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When Torture Is (and Isn't) Effective

(This article is the second post in a series of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), we highly recommend it to all our readers.)

Torture, what is it good for?

We haven't written much on torture at On Violence. We have danced around the subject before, discussing the danger in giving our security forces too much power. Our silence on torture could not last forever. The debate over torture has become our nation's great ethical debate in the early 21st century. We must address this issue, because our nation has tortured.

And as much as it pains us to say it, sometimes torture works. Or to put it another way, it can be effective at extracting information in certain circumstances. A prominent portion of the debate over torture has focused on the efficacy of torture: Can reliable information be gleaned? Will people talk? Does it work? Did torture save lives?

The Battle for Algiers helps answer this question. Through systematic detainment and torture, the French military finds, captures and kills every leader of the Algerian group the FLN. The film opens with the image of a beaten, broken Algerian beggar sitting in a tiled room. Fresh from an "enhanced interrogation," he has revealed the location of the remaining leader of the FLN. The French Colonel asks the man to take him there. When the beggar's will wavers for a split moment, the Colonel asks him simply, “Do you want the torture to continue?” The broken man obeys and leads them to the rebel leader. The point is simple: Torture will force men to do things they don’t want to do, and reveal things they don’t want to reveal.

So yes, torture works. Or can work. This is one lesson students of the film, the people who see it at pentagon showings, or counter-insurgents can take from it. But there are three more lessons we all should take from the film, on why torture doesn't work:

1. Torture doesn't work if you have no information to give. Many innocents, swept up at random, are beaten, drowned, and electrocuted all in the hopes of making them talk. The French took the "shotgun approach" if you will. From a coldly rational perspective, this is a waste of resources. From the perspective of a human, this is morally offensive and unjustifiable.

2. Torture doesn't work because it breed ill will. As will discuss later in the week, the French won the battle but lost the war. Though they killed the leaders of the FLN, their methods turned the population against them. Their extreme methods lost the population, as did our early tactics in Iraq.

3. Torture doesn't work because it is morally unjustifiable. A French reporter asks Colonel Matthieu if they torture, and Matthieu says he must to win the war. We say if you have to torture to win, it is a battle not worth winning.

seven comments

First of all, I would like to let you know how much I appreciate your honestly in your postings. That is very nice and many have got the guts to be this honest!

Re your post on torture… well you know it all sounds so simple and most of all so “clean” the way you describe it in your post. As if those performing it would be such sensible, emotionless, straight foreward, sane individuals, that they would delibertely excercise a certain act with the only nobel goal to save mankind.
But that’s not how it happens in the real world.
Those using torture on a routined basis are usually quite sick animals and they’re basically doing it because of some insanity inside of them and the urge to hurt and keep down another human being – not really to extract information.
And also think about how it usually happens, they keep going over and over the same kind of things that they want the victim to admid, whether it’s true or not. They just wanna hear the words, they just wanna be right about their insane imagination. I give you a very typical example: the late husband of a late friend of mine spent something like 15 years in a STASI-jail and they just kept interrogating them because they thought the prisoners had planned to break out. But nobody had ever had such plans. And had the interrogators just opened their eyes they would have seen that everybody was basically dying of TBC or at least far to weak to even think of breaking out, but no they just kept on interrogating and torturing – simply because they were obsessed with certain ideas and they wanted to have them confirmed.

And that’s how it usually works, no matter where in the world you are.

On the other hand there are also situations where even the good guys have to do bad things, you can’t be confronted with an enemy who’s willing to do just anything and then try and play the saint. At some point you might have to use the same language for him to understand you.

As for information: why ask anybody at all? Because usually noboy is going to tell you the truth anyway – simply because the truth is usually to hard to face so if you wanna know the truth, become good at observing and you will even be able to predict the events!

sorry, I meant “many don’t have the guts to be honest…”

Hey Sarah,

There is a lot to address here in your comment, but you bring up a lot of really good points that I would like to address and respond to.

First, on having the “guts to be honest” I appreciate that you say this. I hate torture, and don’t think it ever should be used. But many on the left try to say it is both immoral and ineffective. Many on the right say it is both effective and to some degree moral. I think we believe in the middle ground, it can be effective but isn’t moral. I feel this would make a lot of people unhappy.

On your larger point about the nature of the people who torture, I think it depends. I’ve done a lot of research on torture, and what you describe has occurred and still occurs worldwide. For some countries, torture is used to deter people, to instill fear. Or it can be used to gain false confessions. And I will agree with you that the people who engage in this most brutal, most violent torture (like the rape, genital mutilation, electrocution common in many prisons around the world) are probably to some degree different from the rest of us, just as most people cannot kill, according to David Grossman.

But how many of us wouldn’t beat up a child molester if it meant saving a child’s life? How many would torture him? Extreme hypothetical, but it shows how universal torture can be. And this is a dangerous road to go down. If you separate evil like that, well, it sets up an inevitable logical fallacy in many people’s minds: Only sick, evil people torture. Americans aren’t sick and evil. therefore, we don’t torture.

I cannot myself justify torture, but I can understand that there are people who do support it as a part of our national defense. They support it not because they are villains or deranged but because they believe the result is a hypothetical greater good. It’s justifcation rooted in fear.

Hi Eric, Re “The guts to be honest…” I didn’t only mean that about this particular post. I looked at others as well like “Were you scared” and I meant it in general, because it takes quite a lot to dare and look at yourself and the things that most people just wanna brush off by cracking a couple of jokes.

Or you have the other extreme, those who just feel so terribly, terribly sorry for themself – which also has nothing to do with honesty, just with the lack of “willingness” to take responsibility.

So actually looking at things the way they really are with the intention to get through this is the only way out, but as I said before, no many people have got the courage to set of on a path like that.

You are very right about that there’s a lot that can be said on the subject of torture and related matters – as a matter of fact, I have just written a fiction story about it, stretching over 3 books…!

It is true, I don’t think anybody can actually really “be here” a 100% , “be himself” and pull the trigger – or torture for that matter. It always happens under cercumstances which bring in some kind of a reason as to why it’s okay, or the person is on drugs, or under stress or under the influence of group agreement/-pressure or the person is simple stuck on a painful event of the past. And that’s also why most soldiers just fire in general burst and why it’s hard to “find” good snipers. You have to find a way of justifying that one bullet drilling a hole into the enemy’s scull, once you’ve got him in your crosshairs… and the fact that he’s gonna get you instead – as soon as you’ve missed him…, isn’t always enough reason for everybody.

Re torture, i think I’m gonna try and find some links for you…

Thanks for the nice comments. I think you hit the nail on the head, people have to contextualize and justify violence for themselves, something we want to cover more in the future.

Please send the links you have, I’d love to check them out.

I have just send you an E with the links. They wouldn’t go through here in this commenting space… hope, you’ll get them.
However you can perhaps not answer my mail by pressing “return to sender”, you might have to use this address instead: calec.mg@gmail.com