Sunday, December 30, 2007

What torture is good for: fear

It is sad to see many American all too willing to sacrifice our liberties by trying to sanctify torture in reaction to the 9-11 attacks against the United States. They have even tried to muddle the debate by downplaying the effect of waterboarding – a well known technique of torture used at least since the Inquisition and currently popular with U.S. intelligence agencies – by suggesting it is a mere “simulation” of drowning that somehow does no real harm and therefore somehow doesn't rise to the level of real torture.

And, of course, there are those with some degree of intellectual integrity willing to admit waterboarding is torture but who then go on to justify it to gather information to protect the public from those ticking-bomb scenarios popular in television action shows.

The problem with that line of thinking is torture is ineffective for gathering information. However, it is good for something – instilling fear in the population.

This observation from P.Z. Myers:

… torture is an extremely powerful tool. It's just useless for gathering information. There's just no way you can trust information gotten while ripping somebody's fingernails off with a pair of pliers — they'll scream anything to get you to stop.

Here is all that torture is good for: inspiring fear in a population. If you want it widely known that your ruling regime is utterly ruthless and doesn't care about individuals, all you have to do is scoop up random people suspected of anti-government activities, hold them for a few weeks, and return them as shattered wrecks with mangled limbs, while treating the monsters who would do such a thing as respected members of the ruling clique, who are immune from legal prosecution. The message gets out fast that one does not cross the government.


When the US government announces it's support for torture, they aren't talking about intelligence gathering: they are simply saying "Fear us." They are taking the first step on the road to tyranny.

The real problem is that fear isn't a good tool to use in a democratic society. We are supposed to be shareholders in our government; when a process of oppression is endorsed by our legislators and president, we should recognize that they are trying to set themselves apart from the ordinary citizenry, and it's time to rebel…before the goon squads come to your neighborhood. Anyone who supports torture is a traitor to the democratic form of government, and should be voted out of office, if not impeached.

And I know some are going to crawl out of the woodwork to claim it's OK in this case because the US is mainly trying to torture non-citizens, outsiders and foreigners — but then what it represents is an announcement to the rest of the world that the American superpower is not planning to be a benevolent member of the community of nations.

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