24 Is Not Real

Responding to Andrew Sullivan responding to him on the issue of torture, Reuel Marc Gerecht writes:

I take it from your post that if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation’s security, you would not have used any physically coercive techniques against the gentleman? 

This is the “24 scenario,” and it’s why I both refuse to watch a second of the show and think it’s done great, perhaps irrevocable, harm to our nation. Put simply, in 24 Jack Bauer can capture someone who knows something beat the information out of them, and go on to be the hero who saves the day. But he can do that because it’s a scripted work of fiction. Superman can fly in comic books, movies, and on television, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone go jump of the Empire State Building because Superman flies on teevee.

Similarly, real life doesn’t work quite so well as the scripted world of 24. And you can see that in the essence of Gerecht’s framing; the entire premise is predicated on knowing things. You know an attack is imminent. You know the person you’re interrogating knows something about it. And, presumably, you know how to differentiate between good information and bad information.

And in this vein, I think the people who have been pushing back against torture the most have really taken the wrong path. Yes it’s a great moral evil, and yes that ought to be enough, but in the aggregate it’s also just bad policy. I mean, imagine you’re torturing someone who really doesn’t know anything about what you’re interrogating for. He keeps telling you he doesn’t know anything, but you keep on torturing him. How exactly does this end? Is the interrogator just supposed to magically know where the point at which he must be telling the truth comes? What if he does the logical thing and responds to the increasing or enduring torture in response to truthful answers by making something up because he thinks you want to hear it? Do we go out and act on that erroneous information, or do we imagine that our interrogators will just know he’s lying? If it’s the latter, doesn’t that sort of negate the utility of torturing?

But even presuming that the subject really does know something, and that we do know this, how are we supposed to figure out what information is good? Using Gerecht’s scenario, imagine we had Abu Zabaydah on September 7th, tortured him, and he’d told us there was going to be a terrorist attack on September 11th in which a Penske truck full of explosives would be detonated  in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel. Would we have acted on that information, and if we did how would that have prevented the 9/11 attacks? Or, in that vein, what if he told us exactly what was going to happen on 9/11, but the interrogator dismissed it as far too fanciful and continued to torture him looking for the “real” plot?

All of which is to say that torture isn’t simply a moral evil, it’s very bad policy that can’t be expected to yield good information on a regular basis. Just because it works on teevee doesn’t mean it will work in the real world.

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