we push the envelope only 15 percent along that dangerous path, then we might avoid the 50 percent trap, and save many of our own lives.

But even 15 percent makes me queasy. To avoid the question, though, is itself irresponsible.