Diagram of stress positions, from a US military handbook for interrogators.

A day after reading a very disheartening Religious News Service story about how nearly two-thirds of Americans support torture, I was given fresh hope when I listened to NPR’s incomparable Terry Gross speaking with an American former interogator who worked in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Eric Fair worked for a private contractor employed by the US military as an interrogator in Iraq.  A former soldier, his knowledge of Arabic qualified him for the work, though he admits there were times when he was reliant on translators to understand what the prisoners were saying.   He has just published Consequence: A Memoir, which has been well reviewed by the New York Times.

Eric Fair

In the interview, Fair sounds like a man who has been psychically and morally injured by torturing others, and he is very clear that how whatever  linguistically disguises we may give it, like enhanced interrogation, torture is torture.  While he is willing to give his fellow interrogators credit for sincerely believing that their work may have saved American lives, that motive for him, loking back, is not sufficiently exculpatory (setting aside the important point that torture does not work).  He writes:

I refuse to suggest that torture is successful on any level. And I’m not sure that it matters; it shouldn’t matter to anyone in this country. I’m not sure why we’ve gotten to this point where we start to talk about the effectiveness of torture, as if that makes any difference whatsoever.

Torture is wrong. Americans, all Americans, should know better. That’s what makes us attractive; what makes us attractive is the way we do things, it’s the example that we set. What makes us attractive is not how tough we are or how good we are at extracting information, and anyone who thinks that way I think fails to understand what this country is about. So I’ve left that discussion about whether or not torture is effective or not behind. It simply doesn’t matter.

At a time when a Reuters and Ipsos poll finds 63 per cent of Americans (and 82% of Republicans)  believing that toture is jsutified if it can “obtain information about terrorism activities”, Fair’s voice is honest and important.  I’ll review his book here in the near future.

0 Responses

  1. I have to disagree there, Padre. Torture works fine, just not for the things we want to use it for.
    Two use-cases:
    1, extracting information. You need to know what information you want and you need to be able to verify that information. Classic is ticking bomb. We ask, we get a location, we check that location. Asking "Who helped do this?" on the other hand is worthless. We must always remember that the victims does not tell the truth, he tells you whatever he thinks will make the pain stop.

    2, terror. If it is not really about getting information, just about scaring the shit out of people, it works great. Ask Khaddaffi, Hussein, Assad and a bunch of others who had it down to an art. They only lost the grip on the population because outsiders intervened.

    For my own part, I think torture is morally wrong, a crime against humanity and if there is a hell, you go there for doing it…and I'd still do it if it meant stopping the next Bataclan.

  2. Thanks for this heartfelt response, Thomas.
    At the risk of alientating one my few readers, I will push back a bit. The problem with the ticking bomb defence of toture bomb defence of toture lies in its scalability. Sure, it looks good on 24 when Jack Bauer has to beat the shit out of Terror Dude to save New York from the nuke. Saving millions of lives through torture? Great deal. But what how many lives have to be saved to justify torture? Where's the cutoff? If it's a guy planting IEDs by the side of the road and you can save four soldiers in a truck? Or two? Why not torture him? Lives are lives, after all. And what about if it's another guy who might know where the bomber might be? Can you torture him? Why not? And then you're at the point where you have a 24/7 interrogration/torture shop going and people are saying whatever they think you want them to say.

    AS for your point 2, your country's neighbours had experience of those sorts of regimes – Denmark ad Norway w the Nazis, the Balts w the Soviets. I think Fair's point is, do we really want the US to be feared and hated? Because that worked so 1well for ancient Rome, and for the Third Reich.

    As for your last point, I hear you, to be sure. But substitute 'the guy who wants to rape my wife' for 'the next Bataclan' and you're back to the problem of scalability.