»  National Review Online

November 16th, 2001

  We Have Ways …


There is a little discussion rumbling on here and there in newspapers and magazines, and very likely in your local bar, about torture. As far as I can tell, it seems to have started with a piece by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post of October 21st: "Silence of 4 Terror Probe Suspects Poses Dilemma for FBI." Of all the hundreds of people rounded up since September 11th, there are apparently four who are of very particular interest to investigators. And guess what: these four aren't saying a word. Bearing in mind the kind of things they might know — another September 11th-type attack, or something even worse — should we torture them?

Here's a real moral dilemma, of a kind we haven't had to think about for … well, several decades. It is not surprising that very few of our opinion-mongers have been willing to commit themselves firmly on it. Jonathan Alter did a good piece in Newsweek (11/5/01). He came down against physical torture, but in favor of certain kinds of psychological torture. The Jordanians, he points out, broke Abu Nidal, the most notorious terrorist of the 1980s, by threatening his family. Someone told me that Alan Dershowitz has done a piece somewhere making some similar argument (if you know the piece, please send it to me). Well, here's my two cents' worth.

I'm against torture. Like Alter, I'll go along with some clever manipulation of a suspect's hopes and fears: but rubber truncheons? electrodes? pliers? razor blades? blocks of ice? Not in my name, no. Am I an absolutist on this? Yes, I am. Let's say we know, beyond reasonable doubt, that a large thermonuclear bomb, disguised as a refrigerator, has been installed on a high floor in a high building in a U.S. city. We don't know anything else — not even which city — but we have a guy in custody who could probably tell us all about it if he chose to. Why would we not use "extraordinary measures" to make him sing? On one side of the scales: a few hours of intense physical pain for a very evil person. On the other: millions of American lives. Why would we not torture the guy? Why is this not, for me, a no-brainer?

The first thing to be said about torture, as a means of discovering facts, was said by Aristotle in Book 1, Chapter 15 of Rhetorica: torture doesn't work very well. Under physical torture, some people will lie; some will say anything to make the pain stop, even just for a while; and a surprising number will refuse to yield. Robert Conquest, in The Great Terror, gives a figure of "one in a hundred" for those who failed to confess under the methods used by Stalin's secret police. However, most of those pulled in by the NKVD were ordinary people guilty of nothing at all. Dedicated resistance workers, fanatical terrorists or revolutionaries would show better stats. In his memoir Nothing to Declare, Taki Theodoracopulos tells the story of a young WW2 Greek resistance fighter named Perrikos, who blew up the German HQ building in Athens on orders from Taki's father. Arrested and tortured to death by the Nazis, Perrikos revealed nothing, claiming to the end that he had acted alone, under no-one's orders. There were many such cases.

There is a certain type of personality that nothing can break. Arthur Koestler gave the following sketch of his friend Alexander Weissberg, one of that "one in a hundred" who survived the NKVD cellars:

What enabled him to hold out where others broke down was a special mixture of just those character traits which survival in such a situation requires. A great physical and mental resilience — that jack-in-the-box quality which allows quick recuperation and apparently endless comebacks, both physical and mental. An extraordinary presence of mind … A certain thick-skinnedness and good-natured insensitivity, coupled with an almost entirely extroverted disposition — notice the absence in Dr. Weissberg's book of any contemplative passage, of any trace of religious or mystic experience which is otherwise almost inevitably present in solitary confinement. An irresponsible optimism and smug complacency in hair-raising situations; that 'it can't happen to me' attitude, which is the most reliable source of courage; and an inexhaustible sense of humor. Finally, that relentless manner of persisting in an argument and continuing it for hours, days or weeks … It drove his inquisitors nuts, as it sometimes had his friends.

Ian Buruma gives some similar pen-portraits in his new book about Chinese dissidents. Chia Thye Poh, for example, was kept in solitary confinement for twenty-six years by the Singapore* authorities for having resigned his seat in parliament to protest the policies of Lee Kuan Yew. In their attempts to get him to sign a confession that he was a communist, which he wasn't, Chia's jailers inflicted on him such peculiarly modern tortures as forcing him to stand naked in a freezing room with the air-conditioning going full blast, and piping loud Muzak into his cell day and night. Chia never cracked. Why not? asked Buruma, at a meeting with Chia. "He was much too polite to say so, but it was clear my question had baffled him. I wished I hadn't asked. 'How could I have signed?' he said, very softly. 'It wasn't true.'"

When you read about what people have endured under torture, you stand amazed at those who can hold out. Mainland-Chinese dissident Liu Qing, jailed for having published transcripts of the "trial" of his friend Wei Jingsheng, was forced to spend four years sitting absolutely still on a tiny stool made of hard rope that cut into his skin. No books, no exercise, no conversation. Four years! Criminal inmates were stationed around him in shifts, to beat him if he moved. Reading this kind of thing, you also find yourself wondering how you yourself would hold up under torture. In a rather sheltered life, I have had only one experience of really intense physical pain, and the memory of it suggests to me that I would probably sing like a canary as soon as they brought the razor blades out. But of course, this is one of those things you cannot know until it happens.

Mere physical pain is, of course, only one weapon in the torturer's armory. A skilful torturer knows how to use the entire range of human responses to stimuli. Disgust, for example: prisoners at the Khmer Rouge facility known as "S-21" were given a spoonful of excrement to eat at suitable points in their interrogation. (Around 14,000 persons went into S-21; just twelve came out alive.) Despair is another ally of the torturer. "Do you think anyone cares you're in here?" he sneers at his victim. "Do you think anyone even knows? The world has forgotten about you!" This is one reason why the work of keeping track of political prisoners and making their cases known is so important — Amnesty International, for all its many faults, has been superb at this. It is also a reason why dictatorships that routinely practice torture should never, never be given any mark of international approval. When Communist China was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics this past July, I could hear, in imagination, the triumphant shouts of the Chinese torturer as his boots went into the prisoner's ribs: "See? They gave us the Olympics! So much they care about you and your kind!"

And then there is love. Above and beyond anything the torturer can inflict on your own poor body and mind, there are the things he can do to people you care about. That was the threat hung over Abu Nidal by the Jordanians. This kind of thing doesn't necessarily stop at threats, though. Roy Medvedev tells us that the Old Bolshevik S.V. Kossior stood up under everything Stalin's men could do to him, but was broken at last when his 16-year-old daughter was brought in and raped in front of him. In another case of that time, a mother and son were separately interrogated and tortured. The son confessed, but the mother did not. She was then confronted with her broken son in a joint interrogation. (She still held out.)

This, gentle reader, is torture. Don't let's kid ourselves that we can pick and choose from the menu. "Yes, we'll beat, but we won't pull out fingernails."… "Yes, OK, we'll pull out fingernails, but we won't rape your children in front of you." Forget it — when you start on the road of torture, there is no end. We beat him: he doesn't talk. We remove his fingernails, and then, for good measure, his toenails: still he won't talk. That nuke is ticking away in a high building, in some American city. The suspect has a 16-year-old daughter: do we send for her?

My answer would be "No!" but I'm under no illusions that this is an easy call. A whole city — perhaps my city — full of American men, women and children, might be saved by one single act of barbarism by a salaried employee of the Federal Government. Why won't I endorse this? I am willing to see the U.S. do things that, in the scale of human suffering, far exceed a mere rape — the bombing of enemy cities, for example. A U.S. bomber pilot is also a salaried employee of Uncle Sam — of me, as a taxpayer — isn't he? If I am willing (and I am) to let him incinerate the helpless citizens of Baghdad or Kabul with bombs, why do I balk at letting FBI agents apply electrodes to a terrorist's eyeballs? Is it because the one thing is done at a distance, while the other is personal? Not at all: I am quite happy for an allied soldier to personally cut the throat of an enemy sentry. Is it because the one thing has some direct and obvious effect, while the other may not have? No: while a prisoner might stay mum under anything I throw at him, surely the chance that he will talk is worth pursuing, in an extreme case like the one I have posed. So … why? Why won't I sanction these extreme methods? Is it because I cling to some quaint vestige of medieval chivalry — " it's not fair"? I don't think so. What's fair or chivalrous about dropping bombs on the schoolchildren of Baghdad?

I'm afraid I'm going to bail out right here. I don't know the answers to the questions I've been posing, though if they come to me I'll write a column about them. I know very well how I feel: Aerial bombing? — yes, even if not very accurate. Torture of prisoners? — no, not even to save a million lives. Some things are just wrong, and the deliberate torture of suspects is wrong, wrong, wrong, in some way that the dropping of bombs on cities is not. (George Orwell: "When someone has dropped a bomb on your mother, there is nothing for it but to go and drop two bombs on his mother.") Look: we shall all die sooner or later. A man is dying in a house across the street from me — in a room I can see from my window as I type. His wife, whom he adored, died two years ago. "Golden lads and girls all must, like chimney sweepers, come to dust." While we live, let's live like human beings, with some dignity, some humanity, some pride, some things we will not do.

* A lot of people will tell you that Singapore is a model of "Asian values," an island of civilization and sanity in the Far East. Many people in mainland China say: "Our aim is to become just like Singapore!" In fact, as Buruma's book makes abundantly clear, Singapore is a vicious little dictatorship run by robbers, thugs and psychopaths.