Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Torture and will

I left a comment at Yglesias's place, but I figured I'd recapitulate it and expand on it a bit.

Matt quotes a Richard Cohen article that more or less recapitulates the conventional wisdom on torture among a certain kind of Washingtonian elite. It goes a little like this: jihadists are zealots who are willing to blow themselves up. They can't be bargained with or reasoned with, so the only option is to torture them. Or something like that. My sense is that a lot of people who support torture believe something like this, and there's a kernel of truth there. Heck, I agree with it up until the actual torture part. There's often nothing you can give the guy who wants to blow you up, and rarely will an honest confrontation of wits change anything.

But I think this is something of a false dichotomy. The choice isn't between civilized discussion/plea bargaining and torture. It's between psychological manipulation and torture. I'm virulently opposed to the latter, but I'm heartily in favor of the former. What's more, I think the case for manipulation is fairly airtight and is supported by quite a bit of evidence. Let's think about it this way: wouldn't someone who is already inclined toward manipulation--as demonstrated in a desire to blow himself up, which is not a natural inclination and is often the result of intense manipulation--be more susceptible to further psychological manipulation? Common sense would suggest yes. But someone who is willing to kill themselves will likely be less susceptible to torture. Think about it: do you want to cut in the direction of pathologies that you can safely assume already exist and will yield easily, or in the direction of force, which can be presumed to yield less easily? Most any martyr will be able to inure himself to violence by envisioning his 72 virgins or what have you--perhaps some will have been caught up in the romanticism and fame (suicide bombers do, indeed, become minor celebrities in their hometowns, both pre- and postmortem) and will not really be up for violence, and will cave if hit. But I suspect that the terrorist leaders will realize this and will train their people to withstand torture techniques. So counting on that is silly. Of course, everyone has their limits and will eventually say what you want them to say, though there's no guarantee that it's going to be accurate, and it's not like you can go back to simple psych-outs once you start "walling" somebody.

Ultimately, it all comes down to the mind. Religious zealotry is rarely just that. In my comment, I referenced Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose, which posited the idea that most of the more popular "heretic" offshoots of Christianity had little to do with Christian doctrine per se. Sure, the leaders had found their "pure" version of the faith, but they only gathered popular support once they rose up against the corrupt local Church fathers, which then brought an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" dynamic to the struggle. Most Arabs live in some form of privation, and America is seen as having much to do with this reality. They hate America and support groups like al-Qaeda for this reason (not so much al-Qaeda, though). But the upside for America is that many of these Jihadis are going to be unsophisticated and simple, easily susceptible to established methods of manipulation. Admittedly, not all terrorists fit this profile--the 9/11 hijackers, for example, were predominantly educated and would probably have been difficult to crack if captured. But it's doubtful that torture would have produced results either, for exactly the same reason: the commitment to be willing to die for something, and the ability to prepare for torture, strike me as arguments for using some other method..

I think that this dynamic isn't new, and it's part of the reason why few modern nations use torture as an intelligence gathering technique. Sure, some have used it to extract false confessions, but playing mind games with simple people who don't understand psychology and can't fight back against them strikes me as an effective option just from reasoning by general principles, and the record seems to back it up. I remember reading the book Homicide by David Simon, and the homicide squad in the book extracted a remarkable number of confessions by pure psychological manipulation. As I recall it, it involved first convincing the subject that they were inescapably fucked, tried to give them an out that contradicted what they said earlier and actually made their story fall apart, and then closed the door on them by tripping them up on the lie. It very often worked. Keep in mind, these sessions never involved plea bargains, a la Law & Order. Just pure manipulation. Thank God for it.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.