Q&A: Effective Use of Torture

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it. You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true) and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true). You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology. You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

I don’t do this often, but this deserves to be broken down into individual pieces and examined in depth.

However, it’s been a little over a year, so I guess we were due to get another one of these tantrums from someone with poor reading comprehension. So, let’s take this shit show apart… again.

I am disappointed by how often you excuse and promote misinformation about torture just because “experts” use it.

Even if we ignore the leading tone, we don’t talk about torture very often. From a writing perspective, it’s a somewhat dull subject, and there’s not really that much to say about it. I checked, the last post on torture was in 2019, and the one before that was in 2018. Yeah, I wasn’t joking about this gradually turning into an annual thing.

From an ethical perspective, it’s not much more nuanced. We could spend six paragraphs going over how it’s bad and wrong, but anyone with three functioning brain cells could have told you that, and dedicating 2k words to the subject would be a waste of everyone’s time.

Well, I thought it would be, but every year someone wanders through who doesn’t understand that, and throws a tantrum. So, here we are.

However, I do love this attack on experts. No, wait, that’s the wrong word, I actively hate this kind of willful ignorance. It’s the same thought process that fuels anti-vaxers and flat earthers. “I read it on the internet, I’m an expert now,” used to be a joke, however we live in a world where someone believes they are better suited to discuss torture than people who have actually studied the subject in a professional capacity.

Now, in fairness, I’m coming from reading primary and secondary sources, not from actually torturing people. But, I’ve also got an academic background in history and politics. Short version? This really is my field.

This kind of anti-intellectualism can be harmless in some situations, however when it comes to torture, this simple surface read allows people to sign off on torture. It’s not enough to understand that torture is a bad thing, it’s important to understand what it can and cannot do, because real people in the real world employ torture to further their goals. If you believe torture serves no purpose, you will poorly equipped to understand what they’re doing, and the results they achieve.

You have stated it doesn’t harm torturers much (not true)…

First, I don’t remember saying that. We’ve cited Tony Lagouranis in the past, including his his book Fear Up Harsh. So, if we didn’t talk about the psychological consequences to the torturer, that would be somewhat surprising.

Torturers do suffer some psychological damage. I’m sure we’ve mentioned that before. If it seems like I don’t put a lot of emphasis on it, it’s because, frankly, I don’t really have much sympathy for them.

Second, it’s important to understand that concepts like morality and ethics are heavily based on our cultural backgrounds. The idea that these are universal is an excellent route into xenophobia. However, one thing, I hope most of us can get behind is the idea that torturing someone is evil.

So, the only reason you’d want to really dwell on the psychological damage is because you’re trying to woobify the torturer. Which is fucking repugnant.

You want us to feel sorry for them? You want us to empathize with them? Go fuck yourself.

And before you drag out the, “I was only following orders,” excuse, no. A soldier has a legal obligation to disobey any illegal orders they receive. If someone tells you to break the law and you do it, that was your decision as much as theirs. You are a part of that crime now. The argument wasn’t convincing at the Nuremberg trials, and it’s not convincing now.

…and it can convince people not to oppose your organization (not true).

This one is entirely true. Ultimately, it’s one of the two things that torture does very well. Obviously, if you’re getting tied down to a chair, and having your hands amputated a bone at a time, it’s not going to convince you that you made a mistake. However, it will convince others that, maybe getting involved is a bad idea.

Now, it’s not 100% effective. Not much in life is. But arguing, “torture isn’t effective because it doesn’t convince everyone,” is a bit like arguing that “because seat belts don’t have a 100% survival rate, we shouldn’t wear them.”

The systematic use of torture has severe chilling effects on political activity in a nation. There are significant diminishing returns. As torture becomes more widespread the unrest it causes will eventually start to outweigh the chilling effects.

This dynamic isn’t unique to torture, and most forms of political suppression will foment varying degrees of unrest. This is a problem that most totalitarian regimes face. The more coercive force they exercise, the more the population will become restless. Also worth knowing that this does scale based on the population’s size, so, a massive nation can apply significantly more coercive influence to it’s population without things boiling over.

However, it does suppress politic activity. Which was the entire point of this exercise. Torture as a tool of political oppression is not about the torturer or the victim, it’s about how that threat affects the population’s activities at large. So, yes, being told that if you express your political beliefs you and your family will be disappeared by the state is a huge disincentive to political activity. It works.

In case this is somehow confusing to you, yes, suppressing political speech is a bad thing. It may shock you to realize, some people don’t give a shit. They really do not care about being seen as a good person, and are willing to do things you would find unpalatable. Explaining what they’re doing is not the same as endorsing their actions.

It may be comforting to shove your head in the sand, insist that none of this is real, and angrily lash out at anyone who threatens that fantasy; but this is real, and trying to ignore it empowers those who would use these methods.

You also have many posts against police brutality and many about the price of violence and I wish you would apply that to your torture apology.

So, this might confuse you, but police brutality is torture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cop repeatedly tazing a victim, sodomizing them with a broom handle in a Manhattan precinct house, choking them, or just beating the ever living shit out of them. It’s torture.

But, according to you, we should feel sorry for the cops and the emotional trauma that they suffer, because they got to live out their deranged, fascist fantasies, and it wasn’t as much fun as they expected? No, fuck that.

Ironically, you can actually see the efficacy and limitations of torture as a political deterrent through police brutality. When you see people standing at the sidelines as the cops choke someone to death, that’s the deterrent in full swing. They won’t get involved, they won’t express their opposition, because they know that if they do, they’re next.

So, bystanders pull out their cameras, and the police threaten them with violence. Hell, in some cases, the police outright shoot them, claiming they mistook the camera was a weapon. Camera phones are the line they can’t fully cross. The political activity of witnessing the event and sharing it with the internet allows spreading the unrest generated in the moment to the population at large. It is the point where the use of torture is causing more unrest than the torture is suppressing. As torturers, the police understand that this undermines what they’re doing, but those videos escape beyond their grasp.

You can start by believing victims and prioritizing their accounts instead of un-critically believing torturers.

Ironically, uncritically believing torture victims is one of the amateur mistakes that helps perpetuate the practice. The average person is far too willing to trust statements extracted under duress.

I’ve seen actual academics who willingly accepted confessions extracted under torture by the goddamn Spanish Inquisition at face value. Far too many people are willing to accept statements from torture victims without question.

So, what do you expect to learn from a torture victim? That torture is bad? No shit. You don’t need a living torture victim to realize the practice is vile.

Accepting the statements of a torture victim perpetuate one of the greatest lies about torture: That torture can be used to collect intelligence. It’s a lie told by regimes that that torture serves an intelligence gathering role. It cannot.

However, if you believe that torture serves no purpose, that it has no effect, and that you should accept the statements of torture victims at face value, you have primed yourself to accept false confessions. After all, if torture doesn’t work, “why would they lie about those things they did?”

Transparent lies, like, the ones associated with torture are truly insidious. If you accept the lie that you can collect accurate information from torture, then you will accept information collected via torture. If you believe that torture does nothing, then confessions extracted under torture are still accepted because the torture, “did nothing.”

When someone is torturing you, you will do anything in your power to get them to stop. Torturers, torture victims, and the experts all agree on this. When someone is torturing you, you will say what they tell you to in order to make it stop. This happens without regard for what will come next.

The real apologists here are the ones who say, “torture gets usable intelligence,” and (ironically), the ones who say, “torture does nothing.” The former perpetuate the lie, the latter legitimize the results.

Torture isn’t about getting information, it’s about using force to put words in the victim’s mouth. Saying that it doesn’t achieve that is denying those victims, and ignoring the real evil.

-Starke

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