Does Torture Work?

by Robert Creamer

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on amazon.com.

Former CIA Director Hayden and Bush's Attorney General Mukasey published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week that argued, in essence, that using torture works.

The fact that they, and former Vice President Cheney, are still making the argument is more than enough reason why President Obama needed to lay bare the "torture memos" that provided both the details and justification for the use of torture during the Bush regime.

As a country, we need to emerge from this debate having placed the argument that "torture works" outside of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse once and for all.

In considering whether "torture works" the first question is: what do we mean by "works"? Torture has been used for centuries to achieve a variety of goals. It has been used to force subjects to tell what they know, to confess to crimes, to renounce their faith.

There is little question that torture gets a response from its victims. That's why its practitioners find it "useful." But that is also what makes its results completely unreliable. It isn't hard for anyone to imagine that they would say pretty much anything to make the pain stop if they believed they were drowning, or if their joints felt they would break after they had hung by their arms for hours, or if they were repeatedly slammed against the wall, or if they had been left naked and shivering for hours in the cold and periodically showered with cold water, or if they had been confined in a small box for hours with insects. All of these were methods approved by the Bush Justice Department.

These are but the latest innovations in the tradition of ingenious, sadistic methods of inflicting pain and psychological torment. Over the centuries, torturers have invented machines like the rack to gradually tear apart people's limbs. They have used rubber hoses to beat the bottom of people's feet to a pulp. They have become adept at removing fingernails, and drilling on teeth without an anesthetic. They have learned to connect the exact amount of electric current a victim's testicles or nipples in order to inflict maximum pain without ultimately killing the subject. And of course there has always been the ever-popular old-fashioned beating. While these were not on the list of approved methods, they differ only modestly from those on the "approved list." All inflict excruciating physical or psychological pain.

It is precisely the fact that torture inflicts pain that makes it hard to believe the results of the intelligence that is gathered, or the truthfulness of a confession, or the sincerity of a renunciation of faith. That's why most professionals who specialize in interrogation reject the reliability of the information gained by torture, and why courts throw out confessions obtained by torture.

That in fact is why we have the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution - to prevent the coerced confessions that were commonplace in 18th Century Europe. Remember, the Fifth Amendment is not just about protecting the rights of the accused. It is also about protecting society from the coerced, false confession that leaves the real criminal on the street.

In fact in Chicago, just a few years ago, a particular police Lieutenant specialized in illegally obtaining false confessions by torture. The emergence of DNA evidence has since proved that many of the convictions resulting from those confessions were wrong - and the real criminals escaped justice.

Hayden and Mukasey would have us believe that only the "bad guys" were subject to torture. But of course we know that wasn't true - that hundreds of innocent people who were rounded up off the streets of Iraq were subject to "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the contractors at Abu Ghraib. We know that many of the detainees shipped to Guantanamo were turned over to our forces by bounty hunters and were innocent of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that didn't stop some of them from being subjected to various forms of "enhanced interrogation."

The fact is that once you go down the slippery slope of tossing aside the law and allowing some people to be tortured, there is nothing to stop each and every one of us from being the subject in the chair with the light glaring down that someone in authority has decided - mistakenly or not - is a "security risk."

There is only one thing that we know about torture that works for certain: torture debases us. It doesn't just debase its victims or those who perpetrate it. It debases all of us in whose name it is conducted. It debases us to others in the world - who lose respect for our values and grow to hate our society. But just as importantly, it debases us to ourselves. It debases our self-respect and our respect for the institutions that make us civilized human beings.

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean American writer and professor at Duke University. He is also author of Death and the Maiden. He also became an expert on torture. In the fall of 2006 he published a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post.

It still haunts me, the first time - it was in Chile, in October 1973 - that I met someone who'd been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.


That is what stays with me - that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell and the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered the current political debate in the United States about the practicality of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect the victim, force my fellow citizens here to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness that had settled into the man's heart and flesh, and demand that they take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper reports.

That is not, however, the only lesson that today's ruthless world can teach from the distant man condemned to shiver forever.

All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over. "It was a mistake," he repeated, and in the next few days I pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolutionary who fled his homeland and, as soon as he crossed the mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocio - and every word of it false.

But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking his penis to electric wires and waterboarding him? How could he prove to them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades, just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?

Of course, he couldn't. He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he said he was subjected to further ordeals.

There was no escape.

That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations; my life and my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those mutilated spines and fractured lives - Chinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on? - all of them, men and women alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.

It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion, a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, transgressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national and international, it has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away when we formulate the question - does torture work? - when we allow ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to defeat terrorism.

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress - such as that extracted from the heaving body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in 1973 - are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments - and there are many more - to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we do not realize that each of us could be the hapless Argentine who sat under the Santiago's sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he could not stop shivering ? *

* Ariel Dorfman, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, October 28, 2006


Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.



If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us at info@factsandarts.com.


Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 20.06.2018
Sessions quoted a line written by the apostle Paul to a small community of Christians living in Rome around 55AD to defend the Department of Justice’s approach. He said: "I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order." Sessions used the Bible because one of the most vocal opponents of the crackdown on asylum cases has been the Catholic Church. It’s no surprise that Sessions appealed to Romans chapter 13 verse 1 in response: not only did he hope to undermine Catholic authority by using the Bible against them, he cited a statement so broad that one might use it to defend anything a government does, good or bad. Picture below St Paul writing his epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne, via Wikimedia Commons.
Added 19.06.2018
 

I find it exceptionally irritating when I hear liberals worry about whether Israel will be able to remain a "Jewish and Democratic State" if it retains control of occupied Palestinian lands.

Added 18.06.2018
Daniel Wagner: "My prediction Korean War will be formally ended, the peninsula will be denuclearised, and a lasting peace will be the result."
Added 14.06.2018
Extract: PiS [ the ruling Law and Justice party] has established the most significant addition to the Polish social safety net since 1989: the Family 500+ program. Launched in 2016, Family 500+ embodies the nationalism, traditional family values, and social consciousness that the PiS seeks to promote. The program pays families 500 złoty ($144) per month to provide care for a second or subsequent child...........The program has been enormously popular. Some 2.4 million families took advantage of it in the first two years. The benefit, equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, has almost wiped out extreme poverty for children in Poland, reducing it by an estimated 70-80%........... Liberal pro-European politicians and policymakers are not convinced. They complain that such a generous family benefit will weaken work incentives and blow up the government budget. But initial evidence suggests that Family 500+ has actually increased economic activity. It has also reversed the post-communist decline in fertility, increased wages (particularly for women), and enabled families to buy school materials, take vacations, buy more clothes for their kids, and rely less on high-priced credit for basic household needs. And, thanks to rapid economic growth, the government deficit has steadily fallen, not grown.
Added 12.06.2018
The depths of hypocrisy of the Republican Party in supporting Trump’s meeting with the North Korean dictator in Singapore are hard to plumb. This is a party whose leading members adopted the Ostrich Foreign Policy Principle for decades. If you don’t like a country’s government or political and economic system, pretend it does not exist.
Added 12.06.2018
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.” But what consequences?
Added 12.06.2018
With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it’s their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process. According to Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.
Added 11.06.2018
Extract: "While the presidency has grown stronger over the years, during the Trump administration Congress has been timid and subordinate. That is because the leaders of the Republican Party – which controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate – are frightened of Trump’s base. They cannot afford to alienate the roughly 30-35% of Americans who passionately back him, ignore his personal transgressions, tolerate his degradation of the country’s civil discourse, favor his brutal treatment of immigrant families, and don’t mind that he is leaving the US almost friendless in the world."
Added 08.06.2018
Has North Korea’s ruler, Kim Jong-un, made a strategic decision to trade away his nuclear program, or is he just engaged in another round of deceptive diplomacy, pretending that he will denuclearize in exchange for material benefits for his impoverished country? This is, perhaps, the key question in the run-up to the summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore on June 12. Until then, no one will know the answer, perhaps not even Kim himself.
Added 07.06.2018
Some analysts even project that, before long, Facebook will hold more data on its users than any government. Meanwhile, it makes a lot of money from this data. Its advertising revenues came up to around US$40 billion in 2017 (up 50% from 2016). With Google, it holds an 84% market share in online advertising.
Added 05.06.2018
Roseanne Barr is an American comedian whose fictional TV character of the same name is a working-class Trump supporter. For those who remember the show “All in the Family,” she might be usefully compared to Archie Bunker, the crude proletarian patriarch from Queens, New York. Barr’s show was swiftly canceled late last month by the television network ABC, not for anything her “character” said in her show, but for a tweet in which she described Valerie Jarrett, an African-American former adviser to Barack Obama, as the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and “Planet of the Apes.”
Added 04.06.2018
 

When Donald Trump was elected, I, like many others feared what his presidency might do to the country. A year and a half into his term in office, our concerns have been justified. 

Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "While the West’s relative decline is almost inevitable, its economic dysfunction is not. Yet pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Why undertake difficult reforms if a dark future seems preordained? As a result, accepting and anxious pessimists tend to elect governments that duck difficult decisions (witness Germany’s grand coalition), while angry pessimists make matters worse (by voting for Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda or for Brexit, for example). It doesn’t have to be this way. As French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated, bold leaders can succeed with a message of hope, openness, and inclusion, and by promoting a vision of progress based on credible reforms."
Added 30.05.2018
It has been nearly two years since the United Kingdom narrowly voted in favor of leaving the European Union. As the march toward Brexit – formally set for the end of next March – proceeds, fundamental questions about the nature of the future UK-EU relationship remain unanswered. Instead, every time a tough decision must be made in the negotiations in Brussels, British ministers kick the can down the road, or even into the long grass. This is somewhat surprising. Apparently, none of the politicians and newspaper editors who plotted for years to get the UK out of the EU thought much about what would happen if their machinations succeeded.
Added 30.05.2018
Discussions are now underway to establish a system of joint deposit insurance for eurozone banks. Proponents of the scheme, with the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) taking the lead, point out that deposit insurance would avert the danger of a run on banks in times of crisis. While this argument is true, critics emphasize the disparity in risks, owing to the high share of bad loans on the balance sheets of banks in some countries. To address this risk disparity and move ahead with the plan, balance sheets will need to be cleaned up before considering the next step. While the share of bad loans for banks in the stable eurozone countries is just 2%, the most recently published International Monetary Fund statistics, from last April, show a share of 11% for Ireland, 16% for Italy, 40% for Cyprus, and 46% for Greece.
Added 29.05.2018
Trump’s decision cannot be justified by any breach of the agreement on Iran’s part. It is, rather, a return to the old, largely unsuccessful US policy of confrontation with Iran. The only difference this time is that the Trump administration seems determined to go to the brink of war – or even beyond – to get its way. If the administration has any plans for keeping Iran’s nuclear program in check in the absence of the nuclear deal, then it is keeping them a secret. Judging by some of the administration’s rhetoric, it would appear that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are on the table. But bombing would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, not stop it. Would Trump then consider a massive ground war to occupy the country and topple the regime? We know all too well how that strategy worked the last time it was tried.
Added 28.05.2018
US President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to cancel his planned June 12 summit with Kim Jong-un represents a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, and an even bigger victory for China. In the space of just a few months, Kim’s image has gone from that of international pariah to that of thwarted peacemaker.
Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.
Added 19.05.2018
The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.