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A useful way of looking at torture: the bank robbery analogy

Does bank robbery work? Most people think that's a strange — almost absurd — question. Many respond, "Huh?" But think about it. What if the bank robber had a family relying on him or her, with children who literally didn't have enough to eat? Doesn't the question make sense then? Most people would respond, "But it's still wrong!"
 
But if we change the question to "Does torture work?" it doesn't seem strange at all. We don't say "Huh?" when we hear it; we don't mentally flinch. We are perfectly willing to debate this question, even though we know torture is wrong.
 
The comparisons between bank robbery and torture don't end there. Our government and media have made the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" sound perfectly acceptable, when we all know it is simply a euphemism for torture. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley parodied this phrase when he pointed out that waterboarding is no more an enhanced interrogation technique than bank robbery is an enhanced money withdrawal technique.

It's a useful way of looking at torture. We know it's illegal; we know it's immoral. So why not examine it in terms of other things we know are illegal and immoral?
 
Dershowitz's idea
Consider Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and his argument for a "torture warrant." He points out that torture has occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future. So in those extraordinary situations where using torture might save lives, he argues, why not let the president get a "ticking bomb torture warrant" from the chief justice of the Supreme Court?

The absurdity of this proposal becomes apparent when we substitute "bank robbery warrant" for "torture warrant." No one would — and no one should — support such a warrant. And the occurrence of bank robberies in the past or the future is obviously  irrelevant.
 
Furthermore, Dershowitz is completely out of touch with what occurs on the battlefield. As George W. Bush's former General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, has pointed out, a ticking-time-bomb justification is applicable on every single day on every battlefield in every war.

But of course Dershowitz claims he opposes torture. He just wants to regulate it and thus minimize its use. Maybe we should regulate the law schools.
 
Time for accountability
Maybe it's time we begin treating torture as seriously as we treat bank robbery. Maybe it's about time we decide to prosecute those who "legalized," conspired to commit, authorized, ordered and committed torture in our names. Maybe it's time we take to heart Mahatma Gandhi's response to the question, "What do you think of Western Civilization?" He said, "I think it would be a good idea."
 
Aug. 1 is the eighth anniversary of the John Yoo/Jay Bybee torture memos. Tackling Torture at the Top (a committee of Women Against Military Madness) and others will commemorate that day by Fasting Against Torture for 24 hours starting at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug 1.

Members will also be present at the Federal Building in Minneapolis from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 2. They call for repentance and accountability for the torture that has been done in our names. Join their fast or vigil; write your senators or representatives; contact President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder; write a letter to the editor. To heal the past and to prevent officially sanctioned torture in the future, accountability is essential.

Chuck Turchick is a retired Minneapolis resident who is concerned about torture and torture accountability issues.

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Comments (8)

Thanks for this article, Chuck Turchick.
See you on Monday, August 2, in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis - fasting.
I agree - it is time for accountability and
the laws to be honored.

The FULL assault on our civil rights and constitutional liberties by the Bush Cheney administration is yet to unfold. From the military tribunals to the tacit use of torture as noted above, history will treat that administration as one of the darkest chapters in American history regarding threats to our constitutional rights and American values. The entire sordid episode needs fuller and consistent explanations as above if we are to avoid a repeat of these activities. To repeat the mantra of Holocaust victims: "Never again".

Thank you, Chuck! Yes, if our leaders are not accountable for their actions and rulings, they are stealing any moral authority from the nation and impoverishing its people. Carol Masters

Myles:

Ironic, or perhaps poor taste, that you would invoke "never again", with respect to interrogation techniques used on subjects whose stated goal is the extermination of all Jews and the state of Israel.

Excellent article, Mr. Turchick!

The human capacity for justifying immoral actions is an amazing thing. The ability to contort our minds and our hearts to believe that our actions are always well-considered and correct has always been with us.

Political leaders are unflinching even when they have been proven to be wrong in their support of torture or unjustified war. Sad to see that they still promote their past actions. Mr. Bush was saying only last month that [if he had to do it all over again] he would use torture to fight our "enemies." Obviously, when he was in power and viewing that video of the tortures at Abu Ghraib prison, it was all entertainment to him, to Mr. Cheney, and to Mr. Rumsfeld.

Other similar issues for our consideration of moral justification: 1)The death penalty, and 2)war in certain situations.

It is oddly revealing that many of us seem to consider the sanctity of bank accounts to be absolute, but the sanctity of human bodies to be conditional.

I am not sure everybody thinks this way, however. Consider the example a lawsuit that wins punitive damages. Isn't this a kind of legal robbery, albeit one that is justified, since money is demanded as compensation for harm? And we still consider Robin Hood to be a folk hero, don't we?

There are times when our fear of a dangerous enemy makes us so desperate to succeed that we begin to justify killing. This is what happens in every war, actually. And people who die in war include many civilians, and many of them do not die quickly or painlessly. Yet we may still, in desperate times, say "yes" to war, despite its serious moral difficulties. It is in this context that our healthy moral revulsion in regard to torture can be seriously weakened.

Here's how I argue against torture. I point out what we all ought to know as a fact of history, which is that torture is a very poor method of information gathering. Indeed, it is well known, or should be well known, that the less the torturer knows before he begins torturing, the less likely he is to uncover any truth at all - though he may very well confirm his own prejudices.

My evidence for this claim - which should be common knowledge - is the history of the witch trials. For centuries, the well-meaning Christian jurists of the Holy Inquisition used torture to find out who was guilty of witchcraft. Thousands of confessions were obtained and duly recorded, seeming to demonstrate that the accused, mostly poor women, had cast spells upon their neighbors, caused the plague, raised demons, flown around on broomsticks, danced with Satan, et cetera. All of this information was obtained using torture or the threat of torture. NONE of it was true. If torture was of any use at all in making people tell the truth, rather than what their torturers expect to hear, it would not have happened that tens of thousands of people confessed to being witches and were burned at the stake.

Does this argument apply to the ticking-bomb scenario? Yes, I believe it does. Of course, we do not believe in witches any more, and of course, terrorists are real. But how do we know that any captive enemy actually knows about a bomb that is about to go off? In most cases, we have no more evidence for this belief than the witch-burners had when they believed someone was a witch. And even if we have some evidence, this only improves the chance that the torturer will ask the right questions. It does not improve the chance that the captive will answer them truthfully. Nonviolent interrogation works just as well in uncovering the truth, without morally corrupting the interrogator.

Torture does not work. It is also cruel and unusual punishment, whatever else we choose to call it. It is therefore BOTH pragmatically useless AND morally inexcusable.

Since it seems to me highly probable that the Founding Fathers had the witch trials in mind when they wrote the Eighth Amendment, I would argue that torture is also unconstitutional. However, we may have to wait a few decades before our authoritarian Supreme Court agrees.

@Eric: I do believe the courts have said the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Eighth Amendment refers to punishments after being convicted of a crime.

@Eric: I do believe the courts have said the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the Eighth Amendment refers to punishments after being convicted of a crime.

Indeed. And I believe this is an outrageously narrow and ahistorical interpretation of the Eighth Amendment, one that elides the obvious, commonsensical truth that torture is always a "punishing" experience, regardless of its stated purpose. And the obvious purpose of this interpretation is to permit torture in interrogations, despite all evidence that it doesn't work, and to excuse our government from its responsibility NOT to torture, which is has as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Because, you see, another thing Constitutional interpreters of this ilk will tell you is that the Constitution conveniently trumps all treaty obligations, whether the Senate accepts them or not.

This is why I referred to our Supreme Court as "authoritarian." They want us to fear our government, and they want to maintain our government's right to instill fear in us. That is the only thing that torture is really good for.