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Donald Trump and the politics of torture

I guess, like Arlo Guthrie, doing the chorus again in concert, it’s come ’round again on the guitar.

I ain’t proud.

Donald Trump is a moron. Not in the sense that he’s stupid. He’s not. He’s a canny bastard, and a pretty good politician (in an age where “politics” has long moved from The Art of the Possible” to the realm of the panderer; appealing to prejudice has always been a useful tool to the candidate,  but it’s rarely been required to keep the office, once gained. That’s a whole ‘nother topic).

This however is either ignorant; beyond belief, or evil.

Blitzer brought up Salah Abdeslam — a chief suspect in the Paris attack who was detained last week and who it has been speculated might have connections to the Brussels attackers — and asked Trump whether he would begin “torturing him right away,” since Belgian authorities have said Abdeslam was already talking to investigators.

“He may be talking, but he’ll talk faster with the torture,” Trump said, suggesting torture could have prevented Tuesday attacks which have left at least 30 people dead.

The amount of wrong in that sentence is massive. The errors are layered, from top to bottom, like sheets of pastry, and it only gets worse as he goes on. Extracting information is something I’m good at.  I did it for a few years as a journalist.  I did it for more years as an Army interrogator. On top of those skills I spent years teaching others how to do it.  I understand the theory, and practice, of interrogation a lot better than he does.

If Abdselam was talking, there wasn’t anything to do to “make him talk faster, and, contra Trump (and the Right Wing Wurlitzer) this is wrong too:

“I would be willing to bet that he knew about this bombing that took place today,” Trump said. “We have to be smart. It’s hard to believe we can’t waterboard which is — look, nothing’s nice about it but, it’s your minimal form of torture. We can’t waterboard and they can chop off heads. “

That is 100 percent what’s wrong with torture as a tool. Trump is sure Abdselam knew about Brussels. How is he sure?  Well Abdselam is Muslim, and he is supposed to have taken part in a different attack; hundreds of miles away, with people who had no connection to the attack on Brussels, but he’s a Muslim so…

Even if Abdselam were aware of the Brussels attack how would Trump get it out of him?  How would Trump know to ask? That’s the main problem, one can’t just say, “what do you know” and get the subject to vomit up the info you want. Assume, for the sake of argument, that Abdselam *did* know about the Brussels attacks. The interrogator doesn’t.

We can also assume, that if he knows, he doesn’t really want to give up the info. Hitting him will only remind him that the info is important. If he knew about them, he also knows there is a time limit. If he holds out long enough either his confederates can get away, or the plan will have been carried out. So where does The Donald start his line of investigation?

Seriously. Where does one start? “Tell us about the other plans!!!!”.

Weak. It tells the subject you don’t know.  He can spin yarns until the plans he does know about are immaterial to the investigation.

“Tell us about the people you know in…”  Where?  How does one choose where to start?  He was arrested for attacks on Paris. Logic implies that any information he is guaranteed to have is about things in Paris. Ok, he’s Belgian. Maybe he is involved in something happening in Belgium.  Maybe the five months he’s not been caught after Paris have convinced him it’s safe to go back to plotting.  But against whom?  His MO is to work some distance from home (which is not a bad MO, if one can bland into the local environment; there is less chance of being IDed by someone at the scene, which means other leads have to be followed. If one is careful one’s odds of avoiding capture go up, a lot).

So how does one choose what line of investigation to start?  Which is the answer the victim is refusing to yield? Which, “I don’t now about that” is the lie which justifies torture?  When the victim *is* ignorant, and honesty leads to pain, what will keep them to telling the truth when just giving in and confessing to the required crime will stop the pain?

Because that is what will happen. One of the principle part of SERE school, where pilots and aircrew are trained in what it’s like to be tortured, is that everyone breaks.  Everyone. Even when it’s known that the tortures are part of the drill, and one won’t be maimed, much less killed, they all break. So why do our politicians, and pundits, pretend that “bad guys” are different?

Because it sells. Because there aren’t enough people holding them to account. Because part of the narrative is comforting. The fable that we can be protected, if only we have the resolve to “do what must be done.” It’s a convenient lie, that safety can actually be created by force of will. It can’t. Bad actors will figure out how to do bad things.

If you don’t believe me just look at prisons. In environments where the state has total control, weapons are made, assaults; even to the point of murder, are committed. Conspiracies for revolt are made, and carried out. If we can’t stop it in places where the populace is constrained, contained, and enslaved, what makes us think torturing a small subset of those who are freely able to move will?

Fear sells. Torture advocates (you can’t call them apologists when they use the word, and say we need to do the deeds) are selling fear, and fear is like yeast, once you put it in the dough, it won’t stop so long as it is fed.



*though like him I’m tired, even if I’ve not been singing the song quite as long.


Old Song: disgusting arrangement

I’m speaking at FogCon (9 March, 3 p.m.) in a panel about, “the ticking bomb” problem. It’s a moral question I sorted out decades ago, when I decided to accept the job of interrogator. The basic argument, for those who’ve never encountered it is this:

It’s a known fact that a bomb will go off (or some other variation of “people will die if nothing is done!!!!!”) and there is someone in custody who knows where it is, but s/he won’t talk. Do you torture them to get the information?

It’s usually presented as a “gotcha”, by those who are either advocating for torture, or at least willing to accept it. It’s often used as means of self-absolution by torture apologists. As given it’s a no-win situation. Either you accept that torture is allowable, or; for your own moral purity you are going to let innocent people die.

So a few weeks ago I saw a more absurd, and appalling form of the argument: Torture is a religious obligation for Jews.

I’ll let you think about that for a moment. Not just that it’s something they can allow, but it’s incumbent upon them to commit torture. here’s the article which is repeating the argument, and the crucial extract.

Q. What does Judaism say about torturing suspects in order to obtain life-saving information?

A. This highly topical question is the subject of a recent article by Rabbi J. David Bleich in the latest issue of Tradition magazine…

Rabbi Bleich adopts what seems to me an entirely novel ethical approach to the torture issue, based on two concepts of particular importance in Jewish law: the duty of rescue, and the right to self-defense….

In the European and Anglo-Saxon legal traditions, the duty of rescue is very limited. Rabbi Bleich writes that very few jurisdictions impose any sanctions at all on someone who is able to rescue but fails to do so….
By contrast, Jewish law imposes a binding and very demanding level of obligation to help others when their well-being or even their property is in danger. The Torah commands us, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your fellow” (Leviticus 19:16); rather, we are obligated to take affirmative action to help him.

Jewish law, like other legal systems, recognizes the right to self-defense. Harming another person is of course normally forbidden, but when that person threatens us we are allowed to act aggressively to protect ourselves….

Putting these two principles together, Rabbi Bleich concludes that any person with life-saving information is obligated to reveal it (duty of rescue), and that the right of self-defense would justify aggressive actions to compel the knower to disclose his information. Rabbi Bleich writes: “By failing to act the potential informant makes it possible for a calamity to occur. . . It is thus clear that the law of pursuit sanctions any form of bodily force, including mayhem, when necessary to preserve the life of the victim.”

There is so much wrong with this, even when the following caveats are thrown in:

As Rabbi Bleich points out, this analysis applies fully only when there is certainty that the person in question can and will provide the information needed to defuse a “ticking bomb”. Uncertainty can arise here in many guises: is there a threat at all? Does this person indeed possess the information needed to neutralize the threat? And will torture be effective in eliciting the information? (Rabbi Bleich makes it clear that torture can never be sanctioned when less painful methods will be fruitful.) Obviously these are serious doubts, and experts are divided on whether torture is generally an effective means of obtaining information at all.

Another reservation here is that we have to clearly establish the informant’s duty to disclose. Since his status as a “pursuer” is due to his passive refusal to reveal information he has, there can be no right to harm him if he has valid reasons for keeping his secret. Rabbi Bleich devotes some discussion to this complex angle.

“Experts are divided”. Nope. Not unless you mean the way there are “experts” arguing that climate change isn’t happening, or that Evolution is “only a theory” or that members of the Flat Earth Society argue the world isn’t round, etc. Yes, there are people who will tell you torture works: they either don’t work in the field, or they have a dog in the fight (i.e. they have been complicit in torture).

That’s one thing. The rest, utter rubbish. Victim blaming rubbish too, the language of the abuser, “don’t make me hurt you”.

Rabbi Bliech is also opening Pandora’s Box. Israel actually used to follow this logic; troops in the field could claim, “exigent circumstances” and get a pass for torturing people who knew where bombs were. But guess what… eventually everyone was fair game. The doctrine expanded. If X know where the bomb is and Y knows where X is and Z knows where Y is and…. You can see where that leads.

Where it led the IDF was to filing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Israel, in favor of outlawing torture. Why? Because was both not working at finding bombs, and it was making the IDF more thuggish.

It was also radicalizing more people. Rabbi Bliech is making the argument one finds in The Battle of Algiers “Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes’, you must accept all the consequences.”

There is a saving grace, of sorts, in the caveats. As described this moral imperative is impossible to carry out. One can never be sure enough to torture.

Is there a bomb? You don’t really know. If you do know (not think, but know) then you will have enough evidence to have more than one person to question, when that happens you can exploit the prisoners’ dilemma.

How do you know this person knows? If you are certain (not reasonably sure, but certain, as one is certain the tide will turn in the Bay of Fundy), then you have enough other evidence to find the bomb, or someone else who has information.

Can you be sure that torture will work? No. One of the things which is known is that a limit to the need to keep silent; that is a point past which the information is no longer in need of being kept secret, makes it possible to hang until that point. All the bomber has to do is hold out until the bomb goes off. He can also test his torturers, in ways they can’t test him. He can pretend to co-operate, which will tell him what happens. If the abuse abates, he knows how to play for more time.

What the Rabbi has done is, immoral. He has put, “a stumbling block before the blind.” Those who don’t think this through, or who are truly ignorant of the ways in which torture fails as a means to reliably gain useful information will not only think that it can be justified, but that those who didn’t use it were failing in their moral duties.

He should be ashamed.