November 27, 2005


The war in the mind: Psychology and psychiatry have long had an uneasy relationship with the dark art of interrogation. But what, if anything, can psychologists and psychiatrists tell us about the effectiveness, and the effects, of coercive interrogations -- and the moral questions they raise? (Drake Bennett, November 27, 2005, Boston Globe)

There are, [Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at Williams College.] readily concedes, fundamental differences between criminal and military interrogations. The former are meant to elicit confession, the latter to extract information. In both, though, reliability is important, and in both, he argues, coercion leads to unreliable information. ''Everyone has a breaking point. You can certainly get people to talk." But interrogators, he argues, ''are not nearly as good at determining if what they're getting is true or not."

On this last point, Kassin has done the sort of falsifiable, controlled study that is rare in a fraught field like interrogation: He set up an experiment in which college students and police investigators were asked to judge both video- and audiotapes of prison inmates' confessions, some of them false, some true. The police, though more confident in their judgment, did worse than the students, and in some instances did worse than if they had randomly guessed. What that means, Kassin argues, is that the interrogator's gut instinct and hard-earned experience leads, as often as not, to the wrong conclusion.

Kassin and others are also looking at how to design a better interrogation, though most of the research is very new. ''Researchers have been so busy identifying some of the problems with interrogations that the next step, techniques that might produce good information, is only really starting," he says. In one promising study, for example, Par Anders Granhag and Maria Hartwig, psychologists at the University of Gothenberg, have shown how, by strategically holding back key information about the crime in question, interrogators can lower the incidence of false confessions while still trapping guilty suspects.

Such work, researchers hope, might help turn interrogation into a little bit less of a dark art and a little bit more of a science. But in the end, it can't resolve the larger ethical questions about what sort of interrogation methods we should allow and in what setting-and if there is any role for psychiatrists or psychologists in the process.

Easy enough to test the intelligence you extract--if the guy says there's a safe house at location A, go look.

The Truth about Torture: It's time to be honest about doing terrible things. (Charles Krauthammer, 12/05/2005, Weekly Standard)

A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever. People seem to think that the postwar Geneva Conventions were written only to protect detainees. In fact, their deeper purpose was to provide a deterrent to the kind of barbaric treatment of civilians that had become so horribly apparent during the first half of the 20th century, and in particular, during the Second World War. The idea was to deter the abuse of civilians by promising combatants who treated noncombatants well that they themselves would be treated according to a code of dignity if captured--and, crucially, that they would be denied the protections of that code if they broke the laws of war and abused civilians themselves.

Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire. But we don't do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. We don't do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people. And when on rare occasions we fail to do that, as has occurred in several of the fronts of the war on terror, we are duly disgraced.

The norm, however, is how the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo have been treated. We give them three meals a day, superior medical care, and provision to pray five times a day. Our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Korans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners.

Third, there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2005 2:25 PM

"Better a million people die than one man be tortured" probably isn't a good platform for the anti-Bush crowd to run on in the midterm elections.

Posted by: John at November 27, 2005 11:24 PM

Last week you were pissed at The Hammer.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 28, 2005 12:21 AM

turn them over to a crowd of average americans, one by one, and you won't have to wait long for the information (and urine) to start geysering. strange fruit indeed.

Posted by: gen. pinochet at November 29, 2005 1:12 AM