BURDEN OF PROOF

I'm Tortured by Doubt

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By Scott Adams
Sunday, January 7, 2007

Lately I've moved from "pretty certain" to "doubtful" about the effectiveness of torture.

Today I'm addressing only whether torture sometimes works better than conventional interrogation. If torture doesn't work better than the alternatives, not ever, then you don't need to discuss morality or world opinion because torture doesn't even pass the first filter. I'm not saying that morality and world opinion aren't important -- you just don't need to worry about them unless torture at least produces good results.

But in all the news about interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. prisons in the fight against terrorism, there has never been any offer of proof that torture is the way to go. Even the latest FBI report, released last week, just lists the extreme methods interrogators used on their subjects. It never says whether they produced anything.

I used to think that torture probably worked well, at least in selective cases, based on the fact that it is so often the method of choice. All of those law-enforcement professionals around the world couldn't be wrong, could they? Plus, I imagine that if someone attached electrodes to my scrotum, I'd be talking plenty compared with the "let's be friends" interrogation method. So torture certainly passes the sniff test.

Yet the media have trotted out expert after expert to say that regular non-torture interrogation is more effective than torture. I discounted those experts as selectively chosen by the liberal media. One thing that all the experts seemed to have in common was that none of them had actually used torture. So how would they know that torture didn't work as well as an alternative?

But much time has passed since this debate began. You'd think that the proponents of torture would have produced one credible torturer to say, "Torture works great! I get all of my information in minutes and I'm home by 5 to help the kids with homework!"

Or perhaps the media could find one torture victim who would say, "I wasn't going to tell them anything until they started waterboarding me. Man, that stuff works!"

Now granted, it may be hard to find someone who will confess to being a torturer. And it may be even harder to find someone who was tortured and then is willing to endorse it. But it seems that with all the torturing going on, you could at least find a friend of a friend who saw it work.

Or the American government could find some CIA operative willing to be filmed in silhouette with his voice garbled saying that he has seen torture produce excellent results.

I first made this point recently on the Dilbert Blog. I heard from lots of folks who argued that torture is counterproductive because people will say anything to stop the pain. You end up wasting valuable time and resources chasing false leads. I'm told that there is lots of anecdotal evidence to support that view. Fair enough. But is that what always happens or just usually? I want some context.

Other people argued that torture could be effective if a terrorist didn't know that you already had information to verify his claims. For example, suppose you know that terrorists hid three dirty bombs and you've already found two. And suppose the captured terrorist doesn't know that you've already found them. In that case you could keep torturing him until his list of three hiding places includes the two you already know about. Common sense tells you that would work.

But I have to ask myself how often that sort of situation comes up. Does it happen all the time in one form or another, or has it never happened since 9/11? How does a citizen form an opinion on the effectiveness of torture without knowing that?

The other day I was watching Bill Maher on his HBO show, "Real Time." That's where I turn for useful political opinions. (I wish I were joking about that.) Maher made a point that put things into perspective for me. He noted that if the situation arose where torturing some terrorist would clearly save American lives, it's going to happen no matter what the law says.

I think we all agree that it's possible to do too much torturing. But as Maher points out, it's impossible to have laws that prevent torture in the rare cases in which it may be the best solution. Human nature provides the safety valve. Laws or no laws, your grandmother would torture a terrorist if she knew it would save lives.

The burden is on torture's proponents to produce some evidence that torture makes sense as a policy. I don't rule out the possibility that it can be effective in some cases, but if it's being done in my name, I want some frigging evidence that it works.

Then we can talk about morality.

Scott Adams, creator of the "Dilbert" comic strip,

writes a blog at dilbert.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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