by Adam Lankford
If you were strapped down on a table and tortured, would you give up your secrets?
Almost everyone answers the same way: yes. Hell yes. I’d tell them everything they wanted to know before they even thought about picking up a knife or attaching a single electrode.
And yet, as the Obama administration begins to rewrite U.S. interrogation policy, it has become distracted by its attempts to convince the public that torture doesn’t work—that as a technique, torture cannot successfully be used to get information from suspected terrorists. This argument appears in the president’s new comprehensive standard for interrogations and has been trumpeted by many members of the administration. However, it’s a debate that the administration can’t win and shouldn’t even engage. President Obama has made it clear that harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding—which quickly break a subject’s will to stay silent—violate the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture. This legal argument should be enough.
Because if the administration continues to argue that torture does not and cannot work, it may damage its credibility and jeopardize its true objective.
For one thing, it appears that the administration is somewhat wrong about the utility of torture. Like any tactic or technique, its value depends upon the expertise of the user: a layman who attempts brain surgery would be wholly unsuccessful, but that does not mean that surgery itself is a worthless tool. The MPs at Abu Ghraib were such laymen, and in this manner their abusive behavior was particularly tragic: they harmed many and helped absolutely no one. By contrast, experienced interrogators have time-tested methods for distinguishing false confessions from genuine ones, and they can make the most of any incentive or disincentive at their disposal. Several former interrogators have come out publicly and explained that in the vast majority of cases, they find the carrot more effective than the stick. But that doesn’t mean that the stick is completely useless.
However, even where there is some validity to the administration’s arguments, perceptions will be very hard to change. No matter how many speeches are given or how much evidence is cited, the vast majority of people will continue to believe that torture works because they know it would work on them. This doesn’t mean that torture is always the most effective course. But it never goes over well when politicians try to convince the masses to forego their common sense.
Finally, given the administration’s recent ban on harsh interrogation methods, its insistence that torture is ineffective sends a dangerous message. The implication is that the reason torture is outlawed is because we haven’t found a way to make it effective. And that practically invites new experiments in coercion.
It’s easy to see why the Obama administration would want to convince people that torture does not and cannot work. It would certainly simplify things: only the most sadistic minority would support the use of torture if we knew it could never accomplish anything.
But ultimately, the president should stay focused on the most critical part of this issue: preventing future torture by intelligence officers and military personnel. To this end, he should stick to emphasizing torture’s clear-cut illegality and reform interrogation policy on that basis. It’s only by increasing the oversight, accountability and penalties for those who may be tempted to engage in torture that a new era can finally begin.
Adam Lankford is assistant professor of criminal justice at The University of Alabama and the author of Human Killing Machines: Systematic Indoctrination in Iran, Nazi Germany, Al Qaeda, and Abu Ghraib. Listen to an interview with Dr. Lankford about his book at PsychJourney