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Why Did We Torture?

It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence.
Cheney flag soldiers

I don’t have much to say about the torture report released by the Senate. While many of the details were unknown to me – or to any ordinary civilian – prior to the release, nothing that has come out strikes me as a particular surprise. We already knew that we committed brutal, systematic torture; we already knew that many credible analysts concluded that it was useless; we already knew that what was done was done in knowing violation of American law; and we already knew that the Executive branch as a whole and the CIA in particular labored mightily to cover it up.

The United States is obligated by treaty to punish those responsible, both those who committed the acts and those who ordered them. Orders to commit torture are illegal and must be affirmatively disobeyed; American law is crystal clear about that, so the only real defense is to claim that illegal actions did not occur, which is no longer a plausible claim. I assume that we will refuse to comply with this obligation.

None of this is a surprise. All of this could have been known in advance. So why did we do it?

Most commonly, torture’s purpose is not to extract intelligence, but to extract confessions. Whether you’re talking about the Inquisition or the NKVD, there is value to a given regime in “proving” that the accused is guilty. It vindicates the justice of the regime’s actions generally; it demonstrates the power of the regime over truth itself. It may well be of distinctly secondary importance whether or not the confession is actually true, whether the accused is actually guilty. So long as he confesses, the regime’s power is confirmed.

Relatedly, torture is a valuable tool to instill fear in the general population. Incarceration is fearful, but if incarceration brings with it terrible physical and psychological pain, including the possibility of permanent injury or death, then the possibility of being apprehended by the authorities is much more fearful, and ordinary civilians will be much more cautious about risking that possibility. If instilling fear is more important to a regime than inspiring confidence, cooperation and loyalty, then torture serves these purposes well.

These are the primary reasons why regimes like the Nazis or Soviets used torture extensively. Yes, they also used torture to try to extract intelligence, but that was never the primary purpose of such techniques. There were other, fully rational reasons to torture.

I believe that our reasons were far less rational.

I’ve written before about the overwhelming fear that afflicted the country in the wake of 9-11, and how, perversely, exaggerating the severity of the threat from al Qaeda helped address that fear, because it made it acceptable to contemplate more extreme actions in response. If al Qaeda was really just a band of lunatics who got lucky, then 3,000 died because, well, because that’s the kind of thing that can happen. If al Qaeda was the leading edge of a worldwide Islamo-fascist movement with the real potential to destroy the West, then we would be justified in nuking Mecca in response. Next to that kind of response, torture seems moderate.

Willingness to torture became, first within elite government and opinion-making circles, then in the culture generally, and finally as a partisan GOP talking point, a litmus test of seriousness with respect to the fight against terrorism. That – proving one’s seriousness in the fight – was its primary purpose from the beginning, in my view. It was only secondarily about extracting intelligence. It certainly wasn’t about instilling fear or extracting false confessions – these would not have served American purposes. It was never about “them” at all. It was about us. It was our psychological security blanket, our best evidence that we were “all-in” in this war, the thing that proved to us that we were fierce enough to win.

I’ve used “we” all through this piece, and the reason is not just because America is a democracy. Our government tortured for us, not just in the sense that it is our representative nor in the sense that its motive was our protection, but in the sense that we, as a country in aggregate, really wanted the proof of seriousness that torture provided.

That’s something we’ll have to grapple with, as a country, if we’re ever to have the strength to follow our own laws and bring the guilty to justice.