Bipartisan Myopia About Torture

Sunday’s Washington Post contained a story about how current congressional leaders, who have belatedly criticized the Bush administration for using degrading interrogation techniques tantamount to torture, privately knew about and tacitly approved of those techniques way back in 2002. They had no problem with torture when Bush was still popular. Now, of course, they claim to oppose torture, as the public has become more skeptical about the administration and everything it does. But their opposition only occurred after the use of torture came to light and created the opportunity for partisan political advantage.

The use of torture has caused America considerable damage in its international image, making people other than the usual crop of America haters distrust us, and making it harder for us to get even friendly countries to hand over terrorists to us. As I have noted before, torture usually yields lousy information, since people will say anything, no matter how inaccurate, to make torture stop, and since it encourages sloppy shortcuts in investigations. It also results in the suffering and death of innocent people, and false “orange” alerts based on made-up information.

It is disturbing to realize that in future administrations, torture may well continue, since there is little sincere opposition among politicians to its use, and little understanding about how counterproductive and corrosive torture is to the society that engages in it.

Torture persisted for centuries in Europe as a standard investigative technique, long after eminent scholars logically debunked it and explained how it typically produced worthless results. As John Langbein and others have pointed out, it was just too tempting for investigators to beat or coerce a confession out of someone rather than do the painstaking work of assembling evidence piece by piece. Today, it seems that we have unlearned lessons it took centuries to learn.