2003 October 07 Tuesday
Mark Bowden On Coercive Interrogation And Torture

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down has written an article about coercion and torture in interrogation in The Atlantic Monthly which is not on-line. But he did an interview about the article which is on-line. Bowden thinks coercion is necessary in interrogation in some situations.

You conclude that "coercion should be banned but also quietly practiced," because legalized coercion, even when closely regulated, is the ultimate "slippery slope." Yet if coercion is officially banned, how will Americans come to a consensus about what kind of coercion is and isn't appropriate? It's hard to have a debate about something that officially doesn't happen.

Well, I think that part of the strategy here of the current Administration is not to have a debate on itónot to talk about it. And that's actually a very smart way of handling this. Because this is a realm where a certain amount of two-facedness is called for, unfortunately. I believe that it would be wrong to license all coercion, but by the same token, I believe that it would wrong not to practice it in certain cases. So I agree with Jessica Montell, the very articulate activist I interviewed in Israel, in saying that if the law bans torture, at least those people who are practicing coercion have to face the possibility of being held accountable for their actions. The law acts as a constraint on the use of coercion. But it's also unrealistic under the present circumstances to conclude that anybody is ever going to be brought to justice for violating the spirit of international agreements against torture.

I don't agree with his formulation of how coercive interrogation should be regulated. Interrogators should not have to put themselves legally at risk so that we can derive security benefits from what they learn from interrogation. It seems quite unfair to expect them to do this. It also seems counterproductive. The best interrogators in what is, by Bowden's own admission, basically more an art than a science, shouldn't be discouraged from practicing their craft because the public at large is whimsical and could decide to punish them once the public feels safe again. The public does not deserve to take no risks of its own while forcing those who defend the public safety to place themselves in a position of being punished at some time in the future after the benefits have been gained and the public is feeling more morally self-righteous and less fearful.

The public shouldn't be allowed to morally have it both ways. Ditto for leaders. This is corrupting and unfair to those who protect us and dishonors them.

The interview is worth reading in full.

Update: Bowden's October 2003 Atlantic article on interrogation and torture is available on the web.

We hear a lot these days about America's over powering military technology; about the professionalism of its warriors; about the sophistication of its weaponry, eavesdropping, and telemetry; but right now the most vital weapon in its arsenal may well be the art of interrogation. To counter an enemy who relies on stealth and surprise, the most valuable tool is information, and often the only source of that information is the enemy himself. Men like Sheikh Mohammed who have been taken alive in this war are classic candidates for the most cunning practices of this dark art.

Bowden has another essay which is on whether there are circumstances when torture is justified.

Zubaydah's is a much rarer case. With him, we are talking about using torture to extract valuable, lifesaving information. Here's how Michael Levin, a philosophy professor at City College in New York, makes the argument: Suppose a nuclear device is about to be detonated in a large city. A captured terrorist has information that can prevent this, but he refuses to divulge it. Can we torture him to learn what he knows? Levin argues that under these circumstances, it would be "morally mandatory."

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 October 07 01:25 AM  Terrorists Western Response

clive baker said at May 14, 2005 4:29 PM:

Yes, morally mandatory. But not for release to the press! And no pictures - remember Abu Ghraib (sadly, our enemies won't forget).

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