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Torture as Performance

May 30th, 2007 · 3 Comments

No, no, I’m not talking about the local S&M club, but Hilzoy’s post on a recent report concluding that “harsh methods” or “enhanced interrogation techniques.” or (if you insist on being gauche) torture is not a very effective method for gathering intelligence:

When I read arguments written by people who support torture, many of them seem to think that being opposed to it just shows that you aren’t really serious about the war on terror. If you were, they say, you wouldn’t want to fight it with one hand tied behind your back. You’d want to use every means available. This isn’t true: you can be completely serious about all kinds of things without being willing to do literally anything to advance them. (Quick: would you be willing to rape children to win the heart of your true love? No? Then I guess you don’t really love him or her, do you?? — That’s the same specious argument.) More to the point, though, you can tell who is serious and who is not by noticing who actually stops to think about whether torture is effective. People who don’t bother to ask that question are not serious about winning; they’re in love with a fantasy of themselves as the person who is tough enough to do all those dirty things that have to be done while other people just wring their hands and whimper.

Exactly right. Terrorism, perhaps even more than conventional war, generates a sense of powerlessness and loss of control. There are no battle lines, attacks could come at any time, and there’s not a whole lot the average person can do about it. Hence silliness like Michelle Malkin’s “John Doe Manifesto,” which is calculated to help dispel that feeling and reassert at least an illusion of control. Reams of psychological research confirm that this kind of sense of powerlessness is all too often translated into fantasies of inflicting harm on others—there’s no more complete assertion of dominance than torture. That we’re having a conversation about the appropriateness of torture without a very careful inquiry into whether it’s effective suggests that something like this is what’s going on: We spend absurd amounts of time concocting implausible “ticking time bomb” scenarios because it gives us license to imaginatively act out that dominance while rationalizing away what we’re actually doing.

Tags: War



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Adam // May 30, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    I definitely agree that those who support torture seem to be specifically avoiding examining torture’s effectiveness.

    What’s very sad is that it’s not like torture is some new development in the history of mankind where there is little evidence of its effectivenss/ineffectiveness. It is absolutely known that these practices do not work, both in terms of collecting intelligence, and hurting the torturer’s image. Known from many examples in the 20th Century alone. And seemingly was known by AMerica until five years ago.

    And the sad thing is that torture really makes us less safe, by making us waste personnel performing these acts, while retardig the developmentand employment of other means to gather intelligence. It also severely hinders our image abroad. This “war on terror” is just as much a PR campaign as it is a military conflict. Western liberal capitalism needs to win over the Arab world to prevent people becoming future terrorists just as much as we need to stop present-day terrorists from acting. To ignore the long-term necessity of winning the war of ideas is foolish in such an ideology-driven conflict.

    So we torture, despite it not working and despite it hurting our long terms goals. And the opposition seems to be saying “…well, they deserve it, don’t they?”

    This phenomenon of turning one’s back on the facts to justify ideological points (even at the expense of our very-real security needs) seems to fit very neatly into the practices of President Bush & Co. I really like Sen. Obama’s campaign slogan regarding this way of doing business; “This is not who we are.”

  • 2 novemberfive // May 30, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    Ethical arguments aside, a society that is willing to torture is likely to incite the feelings of hatred and helplessness that are a major cause of terrorist attacks. A policy of permitting torture in “extreme circumstances” brings our nightmares to life, because it ends up bringing about those very circumstances.

  • 3 David J. Balan // Jun 1, 2007 at 12:23 am

    You nailed it. When people construct situations that allow themselves to indulge an impulse towards cruelty and at the same time to perceive themselves as thrillingly righteous, bad bad bad things happen.