A Tortured Nation

The movie “Zero Dark Thirty”, released in 2012 revolves around the hunt for the world’s most hunted man, Osama bin Ladin. Much of the movie is centered around the interrogation of one man to determine whether he knows anything that might ultimately lead the CIA to the whereabouts of bin Ladin.

This man is tortured using a variety of tactics that include humiliation and various other techniques. Now, I have not seen the movie, so I can only speculate as to the details involved in the movie. It appears that ultimately they trick the suspect into giving them the name of someone who may ultimately lead them to the terrorist.

From my understanding of the plot, the movie allegedly takes a stance that can only be described as pro-torture. One commentator describes it in these terms, “the CIA proponents and administrators see it: as a dirty, ugly business that is necessary to protect America” (Glenn Greenwald).

Another commentator says the film suggests that “no waterboarding, no bin Ladin” (Frank Bruni). Other commentators say that the film does not say that torture led to the killing of the fugitive, but that it was part of a successful search.

We need to look at the moral implications that surround the use of torture techniques. Like the debate over the death penalty, a discussion really needs to be held about the complicity of the citizens of the nation in these torture sessions.

Dianne Feinstein, Senator from California, and member of the Select Committee on Intelligence came out recently and denounced what she understood as the movies endorsement of torture. She and Carl Levine, also on the committee have said that claims that critical information on bin Ladin was obtained through the use of torture are just not true.

It appears that the movie uses the idea of torture as a way to sensationalise the killing of bin Ladin and advertise the movie, rather than engage the very real debate about the ethics and politics of torture.

What we need to realise first, is that torture is a very blunt instrument that can lead to spectacularly disastrous results. Far too many movies depict torture as something that you perform on a single person, and out pops the truth, carefully wrapped.

As I said before, I have not seen the movie, so I cannot make any direct claims one way or the other, I can only go by what others have said or written, but it seems, from my interpretation, that the movie really just devolves into a rather sleazy attempt at propaganda. It is in part presented as a documentary. if this is the case, it should present the facts as they are, not as one would like them to be.

I am totally opposed to torture in any form, for a number of reasons, which I shall cover shortly.

Torture very seldom produces the desired effect. Given the human propensity to lie, and fabricate, and mislead, it is enormously difficult to tell precisely when someone is telling the truth, and when they are presenting a red herring.

During any interrogation, people may have a variety of reasons for not telling the truth. They may know the truth and not want to divulge it, so they attempt to mislead the interrogator with information that they know is false.

They may tell part of the truth to be seen as authentic, or they may tell the truth but give details that make the entire confession worthless, by for instance giving the wrong name, or town, or venue.

The person being interrogated may not know anything, but protestations may lead interrogators to believe that he is lying, and continue to try to extract information that he does not have. This may induce the person to make up stories just to make the torture stop.

The interrogators must make a determination as to what they believe to be the truth told to them. They must sift through all the information given them by the suspect, and decide, of what they have, what can be trusted, and what discarded.

Now, having obtained what they believe to be useful information, the interrogators may pass that information on to people who can do something with it. If, for instance, it is regarding the whereabouts of a particular person, they must act quickly before the person moves.

In the United States, we rely heavily on drone strikes on suspected insurgents, terrorists, or members of some banned organisation. Using the information that they receive, the CIA may act by ordering a drone strike on a building or group of dwellings.

All of this happens because of the word of one man, in this particular hypothetical situation. Now, assume that the information is correct, and the target is eliminated, we can assume that the torture was justified.

Life is never that easy. We assume that the target is eliminated, but what of those around him. What if he were visiting family, or cousins, or just staying with people for a short time. We could potentially kill a number of innocent people. Was that information now justified?

Lets go a little further in our hypothesis. Let’s assume that the information was incorrect, and that the target was not present at that location, or was never at that location, or that the target has moved elsewhere. Now we are killing people who are potentially entirely innocent.

Lets make the scenario a little more complex. Lets say we capture ten men who happen to be in a particular place. We know that one person in that group knows something about a target that we want to trace. Now we have to torture ten men to find the information.

Since only one man knows anything about the target, we still have to torture all ten men to find our information. Now, we have to sort through the information provided by ten men and decide which one is telling the truth. We still have the problem that the man who knows something may give us incorrect information. We have to deal with that in addition to the incorrect information from the other nine men.

As before, we decide that we have actionable intelligence and we act on it. The chances of being wrong and killing the wrong people is magnified ten times. There is now a far greater chance that the information we receive is incorrect, and innocent civilians are killed.

Now, consider this. We are faced with a town of a thousand people. We have definite intelligence that one person in this town has actionable intelligence. We only have a short amount of time before a bomb goes off somewhere that will potentially kill ten thousand people.

Do we torture a thousand people, try and sift through all that false data to get what we need? At what point do we decide that we have sufficient data to act? What are the chances of being in possession of false intelligence?

War is far messier than even these scenarios would suggest. In war, thousands of prisoners are taken and placed in prisons or concentration camps. Do we torture people just in case they know something about anything at all? What questions do we ask, unless we have specific goals or targets in mind? At what point do we decide that the information is worth something?

The United States has kept scores of people incarcerated, purportedly torturing many for years, using brutish techniques like waterboarding, extreme heat or cold, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, among others.

How much truly actionable intelligence was obtained using these techniques, as opposed to old-fashioned boot leather intelligence? After a few weeks, is any intelligence of any value at all?

Are we truly to believe that without using techniques perfected by the most vile regimes in human history, this nation is in imminent peril? When we use techniques like this, do we not place ourselves among those nations? Is this nation really so endangered by small groups of men armed with ancient weapons, living an entire planet away, with no visible method of reaching these shores?

Can we believe that to keep us safe from the hordes of barbarians a world away, we should subject human beings to unspeakable deprivations? These are not the Axis powers that we face, these people do not possess tanks, aircraft, submarines or nuclear weapons. The idea that they pose a threat to us is just farcical, and to use that threat to justify the torture of hundred or thousands of people is beyond incredulity.

We live in a world in which we are the guys with the white hats, the good guys, and no deed, no immoral act, no act of depravity is evil enough to make us question our own morality. We are a sorry lot indeed if we truly believe our own hubris. There is no justification for torture.

We fought the Nazis to rid the world of their acts of depravity, and restore a sense of morality to the world. Why then are we sliding down that same slope into indecency and iniquity?

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