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Does Torture Work?

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Former CIA Director Hayden and Bush's Attorney General Mukasey published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week that argued, in essence, that using torture works.

The fact that they, and former Vice President Cheney, are still making the argument is more than enough reason why President Obama needed to lay bare the "torture memos" that provided both the details and justification for the use of torture during the Bush regime.

As a country, we need to emerge from this debate having placed the argument that "torture works" outside of the boundaries of acceptable political discourse once and for all.

In considering whether "torture works" the first question is: what do we mean by "works"? Torture has been used for centuries to achieve a variety of goals. It has been used to force subjects to tell what they know, to confess to crimes, to renounce their faith.

There is little question that torture gets a response from its victims. That's why its practitioners find it "useful." But that is also what makes its results completely unreliable. It isn't hard for anyone to imagine that they would say pretty much anything to make the pain stop if they believed they were drowning, or if their joints felt they would break after they had hung by their arms for hours, or if they were repeatedly slammed against the wall, or if they had been left naked and shivering for hours in the cold and periodically showered with cold water, or if they had been confined in a small box for hours with insects. All of these were methods approved by the Bush Justice Department.

These are but the latest innovations in the tradition of ingenious, sadistic methods of inflicting pain and psychological torment. Over the centuries, torturers have invented machines like the rack to gradually tear apart people's limbs. They have used rubber hoses to beat the bottom of people's feet to a pulp. They have become adept at removing fingernails, and drilling on teeth without an anesthetic. They have learned to connect the exact amount of electric current a victim's testicles or nipples in order to inflict maximum pain without ultimately killing the subject. And of course there has always been the ever-popular old-fashioned beating. While these were not on the list of approved methods, they differ only modestly from those on the "approved list." All inflict excruciating physical or psychological pain.

It is precisely the fact that torture inflicts pain that makes it hard to believe the results of the intelligence that is gathered, or the truthfulness of a confession, or the sincerity of a renunciation of faith. That's why most professionals who specialize in interrogation reject the reliability of the information gained by torture, and why courts throw out confessions obtained by torture.

That in fact is why we have the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution - to prevent the coerced confessions that were commonplace in 18th Century Europe. Remember, the Fifth Amendment is not just about protecting the rights of the accused. It is also about protecting society from the coerced, false confession that leaves the real criminal on the street.

In fact in Chicago, just a few years ago, a particular police Lieutenant specialized in illegally obtaining false confessions by torture. The emergence of DNA evidence has since proved that many of the convictions resulting from those confessions were wrong - and the real criminals escaped justice.

Hayden and Mukasey would have us believe that only the "bad guys" were subject to torture. But of course we know that wasn't true - that hundreds of innocent people who were rounded up off the streets of Iraq were subject to "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the contractors at Abu Ghraib. We know that many of the detainees shipped to Guantanamo were turned over to our forces by bounty hunters and were innocent of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that didn't stop some of them from being subjected to various forms of "enhanced interrogation."

The fact is that once you go down the slippery slope of tossing aside the law and allowing some people to be tortured, there is nothing to stop each and every one of us from being the subject in the chair with the light glaring down that someone in authority has decided - mistakenly or not - is a "security risk."

There is only one thing that we know about torture that works for certain: torture debases us. It doesn't just debase its victims or those who perpetrate it. It debases all of us in whose name it is conducted. It debases us to others in the world - who lose respect for our values and grow to hate our society. But just as importantly, it debases us to ourselves. It debases our self-respect and our respect for the institutions that make us civilized human beings.

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean American writer and professor at Duke University. He is also author of Death and the Maiden. He also became an expert on torture. In the fall of 2006 he published a remarkable op-ed in the Washington Post.

It still haunts me, the first time - it was in Chile, in October 1973 - that I met someone who'd been tortured. To save my life, I had sought refuge in the Argentine Embassy some weeks after the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, a government for which I had worked. And then, suddenly, one afternoon, there he was. A large-boned man, gaunt and yet strangely flabby, with eyes like a child, eyes that could not stop blinking and a body that could not stop shivering.

That is what stays with me - that he was cold under the balmy afternoon sun of Santiago de Chile, trembling as though he would never be warm again, as though the electric current was still coursing through him. Still possessed, somehow still inhabited by his captors, still imprisoned in that cell and the National Stadium, his hands disobeying the orders from his brain to quell the shuddering, his body unable to forget what had been done to it just as, nearly 33 years later, I, too, cannot banish that devastated life from my memory.

It was his image, in fact, that swirled up from the past as I pondered the current political debate in the United States about the practicality of torture. Something in me must have needed to resurrect the victim, force my fellow citizens here to spend a few minutes with the eternal iciness that had settled into the man's heart and flesh, and demand that they take a good hard look at him before anyone dare maintain that, to save lives, it might be necessary to inflict unbearable pain on a fellow human being. Perhaps the optimist in me hoped that this damaged Argentine man could, all these decades later, help shatter the perverse innocence of contemporary Americans, just as he had burst the bubble of ignorance protecting the young Chilean I used to be, someone who back then had encountered torture mainly through books and movies and newspaper reports.

That is not, however, the only lesson that today's ruthless world can teach from the distant man condemned to shiver forever.

All those years ago, that torture victim kept moving his lips, trying to articulate an explanation, muttering the same words over and over. "It was a mistake," he repeated, and in the next few days I pieced together his sad and foolish tale. He was an Argentine revolutionary who fled his homeland and, as soon as he crossed the mountains into Chile, had begun to boast about what he would do to the military there if it staged a coup, about his expertise with arms of every sort, about his colossal stash of weapons. Bluster and braggadocio - and every word of it false.

But how could he convince those men who were beating him, hooking his penis to electric wires and waterboarding him? How could he prove to them that he had been lying, prancing in front of his Chilean comrades, just trying to impress the ladies with his fraudulent insurgent persona?

Of course, he couldn't. He confessed to anything and everything they wanted to drag from his hoarse, howling throat; he invented accomplices and addresses and culprits; and then, when it became apparent that all this was imaginary, he said he was subjected to further ordeals.

There was no escape.

That is the hideous predicament of the torture victim. It was always the same story, what I discovered in the ensuing years, as I became an unwilling expert on all manner of torments and degradations; my life and my writing overflowing with grief from every continent. Each of those mutilated spines and fractured lives - Chinese, Guatemalan, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Uzbek, need I go on? - all of them, men and women alike, surrendered the same story of essential asymmetry, where one man has all the power in the world and the other has nothing but pain, where one man can decree death at the flick of a wrist and the other can only pray that the wrist will be flicked soon.

It is a story that our species has listened to with mounting revulsion, a horror that has led almost every nation to sign treaties over the past decades declaring these abominations as crimes against humanity, transgressions interdicted all across the earth. That is the wisdom, national and international, it has taken us thousands of years of tribulation and shame to achieve. That is the wisdom we are being asked to throw away when we formulate the question - does torture work? - when we allow ourselves to ask whether we can afford to outlaw torture if we want to defeat terrorism.

I will leave others to claim that torture, in fact, does not work, that confessions obtained under duress - such as that extracted from the heaving body of that poor Argentine braggart in some Santiago cesspool in 1973 - are useless. Or to contend that the United States had better not do that to anyone in our custody lest someday another nation or entity or group decides to treat our prisoners the same way.

I find these arguments - and there are many more - to be irrefutable. But I cannot bring myself to use them, for fear of honoring the debate by participating in it.

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America? Have we so lost our bearings that we do not realize that each of us could be the hapless Argentine who sat under the Santiago's sun, so possessed by the evil done to him that he could not stop shivering ? *

* Ariel Dorfman, Washington Post National Weekly Edition, October 28, 2006

Robert Creamer is a long time political organizer and strategist and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.