Torture. It’s an ugly word. Its mere mention conjures images of sadistic villains in dark dungeons or shadowy terrorists in sparse rooms, illuminated by a single light bulb overhead. But regardless of what mental image, it is usually the evil side that tortures the side of good.
In recent years, such thinking has shifted as “enhanced interrogation” has been touted as acceptable for getting answers so that good people won’t be hurt. But that still assumed that the purpose of torture is to derive vital information.
For example, Jack Bauer, the counterterrorism agent in the television show 24, is often seen using interrogation techniques that would be considered torture to gain information from captured evil people. He is always successful in finding the information necessary to defuse a bomb or foil an assassination plot, just in the nick of time.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the portrayal of torture in 24 has played a part in shaping views on torture’s permissibility. In a meeting with the producers of 24, Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of West Point Military Academy, told of his difficulties in convincing the cadets in one of his classes of the importance of obeying the laws of war — due in part to 24. “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’”
The effects of 24 can even be observed in the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia is reported to have said at a law conference in Canada, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives … Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”
But might the goal of torture actually be retribution, and not intelligence? And might that color support or opposition to certain forms of interrogation, especially the harsh brand of interrogation that has come into the spotlight in recent years?
New research by professor Kevin Carlsmith, a psychology researcher at Colgate University, and Avani Sood, a psychology graduate student at Princeton University, reveal an interesting facet about interrogation and torture. “What’s fascinating is that people often make claims that their moral decision is based on the potential utility of the torture,” Carlsmith says, “but in fact it’s all about giving people what they deserve.”
The Jack Bauer school of ends-justifies-the-means thinking has been prevalent in the last decade. The war on terror has shifted conceptions in the United States of how and under what circumstances torture is acceptable. A 2004 CIA communication known as the Bybee memo showed just the extent to which the American government’s thinking has changed. This now infamous document, addressed to Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, declared that “physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”
This virtual carte blanche for U.S. interrogators was soon drawn upon. Some uses, such as the repeated water-boarding of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, seemed designed to elicit usable (but perhaps worthless) information. But some of the abuses seen six years ago at Abu Ghraib prison seemed designed to support Carlsmith and Sood’s conclusion.
The crimes committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib were deemed abusive and excessive, more about humiliating and dehumanizing the detainees than gathering information. Witness Pvt. Lynndie England dismissing the now infamous “prisoner pyramid” picture as “fooling around” admitted, “Yes, I stepped on some of them, push[ed] them or pull[ed] them, but nothing extreme.”
A 2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.
“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”
Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”
As is often the case, the argument is not about the goal, but rather how we can go about achieving it. Understanding this, we can move past accusations and move toward having a more transparent and enlightened discussion about torture, which we can all agree will only serve to move us forward.