Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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November 07, 2005
Does torture work?

Some months ago, I conducted a somewhat silly little thought experiment.

I imagined that I lived in a society that conducted its public discussion of current events under a very specialized set of rules. The rules especially applied where the issues under discussion were "serious" ones pertaining, for example, to war, national security or foreign policy.

The rules mandated that participants in the public discussion were allowed to draw upon language, concepts and slogans, and cite to data and examples in support of their arguments, only if all those sources were derived from Hollywood thriller/suspense movies, comic books or TV shows of the crime/action genre.

What if people who knew or acknowledged nothing of the world outside of those sources dominated the society's discourse?

How would such people answer the question that has seemed to come up every     few    months in the USA's GWOT: "Does torture work?"

I tentatively concluded that the answer to that question would be a resounding "No!" Everybody knows that torture does not work.

The classic example is Victor Laszlo in Casablanca (script in .pdf here):

Strasser: You will give us the names?

Laszlo: If I didn't give them to you in a concentration camp where you had more "persuasive methods" at your disposal, I certainly won't give them to you now.

Cue "La Marseillaise."

Then I found an example involving Captain America himself, from Avengers No. 275. Cap and Jarvis the Butler, no less, are being tortured by the evil Zemo. But Captain American does not crumble. Intead, he spits out, "I’ll remember this, Zemo." Awesome!

The above examples are irrefutable proof that Torture Does Not Work.

However, then I found an important counterexample in Kevin Drum's incisive analysis of a spring 2005 episode of 24. His finding: "Torture worked perfectly." I was confused.

I was left to conclude that Torture Works, but only part of the time. It does not work when you're torturing the Good Guys. This truth is so obvious that it does not even need to be mentioned. Otherwise, magically, torture is expected to work like a charm, and does.

If I lived in a society like the one I imagined, I would probably have to consume many more movies, TV shows and comic books before I would have enough data to identify what it is about the Bad Guys -- some personal quality or physical characteristic, for example -- that renders them so much more susceptible to torture than are the Good Guys who fight on Our Side. And I would need to consume and master a still vaster quantity of cultural product before I would be qualified to render my opinion on cable television or as an editorial columnist.

And in such a society, I would certainly not bother going far afield into reading or bookmarking any of the more theoretical academic research on torture such as could be found, for example, at the University of Chicago's Human Rights Program's   1999 "Investigating and Combating Torture" conference.

Finally, I reflect on how convenient it is that links I gathered and reflections upon which I reflected under the inspiration of a discussion from five months ago, but that seemed back then to become too stale too quickly to post, become timely all over again if you just wait around long enough. Is the shape of our national conversation a circle, an ascending spiral or the slope of Sisyphus's rock?