What is Torture and Does It Work?

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Mon, Jun 22 - 9:00 am EST | 3 years ago by
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Part One: When Ignorance and Dishonesty Pretend To Virtue1

“That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.”
~ Former Vice President and Senator (D) Al Gore, on the question of “Extraordinary Rendition”2

Lines of Departure - Torture

Twenty or so years ago I used to amuse myself by calling various offices of the anti-personnel landmine ban movement and asking, “When are you people going to get around to banning pre-cast or castable explosives, waterproof containers, batteries, clothespins, conductive wire, and plastic eating utensils? When are you going to do something about hand grenades, shock and pressure sensitive chemical compounds, electric blasting caps, string, and thin wire. What about anti-vehicular mines with anti-handling devices? And refined metals? And rocks? And wood? Don’t you realize these things can harm children? Don’t you care?”3

I gave it up when I realized that the point was completely lost on them, that – profoundly smug in their certainty of their own inestimable virtue – they were incapable of even seeing the outlines of their own ignorance, let alone realizing how much their ignorance made them useless.4 Mines were just too icky for them to seriously think about.

So is it, too, with ignorance, sometimes carefully cultivated ignorance, concerning torture.

Last Tuesday, the United States Senate attached to the Defense Appropriations Bill an amendment purporting to ban torture, should the current Executive Order5 against it ever be repealed, overturned, or withdrawn. Twenty-one Republicans voted against the measure, which ought to be remembered when election time comes, especially after we lose another few buildings or a city6:

The Atlantic is, of course, apoplectically outraged, as are, one is certain, each and every member of ICOTESCAS, the International Community Of The Ever So Caring And Sensitive.


So what is torture? Definitions vary. They seem sometimes to vary to cultivate a particular political position or advance a particular cause. As with the anti-personnel landmine ban movement, mentioned above, it may be that sometimes they just vary through willful ignorance.7 Generally speaking, definitions of torture include both mental and physical suffering, not incident to a lawful sentence, such as flogging in some countries or inserting a needle or dropping someone through a trap door with a rope around their necks, in others. Some, though they couch their words carefully, appear really to be more about preventing intelligence from being gathered than about the method of gathering.8 Some impliedly note that the threat of pain to force cooperation is, in itself, sufficient to constitute torture.9 This, indeed, was the purpose, in olden times, behind giving the proposed victim a tour of and explanation of the functioning of the instruments of torture, which, by the way, worked more often than not.

Note that the American Psychological Association includes among the techniques constituting torture:

mock executions; water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of fears, phobias or psychopathology; induced hypothermia; the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; hooding; forced nakedness; stress positions; the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate; physical assault including slapping or shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; threats of harm or death; isolation; sensory deprivation and over-stimulation; sleep deprivation; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to an individual or to members of an individual’s family.10

While I find some validity in all the definitions of torture, were they rolled into one it would be terribly and unhelpfully cumbersome. My definition, and we can argue about its validity, is this:

Torture is the use of mental and/or physical suffering, or the threat thereof, or the threat of death, other than as a result of lawful judicial sentencing, upon someone in some form of legal custody, or upon a third person, in order to elicit cooperation. The desired cooperation may be in the form of obtaining a confession, gathering intelligence, forcing propaganda statements, or similar purposes. The key points are suffering or the threat of suffering or death, or relief from suffering or the threat of suffering or death, of a person in custody, to obtain positive cooperation.11

That definition is more expansive than some, but less so than others. It has the advantages of covering both forms or torture, mental and physical, implicit or threatened torture, and torture via third parties, while not being, as Amnesty International’s is, either preposterous or, at least, subject to preposterous interpretation.12 Note that the Rome Statute which created the International Criminal Court also requires that the victim be in custody.13


Does torture work? It can and often does.

While the left is perfectly capable of lying about this to themselves and anyone they can get to listen, they are also to some extent lied to, or fooled, by people who are perhaps lying to or fooling themselves. I speak here of those interrogators who claim, in many cases perhaps subjectively truthfully, that they would never use torture. The problem with the claim is that they are using torture, even if they’re unaware of it.

How can that be, that one is using torture when one is not using torture? It’s not about withholding ice cream treats at Death Camp Guantanamo, nor even playing with a shy prisoner’s privates.14 Rather, it has to do with the nature of captivity and simple human fear. The captive is helpless, utterly helpless. He not only tends to believe the worst, his side’s propaganda arm has usually schooled him to expect the worst. As far as he knows he may be tortured and then killed – shot while escaping, say – with his corpse being chummed and disposed of at sea. He may be framed as a collaborator to his fellow prisoners, with painful or lethal results. His DNA may be analyzed to find his family and punish them for his lack of cooperation. Indeed, if he is – all three – 1) a captive of the United States, 2) familiar with Venezuelan propaganda, and 3) really stupid, he’d have to worry about us using our famed directed earthquake weapon15 on his home town; that, or any other of an infinite number of preposterous notions.

So these interrogators convince the prisoner that they’ll never harm him? Maybe some try. I doubt it but maybe. Do they succeed? One doubts, seriously. Do they try to convince him that they have so much power that if he fails to cooperate he still won’t be turned over to someone else for harsher measures entirely? Do they succeed in so convincing him? Puh-fucking-leeze; he may be stupid but he’s not that stupid.

Just ask yourself why the enemy prisoner cooperates at all. It isn’t the ice cream treats. Rapport? Why does he even allow the door to be opened to rapport with his captors, who are also his enemies and in league with Satan, to boot?

He’s scared shitless, that’s why, scared shitless of what will be done to him if he doesn’t open that door or if he refuses to cooperate in some other way.

Does this always work, and perfectly? Of course it doesn’t; nothing works always; nothing works perfectly. Only the brain-dead left demands perfection ab initio in everything (except, of course, for their personal political fantasies). Then, too, one runs into the rare but real Leila Khaled, whom one doubts could be broken by anything done to her.16 Fortunately people like that are quite rare.

Can anyone think of another instance where we depend on threat of pain and suffering to force people in custody to cooperate. Anyone? Yes, you, over there in the back.

“Plea bargains?”

Very good. Yes, the very plea bargains upon which our overstrained judicial system depends also employ the very essence of torture. Note, here, that “essence of” is not “exactly the same as.” Rather, both plea bargains and what we define as torture include people in custody, cooperating, for a reduction in suffering or, often enough, no real suffering at all, when serious suffering is threatened or is the plain price for not cooperating.

“Ah, but that’s all bullshit. Torture never works reliably; all the right thinking people know that.”

Indeed? Never? I offer into evidence the following two incidents:

1. On 9 October, 1994 Israeli soldier Nachson Wachsman was kidnapped by Hamas. They threatened to kill him on the 14th unless certain demands were met. The Israelis were able to identify and capture the driver for the kidnapping and, apparently, subjected him to a very rigorous torture session. The driver spilled his guts and a raid was launched to recover Wachsman. Unfortunately, the boy was killed in the raid, along with three of his captors. Still – so sorry, ICOTESCAS – torture worked.17

2. In Sri Lanka, a group of three Tamil Tigers we believed to have recently planted a bomb somewhere in Colombo, the capital. “The three men were brought before Thomas. He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists—highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation—remained silent. Thomas asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So Thomas took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved.”18

So spare us the bullshit; of course; torture can work. That doesn’t necessarily mean we should use it, or use it generally, if we use it at all, but to claim it cannot work is intellectual and moral dishonesty of the worst kind.

Continued next week with some practical advice, some future warning, and perhaps a bit more implied sneering at ICOTESCAS and some seventy-eight United States senators.


1 This series is dedicated to S. Schwartz, but not C. Paca, who were not only the inspiration for it but also, however unwittingly (and, in the latter case, half-wittedly), helped me focus on and prepare the arguments. Long may they be remembered.

2 The Economist, July 31, 2008, possibly quoting Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies. https://www.economist.com/node/11837595. I like to bring up both this and the money he’s made off the Global Warming/Climate Change/Carbon trading scam when people claim Al Gore is stupid.

3 https://www.lexpev.nl/downloads/vietcongimprovisedexplosiveminesandboobytraps.pdf

4 Note that since then we have signed on for a protocol to a treaty, purporting to ban mines and booby traps, but we have done so with so many restrictions and caveats as to make our being a state party to the treaty pretty much meaningless. See: https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=XXVI-2-b&chapter=26&lang=en. Note, too, that because it is so easy to make mines and booby traps, the treaties are basically useless. No, they probably won’t cut down significantly on numbers or frequency.

5 https://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/EnsuringLawfulInterrogations

6 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/these-21-republicans-voted-against-a-torture-ban/396095/. The doubleplusungood, badthinking thought criminal Republicans were: Jeff Sessions, Alabama, Tom Cotton, Arkansas, Michael Crapo, Idaho, James Risch, Idaho, Daniel Coats, Indiana, Joni Ernst, Iowa, Pat Roberts, Kansas, Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, Senate majority leader, David Vitter, Louisiana, Thad Cochran, Mississippi, Roy Blunt, Missouri, Deb Fischer, Nebraska, Benjamin Sasse, Nebraska, Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma, James Lankford, Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham, South Carolina, Tim Scott, South Carolina, John Cornyn, Texas, Orrin Hatch, Utah, Mike Lee, Utah, John Barrasso, Wyoming

7 Amnesty International’s definition, for example – “Torture is the systematic and deliberate infliction of acute pain by one person on another, or on a third person, in order to accomplish the purpose of the former against the will of the latter” – would seem to preclude striking someone attacking you with a knife, killing in self-defense unless the method used were quite painless, or killing in battle, generally. I am sure they didn’t mean it quite that way, but willful ignorance will tend to lead one astray. See also, footnote 12, below.

8 Notably the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. “Torture shall also be understood to be the use of methods upon a person intended to obliterate the personality of the victim or to diminish his physical or mental capacities, even if they do not cause physical pain or mental anguish.” Well, is it torture if you slip someone a totally painless drug? According to the above it would be.

9 See, for example, the Torture Victims’ Protection Act of 1991.

10 https://www.apa.org/about/policy/torture.aspx

11 I say “positive cooperation” to distinguish it from the threat of being shot while escaping, in order to hold prisoners of war in legal, but not judicially sanctioned, captivity.

12 That misinterpretation may seem unfair. Note, however, the frequency with which ICOTESCAS misinterprets law of war to support their agenda. This is how, for example, they attempt to turn a ban on firebombing cities full of civilians into a blanket proscription on using incendiaries on troops dug in with overhead cover (quite legal) or using white phosphorus ammunition to create smoke to screen the movement of ones troops (also quite legal). One would be terribly unsurprised, in about a hundred years, should Amnesty’s definition be adopted by then, to see a general ban on lethal ammunition…because reasons…and feelings…and torture…TORTURE!…and the children (*sob*), what about the (*sob*) children?

13 That shouldn’t have to be said, but the idiocy of many moderns is such that today it must be. Why, yes, as a matter of fact I have run into at least one intellectually challenged lefty who seemed unable to see that some kind of hostile custody was required.

14 https://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/02/us-usa-torture-khan-idUSKBN0OI1TW20150602. We probably find that faintly ridiculous, but the typical devout Muslim is very shy about things like that. I have little doubt but that the experience, if true, was deeply psychologically painful.

15 https://www.livescience.com/8071-chavez-tectonic-weapon-caused-haiti-quake.html

16 I can’t help it; terrorist or not I have vast – indeed, pretty much unreserved – admiration for Leila Khaled. Leaving aside that she never harmed anyone, her specialty was sneaking hand grenades onto aircraft to hijack them. She’s not the sort to be bothered by pain. After her face was photographed and became an icon, she had it altered…without general anesthesia. That’s right, as a gesture of solidarity with the struggling masses this girl had plastic surgery done to her face while she was awake and alert. Six fucking times. Leila Khaled break under torture? Is a bear Catholic? Does a pope shit in the woods?

17 James Franklin, Evidence Gained From Torture: Wishful Thinking, Checkability, And Extreme Circumstances, Cardozo Journal of International & Comparative Law, Volume 17, Number 2, Spring 2009, 281.

18 Id and https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/01/a-nasty-business/302379/. Interesting, is it not, how much The Atlantic’s moral position seems to have changed as the memory of the attack on their home turf has faded?

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.

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