Sometime before the new year, Congress released its report on torture and the CIA. Charles Krauthammer wrote a column defending the CIA because “their methods had kept up safe.” I wrote a letter to the Chronicle pointing out that this point of view was rife with logical fallacies. At this point, it would make little sense for me to comment on a four month old story that I had already commented on in another forum, but the story only begins there. Apparently, someone didn’t like my comments. As someone that has written for a number of sites and publications, this isn’t a new phenomenon. I pride myself on being reasonable, but I also tend towards the sarcasm, so it is natural that I would draw someone’s ire.
What isn’t natural is that instead of writing a letter to the editor and calling me out there, an individual who shall remain nameless (primarily because they left no name) decided to write a letter and mail it to my home. The problem is that we are not listed in the phone book. They looked up Barzilla in the phone book and mailed it to the closest one they could find. That turned out to be my cousin. We got a good laugh about it after the fact, but they were understandably concerned. I politely pointed out that I’ve gotten worse comments online. It’s a nature of the business I suppose.
This all got started when I adopted a common retort to Krauthammer’s fallacy. I said that there had been no bear attacks at my house, so obviously CIA torture was responsible for that as well. In retrospect, I suppose it could appear as if I was dissing the CIA and all they do to keep us safe. So, since I have more space here than I had in the Chronicle I figured it was a good time to flush this analogy out so that everyone completely understands its use. Clearly, I am not the first person to use this analogy and I will not be the last. People will substitute bears with something else, but its meaning is clearly the same.
The idea that the CIA used torture to protect us from terror attacks fails on two different levels. The most basic level is that the absence of terror attacks is not proof of anything other than that there have been no successful terror attacks. After all, there had been no successful terror attacks on the level of 9/11 until 2001. Presumably, we had gotten there without the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques.” So, it follows that their use would not necessarily have anything to do with preventing attacks after that point. We could have avoided terror attacks because none were attempted. We could have avoided terror attacks because their attempts were poorly executed. The CIA (or other government agencies) may have legitimately thwarted any attacks through other means. All of those possibilities are just as likely (or perhaps more likely) than success due to torture.
The second problem with the analogy is that it assumes that torture is even an effective deterrent to terror. When we make that assumption, the phony choice is clear to see. If we catch would be terrorists then torture is the best/only way to get the information we need to prevent future attacks. This is the crux of the argument for neocons. If you are against torture (enhanced interrogation techniques) then you are against keeping America safe. This is how elections have been won and lost. They’ve been won on a false choice. So, those of us that are against torture are accused of hypocrisy. Obviously, if our lives were in danger we would be in favor of torture. We’d want them to do everything in their power to find out the truth. On a very basic level, that seems reasonable. The trouble is that it is never that simple.
Let’s ignore the obvious moral/ethical considerations and get down to brass tax. Those same reports on CIA torture also showed that the quality of intelligence that we got from torture was lacking. In plain English, that means that if I were being threatened with bodily harm or death I am going to tell you what you want to hear. I tell you whatever I need to tell you to make the torture stop. That might be the actual truth or the truth that you came in believing. Maybe you want to hear that Saddam Hussein is the enemy, that he has weapons of mass destruction, and that he has been harboring terrorists. If that gets you to stop water boarding me then so be it.
Thus, the biggest argument against torture is that it doesn’t work. It sure makes life easier when you can simply claim that progressives aren’t tough enough to keep America safe. It sounds good and feeds that beast. The truth is a little less convenient. We need the CIA and other agencies to keep America safe from enemies foreign and domestic. Most of us are big boys and girls and know they have to do some things that might offend our delicate sensibilities. That is primarily because some of us would keep us bogged down in moral quagmires over methods that are usually successful. Torture isn’t successful. It’s morally wrong and it’s ineffective. If it were effective then we’d have an entirely different discussion on our hands. So, the narrative that torture somehow prevented future terror attacks is a false narrative designed to make those of us that oppose torture look like a bunch of 90 pound weaklings. Either the CIA had no impact on the lack of terror attacks at all or were successful in spite of their interrogation tactics. So, in the next election cycle, please don’t let the neocons tell you that opposing torture makes us unsafe or weak.