Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 May 2009

Childish Things

“[W]hen I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13
To cultures that measure their ages in millennia or centuries, not decades, we Americans seem like children. We demand certitude where there is none. We even insist on it.

So it is with our latest burning question, “Does torture work?” It’s a childish question—a stupid question. It has no definite answer. To say “yes” assumes that all men will do what their torturers and worst enemies desire. To say “no” assumes that no men are so weak or stupid as to lose their power to conceal and deceive even under intense pain. Both answers are equally ridiculous.

Imagine for a moment that you have spent your whole life training and preparing to destroy a hated enemy. Through a cruel twist of fate, you have been captured and now lie at your enemy’s feet. The best you can hope for, you think, is death.

Will you abandon your comrades, your honor, and your tribe’s chance for victory at your enemy’s behest, just to stop some transitory pain before expected martyrdom? Or will you resist and deceive, giving your enemy false or useless information that might achieve your ends and incidentally stop the pain?

As far as we know, the latter is exactly what Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi did in telling his American and Egyptian torturers that Iraq was complicit in 9/11. He probably died a happy man, convinced that his words had induced the world’s strongest military to capture and kill his secular enemy Saddam Hussein, who had tried to emulate Stalin.

Like al-Libi, smarter and stronger men—the ones who may know things worth telling—will take the trouble to conceal and deceive. But who can say that weak, stupid men under torture will never blurt out something worthwhile, some small dot that smarter men might connect with other dots to foil a plot or suppress a whole movement?

What torture seeks to arrest lies in the shadowland of desperation and espionage. In that world there are no certainties, only lies upon lies, treachery upon treachery, and shadow upon shadows. To insist that one technique works reliably would be to assume the simplicity of a child in a complex and ambiguous world.

History tells us as much. From ancient times, through the Middle Ages, to the last century’s bestial totalitarian states, religious and secular martyrs resisted the most hideous torture. For centuries, Jews, Protestants and “heretical” Catholics refused to submit to the Inquisition just to maintain their personal beliefs. How much stronger are motives that tie people to their land, their families, and thousand-year-old religions? To suppose that modern Islamic extremists are any less strong and brave than Jews, Protestants and Catholic “heretics” who resisted the Inquisition for centuries would be the height of presumption.

Belief in self, God or country can help some men bear excruciating pain. Others crumble easily. But the ones who crumble easily are unlikely to have been selected for key positions of leadership by their peers. To assume that our enemies lack basic judgment of character would be the height of overconfidence.

So the question “Does torture work?” has no answer. Sometimes it might. More often, it won’t. But it never works as well as outwitting your enemy.

That’s why Richard Cohen’s recent column in the Washington Post is so vapid. Cohen pays lip service to the well-documented view that Dick Cheney is a refugee from reality. But still Cohen wants to know whether the memos Cheney keeps insisting on declassifying will tell us that torture works.

Only a child would ask that sort of question. Even if the memos tell us that a plot or two failed after torture, they won’t prove cause and effect. That’s a fallacy as old as Latin: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Nor could any memo possibly prove that other, cleverer and less brutal means might not have elicited the same secrets.

And even if classified memos could show both causation and the complete impossibility of any other cause, they would only prove that torture worked in one or two instances. They could never answer the essential moral question or dispel the inherent ambiguity of life.

Only a child could ask a question like “Does torture work”? and expect a certain answer. Only Dick Cheney—the most dangerous child ever to hold American high office in my lifetime—would seek that kind of certainty in an uncertain world. And only a cruel child could believe that knowing whether torture elicited this or that secret should be our moral compass.

After eight years being led by children, we now have a man as our President. He knows ambiguity. He understands the fog that ever shrouds human affairs. And he sees what matters: not how weak our enemies may be, but how strong we are. As he so well put it, the question is not who are enemies are, but who we are.

Once we were a light unto nations. Once every man and woman everywhere yearned to live on our shores.

We can recapture those days. But we can’t if we seek our national values, let along justification for medieval cruelty, in the minutiae of classified memos. Only if we regain the world’s admiration will our friends multiply and our enemies grow weak.

Declassifying self-serving bureaucratic memos can never help us do that. It can only serve the self-justification of children who sullied beyond measure the offices they never deserved.


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