If you had to make the torture decision, what would you do?

Let’s assume that torture is the only way to extract vital homeland security information that you know one in a hundred prisoners has. Let’s further assume that we know with 25% certainty that the person has time sensitive information that if revealed would save thousands of lives and 75% chance the prisoner doesn’t. If you had to make the torture decision what would you do?
Unless you believe that there are no circumstance when inflicting great pain on someone to get them to reveal secrets you are a moral relativist on this subject.  In the case of torture that means there are some circumstance under which you might condone torture.
Condoning it isn’t the same as being the final authority authorizing it. That being said, I think we have to engage in something like the actuarial analyses the insurance companies do when we ask ourselves this question. 
Consider this description of what actuaries do:
Actuaries evaluate the likelihood of events and quantify the contingent outcomes in order to minimize losses, both emotional and financial, associated with uncertain undesirable events. Since many events, such as death, cannot be totally avoided, it is helpful to take measures to minimize their financial impact when they occur. These risks can affect both sides of the balance sheet, and require asset management, liability management, and valuation skills. Analytical skills, business knowledge and understanding of human behavior and the vagaries of information systems are required to design and manage programs that control risk.
The design of effective torture is complex but you don’t need a top security clearance to expound on it. 
We already know that the CIA used the religious convictions of prisoners and any phobias they could discover to terrify, shame and humiliated them. It’s hard to believe this could persuade a hardcore Muslim terrorist to impart accurate information to help his sworn enemies.
The ultimate threat of death can only be used successfully under two circumstance. One is that the torture victim believes you will actually kill him, and of course the other is that he cares. You can try to change the former by killing another prisoner in front of him, something that has been done throughout history. But you can’t change the later.
I think everyone agrees that torture is the inflicting of extraordinary suffering, pain and anxiety and that in most cases of dealing with those held in captivity the people tortured are only suspected of having vital information.
In order to obtain the information we want we have to torture a lot of innocent people. This isn’t like taking foolproof DNA samples where you can rule out suspects with certainty since the person with the information can beat the "torture test".
When do you torture?
If your answer is "never" then there’s no decision to make. If your answer is any time you feel like it, there isn’t any decision either.
If your answer is sometimes, then when?
Like it or not it comes down to the numbers.
(Read the discussion below as the comments are, as often happens, more illuminating than the column.)


  1. Paolo

    I would not torture anyone, ever, under any circumstances. What would I do? I would take a cue from a famous German interrogator of WWII (I’ll track down the source of this story later, if need be). He never inflicted pain. Quite the opposite–he found the best way to get information was to become the prisoner’s friend. Often, they gave valuable information without even realizing they had. The guy was a brilliant conversationalist, continually praising his captive for his bravery and cleverness of his forces war plans and the excellence of his equipment. The captive, without even knowing it, would contradict some assertions, agree with others, expand on still others. All without even being aware he was giving very valuable and reliable intel to his captor.

  2. Carl Nemo

    My apologies John1172002 for not complementing you on your solid thoughts concerning torture a few days back.

    I can sense your gut, negative response to torture and that’s even more important than words to me. : )

    Carl Nemo **==

  3. bryan mcclellan

    Right on Barak, I think deleting their ill gotten gains (Swiss bank and offshore accounts) in front of them would suffice to drive them over the edge.As for the suspect make sure he has nice shoes.

  4. Hal Brown


    What an evil sense of humor you have, my kind of guy.

    I wish we had a CHB cartoonist to submit these ideas to. This would make a great political cartoon, probably a series of four or six frames.

  5. barak

    I have a perfect solution. I would take the terror suspect and chain him in a chair. Then I would bring George Bush & Dick Cheney and chain them in chairs in full view of the suspected terrorist.

    Next I would torture Bush for 10 minutes. Then torture Cheney for 15 minutes. Meanwhile I would give the terror suspect good food and plenty to drink.

    Finally I would tell him that unless he told us what we wanted to know, we would stop torturing Bush and Cheney.

    Beats waterboarding every time!

  6. Hal Brown

     The <a href="http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/cruelty/long.html"> Skeptic's Annotated Bible</a>, as  Robert Green Ingersol put it in "The Gods"  (1872) "is filled with passages equally horrible, unjust and atrocious. This is the book to be read in schools in order to make our children loving, kind and gentle! This is the book they wish to be recognized in our Constitution as the source of all authority and justice!"

    They list 919 passages so anybody wanting to cite the Bible to justify torture can easily find something righteous to back their contention that mere water boarding is nothing compared to what God ordered.

  7. Siannan

    Honey, there are plenty of people around, like Mike Huckabee, who would love to replace the Constitution with the Bible. In fact, Huckabee campaigned on exactly that premise. Those are the people who scare me most. Because anything Biblical goes with them. They would probably find a way to justify human breeding farms if they thought they could get away with it.

  8. Michela

    If, if, if, if….No ifs, no buts, no ands! Turture is inhumane. Period! And quoting the Bible to justify it shows just how morally bankrupt we really are. We do not base our laws on the Bible, we base them on the Constitution.

  9. spartacus

    Since the premise is a fallacy, the whole thing is ridiculous. Historically, we know torture doesn’t work: look at how many PROMINENT people were killed because others were tortured and gave false information because they couldn’t stand it anymore? How many were implicated because the monarch, or ruler, wanted them put out of the way and used ‘enhanced interrogation’ to do so? Isn’t that what Bush / Cheney did to try to justify the Iraq War? Some of this torture was done to try to implicate Saddam Hussein with 9/11, which Saddam had no part in.

    The United States is better than this. We are not a medieval nation, a Banana Republic, nor a dictatorship. We’re supposed to be a moral nation, which is why the stand so many right wing religious nutters take on this is so ridiculous: and shows what hippocrites they are. We’re supposed to be a model for how a decent people are supposed to act: therefore, WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO TORTURE PEOPLE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

    Those who are guilty of this crime need to face the consequences of their actions, especially the criminals who rewrote the rulebook so underlings would torture suspects in violation of U.S. and international laws (which we co-wrote and signed!).

  10. Siannan

    I watched Bill Maher on Friday, and he happened to have on former CIA operative (or whatever he was) Bob Baer. Mr. Baer claims (and I don’t doubt it) to have been tortured in Iran. He stated basically that he told them anything they wanted to hear, even though he was lying, just to make the pain stop. So while they got information they thought they wanted, none of it was good information because he lied. I have no doubt the same situation exists with our alleged Al Queda prisoners.

    Oh, and he said the situation where someone has a bomb hidden somewhere but you have someone you can maybe torture the information out of to save everyone in the building.

    Yeah, that never happens.

    Oh, and Joe Scarborough is an idiot.

  11. jlmccreery

    Please bear in mind that “The 47 Ronin” is a story set during the Tokugawa period, so that seeing the attitudes it embodies as typical of today’s Japan would be like equating the behavior of Shakespearian heroes with what goes on in the USA today. It isn’t, moreover, the case that the 47 ronin were ashamed of what they had done in killing the enemy whom they blamed for their lord’s death. They were proud of what they had done. They knew, however, that what they had done was illegal and, it was the full measure of their honor that they were willing to pay the penalty, preferring an honorable suicide to being put to death in a dishonorable manner.

    John McCreery

    If you are a U.S. citizen and live outside the USA, register to vote and request an absentee ballot.


  12. Hal Brown

    Just watching Morning Joe and Scarborough made a comment that seemed naive to me.

    He was trying to make the point that whether or not one believes torture is morally wrong you can’t argue that it has been successful because we’ve haven’t had an attack on U.S. soil. Of course he can’t point to an instance where torture actually prevented an attack.

    Aside from the fact that he doesn’t consider occupied Iraq and Afghanistan part of the United States he failed to address what I think is an important question.

    Simply, have the ranks of Al Qaeda grown since we began our torture program?

    I think we all have an idea as to the answer to the question.


  13. Hal Brown


    Bringing up Japanese culture and the act of ritual suicide made me think of the role shame plays in our culture.

    My understanding of Japanese culture, which is very limited, is that shame has an important role that begins in childhood. The Japanese committed horrendous acts of torture of their enemies so shame seems to be tied in to acts that break a societal code. 

    Compared to Japan, again my sense, our culture is shameless.

    How often do American children lie with a straight face? How difficult is it for adults to admit they were wrong? 

    Does Bernie Madoff for what he did do Colin Powell for what he didn’t do, feel any shame?

    My experience is that lack of shame goes with the refusal to admit you’re wrong and that with Americans this is far for a male trait than female.

  14. jlmccreery

    Perhaps what we need is warriors with the ethics of the heroes of *Chushingura* “The 47 Samurai.” Having committed the illegal act required to avenge their Lord, they all committed suicide.

    Let those who feel that torture was necessary and useful turn themselves in, confess to violating the law, and plead mitigating circumstances.

    John McCreery

    If you are a U.S. citizen and live outside the USA, register to vote and request an absentee ballot.


  15. Hal Brown

     Frank Rich has a good OpEd in the Sunday New York Times, "The banality of Bush White House evil".

    I haven’t come to a conclusion as to what exactly I’d like to see done about the Bush / Cheney approved torture among the options under consideration.

    Iwo Jima flag rasingIf President Obama wants to focus on the future and have the "distraction" of the Justice Department and/or Congress pursuing justice right up to the top in the torture case, perhaps he should look at this picture and be reminded of how many Americans died for what this flag stands for.

    All I can say is that whatever the decision I hope it assures that this never happens again.

  16. Helen Rainier

    A retired Army (SF/Delta) friend and I have discussed this issue (we have known each other since our days at Bragg in the 70s) and his response was very succinct and concise “You don’t torture prisoners. You just don’t do that shit.”

  17. CheckerboardStrangler

    First off, I’d follow Griff’s advice…try not to do things that make them want to attack us.
    That said, we have to accept the fact that no matter what we do or don’t do, there will always be groups who intend to attack us no matter what.
    Radical Islam has always openly acknowledged that they intend to establish a global Islamic caliphate.
    Therefore our mere existence may be justification enough, regardless of our foreign policy.
    Secondly, I would NEVER write a legal opinion that attempts to get around laws forbidding torture.
    If our government captures people that they are convinced are high value targets, they must proceed on an individual case by case basis and take their chances where they may.
    If it turns out that we’ve tortured a high value target, and they provide us with information that prevents another attack, that’s one thing.
    Having an entire prison full of inmates that we routinely torture because “Daddy said it’s okay” is quite another.
    And we now know the outcome of that practice, and the outcome of trying to weasel around what is undoubtedly a policy against torture which has served the nations of the world for several decades.
    I guarantee you we’re not the first nation, Western or otherwise, that has tortured the occasional high value target. But we’re probably one of a very few, or the only, nation that has ever tried to publicly justify it as if we have some moral right to do so on a regular basis.

    And lastly, you will not see this argument addressed this way ANYWHERE in the media. I guarantee that.

  18. kate9954

    We don’t torture. Period.

    I understand the gray area under discussion, and I understand the pressure to torture under these circumstances, which is why we need a moral compass. The easy moral questions are no problem. It’s the tough questions that need flat right or wrong answers.

    You see, torture would actually harm us under the circumstances you describe. The victim would simply admit to anything the torturer threw at him, sending your investigators helter skelter and preventing them from uncovering the real plot.

    There is no substitute for conscience. We don’t torture. Ever.

    Freedom Scribe

  19. Stratocaster

    Would you give a policeman a gun and a badge and tell him to shoot anyone he wants? Everytime someone gets shot there is an investigation into whether excessive force was used. Was it self defense or did he just shoot the guy because he liked the idea. The Bush Administration is arrogant enough to think it is above the law and is defying any attempt at investigation. How can those little people investigate an elite ruling class like us? The nerve of them. I don’t know about you people, but to me these guy’s were getting their rocks off on this.

  20. woody188

    This isn’t like taking foolproof DNA samples where you can rule out suspects with certainty since the person with the information can beat the “torture test”.

    Even DNA testing isn’t 100% accurate. Torture is fine so long as you are looking for the wrong answers, or a scapegoat. Which do you think we are looking for?

    Field torture has happened for a long time. Captives in Vietnam died frequently. Revenge was often the only motive. The Bush Administration turned the “don’t ask don’t tell” field torture into policy for it’s prisons across the globe.

  21. Hal Brown

     Using television for a dramatic device that, while a one in millions possibility for any of us, is something anyone that watches crime shows has seen depicted numerous times.

    Your child or spouse was kidnapped and with absolute certainty one of the kidnappers has been caught.

    Would you approve of the police using "enhanced interrogation techniques" to find our where they were being hidden?

    If you say yes, what would you be willing and capable of doing yourself?

    I don’t think any of the decision makers of the Bush administration considered these ethical and moral complexities. I doubt any even considered Blackstone’s Formulation if they even knew what it was.

    To the contrary, I think they believed in something I think Saddam Hussein practiced. That is that it doesn’t matter how many innocent and ignorant people you tortured to get information from the one unknown person who you thought could reveal some tidbit you wanted.

    Of course we presume that unlike Saddam’s thugs our "enhanced" methods didn’t include murder.

    I wonder if our conscience-impaired inquisitors were tempted to use the proven method of killing another prisoner in front of the primary suspect to convince him they might murder him too. As described the in testimony of The Winter Soldier Investigation (see footnote) this was sometimes done in Vietnam.

    Below: Equipment used for waterboarding at Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia

    Cambodian waterboarding

     Waterboard displayed at Tuol Sleng in Cambodia. Prisoners’ legs were shackled to the bar on the right, their wrists were restrained to the brackets on the left and water was poured over their face using blue watering can. Below, a former victim of Cambodian torture demonstrating technique.

    water boarding



    PANELIST. Another method they used in regard to helicopters is sometimes when they captured three suspected enemy people they might take them for a joy-ride. They usually tie them up and put a blindfold on them and they’ll put maybe three guys in a C-54 and fly off. They’ll ask the guys in the air, "What is your unit?" and all this jive, and if they don’t cooperate, they just might take one of them and say, "Okay, take off the blindfold," and just shove him right out. Now this gives us a psychological edge because apparently it works. When the other two guys come down to the ground, they’re scared and they cooperate more readily than they ever would before.

    MODERATOR. Mr. Camile, you had some actual instances of observing Vietnamese being thrown out of helicopters.

    CAMILE. On Operation Stone, I was on the ground and I didn’t see this Vietnamese pushed out, but I did see him come flying out and land over where we were.


  22. RichardKanePA

    Again I want to thank Hal Brown for actually creating a discussion on this subject. It’s hard to debate when one side says “Let’s not admit to torture in public”. Note I corrected a huge typo in my earlier comment


  23. Carl Nemo

    Thanks Griff for the referenced article. I have the link in my archives and am familiar with the material and the involved Congressional players.

    What should have been done that day is for the CIA to have given these Congressional subject matter experts (not) a quickie demo of the procedure, the end result would have been enlightening for most of them to say the least.

    Knowing the key legislators involved with their “push harder” mentality, all of them would have needed 911 emergency call assistance within the first few minutes or less!

    Fouled underwear, accelerated over the top heartrates and possibly some being induced to heart attack level conditions mainly because they are out of shape civilians and not battle toughened enemy combatants.

    What’s interesting every one of these so-called Congressional “oversight” people have dirt locked in their souls that’s far more grievous than most Middle Eastern based terrorists when it comes to causing grave harm to a people and their nation; ie., the citizens of this once great country.

    I’m sure their attitude towards the condonement of water-boarding would have had a major realignment post a hands-on session…! : |

    Carl Nemo **==

  24. griff

    This Washington Post article should pretty much put an end to the debate on whether there will be torture prosecutions or not.

    Nancy Pelosi herself was given a tour of one torture center, along with other congresspeople back in 2002.

    Surely the Democrats won’t investigate themselves, much like the Republicans didn’t want independent investigations launched when they were in charge.

    “Among the techniques described, said two officials present, was waterboarding, a practice that years later would be condemned as torture by Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. But on that day, no objections were raised. Instead, at least two lawmakers in the room asked the CIA to push harder, two U.S. officials said.”

    So apparently, not only were some Democrats A-OK with torture, two of them thought we weren’t torturing enough.

  25. John1172002

    I feel that I must voice my opinion here. Much of the Vietnam war was fought by “irregular” soldiers, who did not wear uniforms. Our own war to free the colonies from England involved many combatants who did not wear uniforms. I suspect the same is true of Venezuelas’ war with Che Guevaras’ combatants. Also true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere a guerrilla war takes place. Torture proves nothing except we have zero regard for treaties we sign, as well as our own Constitution. Just like the old witch trials, where the suspect was tied to a chair and thrown into deep water. If they drowned, they were innocent. If they had enough body fat to float, they were “proven” to be witches. Nothing is gained from torture, except lies to make the torture stop. Dubya’s administration proved that we are not much better than the Pax Romana, when dissenters were crucified. Have we learned so little in 2,000 years?

    Torture makes us little better than animals, like the cat biting the field mouse to play with it before he kills it.
    The fact that torture took place, as admitted on national television by Cheney, shames every American. Too bad Cheney isn’t ashamed of it too.


  26. EmmaG

    I agree with Carl. No tolerance. None. And there is no doubt in my mind what Jesus would do. I’m not that sure about Dick Cheney, but I have my suspicions.

  27. Carl Nemo

    My unequivocal vote:

    NO…”zero tolerance” for torture…Period!

    Far brighter people than myself, when it comes to the law were instrumental in hammering out both international and national laws concerning this issue and their consensus is there’s to be “no torture” under any circumstances and I so too heartily concur. : |

    Carl Nemo **==

    p.s. Maybe the site administrators should run a CHB poll concerning this issue just to see how we “tick” as a group. If so, then I surely hope I’m not disappointed in the character of the folks that frequent this site.

  28. RichardKanePA

    Imprisoning Cheney could backfire

    Thanks Obama for being cautious when it comes to prosecuting proud criminals, on a soapbox

    Let’s say Cheney and three other thugs were actually going to jail proudly claiming that they were being jailed for protecting America from a terror attack for seven years and now that Obama gave suspects some civil liberty rights we are destined to be attacked again, and al Qaeda is strong enough to cooperate with this ploy. Then George Bush is sobbingly hauled off the prison, crying that he had no idea what was going on.

    Let’s say instead that there is a South African type, Truth Commission, where Cheney etc. can only be jailed for what he leaves out and all the Cold War dirt gets revealed.

    Then Cheney is sued by the relatives of the three Pentagon employees who died because he secretly ordered the 9/11 planes heading toward Washington DC not to be shot down, the way the relatives of O. J. Simpson keep suing Simpson.

    Following every war we got our Civil Liberties back until the Cold War followed in the heals of World War II. Now there is another chance but bin Laden is in the way.

    I think Cheney proudly declaring he is being jailed for preserving America from another attack is something we need to avoid.