A Bad Argument for Torture

The Senate report on torture has found “enhanced interrogation techniques” to be ineffective and neoconservatives are already on the defensive (e.g. this recent post by Tom Rogan). I haven’t read the report yet, or much of the commentary on it for that matter, so I won’t comment on that. I will talk about a particular argument in favor of torture that neoconservative frequently use.

Neoconservative will often list numerous cases where torture has produced valuable intelligence and claim that our torture policies were a success. In the post I linked to above, Tom Rogan lists six cases where torture yielded some results and declares that “the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation techniques (EITs) were manifestly successful“. If you did enough research, you could probably list even more cases. But this argument is bad on several levels and in many ways completely misses the point that anti-torture advocates are making.

I suppose if you look at torture in complete isolation and perform some utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, then you could say that torture, when used sparingly, is a useful tool for getting intelligence. But that’s wrong. You have to look at the effects of torture on a broader level. Even if torture sometimes yields good results, you might say it’s wrong from a strategic standpoint. One of the basic principles of counterinsurgency warfare (what we are currently engaged in) is support of the population (1). Without some sort of support from the governments and people of the Middle East, terrorism will continue to be a systematic problem. The use of torture for intelligence gathering frequently undermines our ability to get that support. Just look at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.  Thousands of people were tortured, many of them innocent. Not only did this policy create hundreds, if not thousands of insurgents, but it also undermined our already dismal credibility among the Iraqis (2). Now Guantanamo Bay is certainly no Abu Ghraib, but these are issues that we need to consider when talking about torture. This paragraph from Lt. Col. Douglas A. Pryer sums up the problem well:

The question of “does it work” aside, there are HUGE strategic drawbacks to torture, such as how it undermines the rule of law, corrupts those who use it, undercuts military training, cedes moral high ground to our nation’s enemies, creates distrust among allies, sows dissension at home, serves as a source of recruits and donations for our nation’s enemies, creates irreconcilable enemies, and makes the ultimate goal of any conflict—its peaceful resolution—increasingly difficult.

This is far more important then whether or not torture works and it’s something that is seldom brought up by neoconservatives. I suppose if torture produced robust enough results, then maybe we could say the benefits of torture outweigh the costs. But that evidently isn’t true and most history and social science research confirms that. Cherry picking select examples of where torture has yielded results doesn’t remotely address these issues and is a bad argument for torture.


1. From David Galula’s book Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice

What is the crux of the problem for the counterinsurgent? It is not how to clean an area. We have seen that he can always concentrate enough forces to do it, even if he has to take some risk in order to achieve the necessary concentration. The problem is, how to keep an area clean so that the counterinsurgent forces will be free to operate elsewhere.

This can be achieved only with the support of the population. If it is relatively easy to disperse and to expel the insurgent forces from a given area by purely military action, if it is possible to destroy the insurgent political organizations by intensive police action, it is impossible to prevent the return of the guerrilla units and the rebuilding of the political cells unless the population cooperates.

The population, therefore, becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy.

2. This is just one case where torture goes against the basics of counterinsurgency warfare. For other examples, see Christopher Michael Sullivan paper, The (in)effectiveness of torture for combating insurgencyThe literature on this is pretty wide and much of it reaches the same conclusion.


  1. Senate Democrats Purge the Record
  2. I don’t believe a word of what torture advocates say—and neither should you
  3.  The Senate Torture Report


Filed under Home, Politics

2 responses to “A Bad Argument for Torture

  1. Freedom Scout

    Islamic terrorists intentionally targeted and killed 100 children at a school yesterday, purely to make a statement. Of course, this only serves to further demonstrate the need to do what is necessary to combat them and how much they deserve torture. But more pertinent to your insipid musings is what this shows about their mindset and values, specifically that they are entirely divorced from the civilized world, and their is absolutely no way we could ever develop some sort of rapport with them.

    • Beneath your rhetorical flourish there’s little that addresses my post. Whether or not terrorists deserve torture is a moral question that you don’t even bother dealing with (you just assert your conclusion). Developing rapport with terrorists has nothing to do with this post at all, which deals with military strategy and the rule of law. My supposed “insipid musings” look far better than your emotional clamoring on a tragedy just so you could push some agenda that has nothing to do with said tragedy. Unless you actually want to talk about the efficiency of torture, its effect on the rule of law (and other institutions), or anything that has to due with these sort of topics, please don’t waste my time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s