For several weeks now, like a lot of people who care about torture, I have been expressing my unhappiness that the plot of the movie Zero Dark Thirty shows information elicited through torture playing an essential role in the tracking down of Osama bin Laden.
People often ask me why I make such a big deal about whether torture worked or not. After all, they point out, even if it does sometimes work, it's still immoral, criminal and ultimately counterproductive.
But the fact that torture does not work speaks very directly to what torture actually is.
When we talk about torture "working" -- in the context of al Qaeda, for instance -- we presumably mean successfully extracting accurate information.
But that's not what torture is about, and never has been. Torture is about power, revenge, rage and cruelty. It's about stripping people of their humanity. Throughout its history, its only reliable byproduct has been false confessions. And that's why torture is almost universally condemned as a human rights violation and the mark of totalitarian regimes that want to control people, not get information.
Indeed, trained interrogators say that if the goal is reliable information, torture is about the worst option. Scientific studies and collective experience have found that, as expert military interrogator Col. Steven Kleinman told the Senate Armed Service Committee in 2008: "the most effective method for consistently eliciting accurate and comprehensive information from even the most defiant individuals -- to include terrorists and insurgents -- [i]s through a patient, systematic and culturally enlightened effort to build an operationally useful relationship."
Professional interrogators use methods that have been proven to work. They do not use guidelines reverse-engineered from training to resist the kinds of methods the Chinese Communists used to extract false confessions from captured U.S. servicemen that they could then use for propaganda during the Korean War.
Trained interrogators, in fact, argue that if some detainees did know about the courier who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader could have been caught much earlier had those detainees been interrogated properly -- not eight years later.
The accomplished Air Force interrogator who goes by the pseudonym Matthew Alexander told me in 2011 that, subjected to physical and psychological brutality, detainees "gave us the bare minimum amount of information they could get away with to get the pain to stop, or to mislead us."
Glenn L. Carle, a retired CIA officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, told me the torturers did the nation a disservice. "By making a detainee less likely to provide information, and making the information he does provide harder to evaluate, they hindered what we needed to accomplish," he said.
And after an examination of millions of pages of evidence, Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders emphatically stated that Zero Dark Thirty is "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama bin Laden."
But back to the original question: Why does it really matter whether torture works or not?
Here's why. The pro-torture argument is simple: The ends justify the means.
That, for instance, is why former President Bush and Vice President Cheney were so intent on persuading Americans that their interrogation policies saved American lives -- although time and again, their examples were debunked. That is why the authors of the administration's torture policy tried to give what they still call "enhanced interrogation techniques" the credit for tracking down bin Laden -- and why they must feel such vindication from the plotline of Zero Dark Thirty.
If torture did work, then we would need to have the argument over whether the ends justify the means. And while I have little doubt how most thoughtful, moral people would come down on that issue, there are a lot of people out there who seem to think force solves every problem.
But if the evidence is overwhelming that torture achieves nothing -- or less than nothing -- then we win the argument by default. If there are no "ends," then their argument is not just wrong, it's flatly irrational, like dividing something by zero.