Who would have thought that Dick Cheney was a follower of French fashion? When he defends the routine use of torture as a means of warfare, however, theirs is the most recent example. The French, in the Algerian War, were the last Western army to systematize the use of torture on detainees. Alistair Horne describes the methods and consequences wonderfully well in his history A Savage War of Peace. They don’t encourage imitation.


In fact, the lesson of the Algerian War, and of the Bush government’s experiment with the same sort of policies, is one that should be obvious and gratifying to any conservative: the traditional absolute ban on judicial torture is wiser than we can know.


Of course, in the hubris of the Bush and Cheney years, the U.S. was free of all the bonds of history. It seemed that the French lost Algeria because they were, well, French: torture helped them win the battle of Algiers, and if they had only been prepared to tough it out, it might have won them the war. Something like this lurks behind almost all the “pragmatic” defenses of torture—something in the spirit of the Stalinist poet Berthold Brecht’s great cry: “Sink down into the slime, embrace the butcher, but change the world—it needs it.”


The terrible lessons of all the 20th century’s bloody utopias, however, is that Brecht was wrong. We can always sink into the slime and embrace the butchers, but at the end of our embrace, the world has not changed at all, except to have lost a little more of our hard-won civilization.


None of this is to say that torture has no effects at all or that it’s good for nothing. The reason we need to be absolutist about torture is not that it is useless but that it uses and eventually consumes the torturers. It does not deliver what it promises to hygienically minded policy wonks who think they want the truth. It delivers only what torturers really want, whether they know it or not, which is the agony of their enemies.


Nowadays, of course, we pretend not to enjoy what we are doing, or what is done in our name, although I do not believe that anyone can long continue as a torturer without learning to enjoy it. Instead, we justify its use by the claim that it delivers confessions. “It worked,” as Dick Cheney recently told Fox News.


Here is a point that even an absolutist opponent of torture must concede. Of course torture delivers confessions. And even an absolutist will concede that some of these confessions will in fact be true. The problem is that there is no way for the interrogator to know which are which, and all the history of torture suggests that the false admissions will vastly outnumber the true.


No one but a psychopath sets out to torture in a spirit of disinterested inquiry. Normally torturers don’t want to know everything the victim knows or thinks but one particular thing that they believe is being concealed. And the overriding concern of the victim soon becomes to find what the torturer wants and deliver it, whether or not this is a delusion.


It often happens that what the torturer wants does not exist. The classic example is the witchcraft trials, in which thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people confessed to intercourse with the devil and other practices even more unlikely. It’s worth noting that many of them did so without the use of the rack or of burning irons or other devices beloved by the Inquisition. The Scottish Calvinist witch-hunters used nothing more than cold, hunger, and denial of sleep to extract confessions, and in Salem not even that was necessary.


You may say that the world has moved on and that if we use advanced methods, we get better results. Dick Cheney believes in torture, but he doesn’t believe in witches. All right. Let us pretend that the great witch craze offers nothing in the way of helpful lessons about torture today. Look instead at the 20th-century regime that used torture in the largest possible scale: Stalin’s Russia.


One of the first disconcerting things to discover when you inquire into the interrogation habits of the KGB is that their practices weren’t defined as torture at all. This isn’t in fact surprising when you consider the history of the Bush administration’s enhanced techniques: they were taken from Army interrogation schools, which were concerned with preparing people for Chinese and North Korean methods of interrogation, which had in turn been learned from the KGB, or the NKVD as it then was. So there is a very direct line of transmission between the torturers who once threatened the free world and those who now claim to defend it.


But as I say, at all times and places there have been people who say that advanced techniques of interrogation are not torture. They don’t involve the rack. There are no red-hot pincers. The dogs are very seldom allowed to bite their victims, and hardly anyone is ever beaten all the way to death.


And if you read the great chroniclers of Stalin’s terror—Robert Conquest, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn—they freely concede that the most widespread and advanced techniques of interrogation were not defined as torture at all. With the single exception of waterboarding—apparently too advanced for Stalin’s taste—they were the same, simple techniques as were institutionalized under Bush and Cheney.


In particular, sleep deprivation and prolonged standing, or even sitting in one position, amount soon enough to torture as those who have suffered will testify. Of course, after a while they will also say anything to stop the pain. Solzhenitsyn argued that we should pity those who gave in under such methods and said more than they should; we should not presume to judge them, for what they suffered could well have been unendurable.


It may be objected that the women and girls hanged as witches in Massachussetts were innocent, whereas men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed were thoroughly evil and had in fact done terrible things. But even evil people lie under torture as readily as they tell the truth. Consider the evidence against other genuinely evil people—the old Bolsheviks whom Stalin had murdered after the show trials of the ’30s. None of those men were innocents. All had approved the terror when it was their enemies being terrorized, and some, like Nikolai Yezhov, the discarded head of the NKVD, were monsters responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. So it is an extraordinary achievement of Stalin’s regime to have shot them for some of the very few crimes of which they were almost certainly innocent.


Almost all of them confessed that they had been working, for decades, for British intelligence. Many confessed to involvement in plots to assassinate Comrade Stalin (on British orders, of course). In fact, it emerged during the course of the purges that every single member of the party’s central committee in 1929, except for Comrade Stalin, was taking directions from British or Polish intelligence, from Trotsky, or from some combination of these—except the ones lucky enough to die before the trials started.


Many people believed this story at the time, among them the American ambassador to Moscow. They had good evidence: the evidence of the confessions extracted by Comrade Stalin’s advanced techniques of interrogation.


Two years ago, the Bush government released the confessions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in which—after prolonged interrogation using techniques even more advanced than those of the KGB—he admitted that he plotted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Pervez Musharraf. Everyone now agrees that he was tortured. In fact, he is exactly the sort of person whom the advocates of torture have in mind as someone who should be waterboarded, beaten, frozen, deprived of sleep, and then waterboarded again until he tells us what we need to hear.


So one simple question arises: Do we have any good reason to believe that anything he said was true? It is clear that Khalid’s confession has exactly the same evidentiary value as the confession of Yezhov and Beria, successive heads of the KGB, that they plotted to assassinate Comrade Stalin on the orders of British intelligence. The evidence that Khalid tried to blow up the Empire State Building, Heathrow Airport, Canary Wharf, Big Ben, and the Panama Canal is exactly as good as the evidence that Trotskyist saboteurs and wreckers were responsible for the failings of the Soviet economy in the 1930s. In all these cases, we have the confessions of the men responsible. In all these cases, they have been extracted by torture.


The argument against torture, then, is both moral and prudential. The prudential flaws arise from the moral ones. Torture does not reliably deliver the truth because we, the torturers, are flawed and sinful creatures who do not greatly want the truth and certainly don’t want it more than reassurance. This is not, by the way, an argument for outsourcing it to computers, although there is a strain of modern utopianism that would say that if people are flawed, we must replace them with machines that aren’t.

The kind of absolutism that this problem calls for is a clear-sighted recognition of our own flaws and limitations, which leads to an absolute ban on the practice under any circumstances. Torture is a means of forcing people to lie to us, under circumstances that compel us to believe them, because otherwise we would have to face the truth about ourselves. 

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Andrew Brown writes for the Guardian and is author of several books. His latest, Fishing in Utopia: Sweden & The Future That Disappeared, won this year’s Orwell Prize.

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