December 09, 2014

Torture: Once You Start, It's Hard To Stop

Writing about web page http://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/comment/torture.pdf

Torture is wrong. Applied to interrogation it is unproductive. Given these two things, it should be easy for interrogators to choose not to use torture. Despite this, torture is widely and persistently used in interrogation around the world. So here, apparently, is a puzzle. Why does torture persist? The solution to the puzzle is found in a third feature: torture is corrupting.

Today's publication of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency 's Detention and Interrogation Program will be noted mainly for its detailing of the fates of the 39 CIA detainees who were subject to "enhanced interrogation" (or torture).

Also notable, however, is the report's documentation of the CIA's determined defence of its practices, extending to concealment and misrepresentation of the facts in order to evade accountability. This defence began concurrently with "enhanced interrogation" but it is not confined to the past. It continues today and will no doubt be maintained tomorrow.

It was 9/11 that moved me to write regularly on public affairs. I didn't have a blog, so I just wrote short papers and uploaded them to a web page. In November 2001 torture was already being floated in public as a way to get US detainees to talk about terrorist conspiracies. It seemed to me that European history already provided ample evidence that this was a bad idea, so I wrote a short paper to explain why.

My last-but-one paragraph from that paper is relevant to the idea that torture cannot be a temporary expedient. Even if it turns out to be a bad idea, once you start, it's hard to stop. It also helps to explain why a body like the CIA would become committed to a bad idea and continue to defend it to the present. What I wrote thirteen years ago seems as good today as I thought then, so I'll quote that last-but-one paragraph in full.

A final and most important consequence is that the process of torture is corrupting. Torture creates employment for the interrogators, and privileges that stem from the capacity to instill fear. The practice of torture also attracts those who find it enjoyable and use it as an instrument of self–gratification rather than investigation. Thus it gives rise to vested interests in its continuation that do not wish to be held accountable for their actions. These interests are helped by secrecy. Torture takes place in secret. Most people find the subject distasteful and do not wish to know about it, and this further strengthens the wall of secrecy. The result is a part of the state that exercises a cruel and tyrannical power over society, one that grows inevitably with the extension of torture and has the power to resist subsequent attempts to curb it.


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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