Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The torture debate

I've been following the discussion of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the last few weeks, in part because of the involvement of some psychologists in crafting these techniques for the Defense Department. In an interview on NPR, one of the military psychologists involved states that these interrogation techniques were fully justified in view of the need to protect America against future terrorist attacks -- in his view, psychologists are not constrained to "do no harm", but rather that they should do "the most good for the most people." The involvement of psychologists in these harsh interrogation practices has been the cause of a strong response within the American Psychological Association, including a restatement of their stance against torture, and a revision in the code of ethics for psychologists. Now there is a call for an investigation into the American Psychological Association's ethics task force, with the accusation that this task force was biased in favor of the Defense Department and that the ethics policy was crafted to conform to Pentagon guidelines. The debate over these harsh interrogation practices has generally focused on two questions: Are these practices morally and/or legally justifiable, and do they work? Let me leave the first question aside for the moment; important as it is, I want to unpack the second question. In general, the "do the techniques work" discussion has been narrowly focused on whether these techniques provide useful intelligence and whether they are necessary for getting such information. That is, do detainees spill the secrets (of other operatives and future attack plans) when they are waterboarded or held in stress positions, and would they have done so if they hadn't been waterboarded or held in stress positions? There has been a significant conflict between those like Cheney who argue that important intelligence was gathered through harsh interrogation techniques that saved thousands of American lives, and the recent testimony of an ex-FBI agent who said that these tactics were unreliable and ineffective. I would argue that torture does not reliably result in accurate or complete information, but rather, the person says whatever they think will make the pain stop. That *might* include useful information, but it might also be incomplete or even be false. President Obama (among others) has also questioned Cheney's reading of the relevant documents, challenging the notion that these techniques were necessary or effective in gathering information. But what seems to be missing in this discussion is what the effect is within the broader international context. If the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, there was a great deal of discussion about how these abuses would foster or enhance an anti-American sentiment and might inspire more to join terrorist groups. If our harsh treatment of detainees inspires more to join the ranks of terrorist organizations, then wouldn't it be possible that these interrogation tactics served not to save American lives, but to endanger them?

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