Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Torture as a Means of Social Control

Pace Alan M. Dershowitz and Richard A. Posner, torture does not work as a means of extracting "truthful information" that can save "many lives" (Dershowitz, qtd. in Michael Slackman, "What's Wrong With Torturing a Qaeda Higher-Up?" New York Times, May 16, 2004):
Darius Rejali . . . said his studies show that torture is ineffective as a tool for gathering information. "My position is there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this works, at least in the way that people claim that it does in the war against terrorism," Mr. Rejali said.

Take the case of Mr. [Abdul Hakim] Murad [who, under torture, revealed "a terror plot to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and to assassinate the pope"], whom Mr. Dershowitz pointed to as proof that torture is a useful tool. Mr. Rejali said that it took more than a month to break Mr. Murad and extract information -- a delay that would have made it impossible to head off an imminent threat.

Mr. Rejali said he has studied Algeria's violent struggle in the late 1950's for independence from France. He said he pored through the archives and found no evidence that the French were able to harvest a significant amount of valuable intelligence through their use of torture. He said he came to the same conclusion after studying the Nazis' use of torture throughout Europe.

"The Gestapo wasn't getting a whole hell of a lot when it tortured resistance people," he said.

Indeed, a study by Human Rights Watch found that torture of criminal suspects often produces inaccurate information. In 1999, Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher for the group, issued a report, "Confessions at Any Cost: Police Torture in Russia," which documented widespread use of torture among the Russian police.

The report quoted Boris Botvinnik, a university student in Moscow who confessed in 1996 to a murder and robbery after his vision was severely damaged from repeated bouts of near asphyxiation.

"I wanted to save what was left of me," Mr. Botvinnik said.

Mr. Lohman said, "That is the problem: If you torture me, I am going to tell you whatever you want to get you to stop."

In Iraq, a man named Saddam Saleh Aboud told The New York Times that after being hooded and handcuffed naked, doused with water, threatened with rape and forced to sit in his own urine over 18 days at Abu Ghraib prison, he was ready to confess to anything.

"They asked, 'Do you know the Islamic opposition?'" Mr. Aboud recalled in an interview in Baghdad. "I said yes." At one point, Mr. Aboud said: "They asked me about Osama bin Laden. I said, 'I am Osama bin Laden. I am disguised.'" (Slackman, May 16, 2004)
The article goes on to ask: "But if torture doesn't work, why is it so widely employed" (May 16, 2004)? Rejali and other scholars answer: it's because "it does work as a tool of intimidation, if not intelligence gathering. In authoritarian countries around the world, where leaders struggle to assert their authority, the threat of torture is often enough to keep some kind of social order and inspire informers to come to the government with information -- as it did in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein" (May 16, 2004). In short, the political object of torture is not the tortured in particular but the people on whose obedience the power elite depend.

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