Home > Economics - General > Quick update on torture

Quick update on torture

May 4th, 2011

In my post on bin Laden’s death, I noted the spin in a New York Times story suggesting that torture had helped to extract the clues leading to bin Laden’s location, even though the facts reported suggested the opposite. This analysis, also in the NYT, confirms both the spinning and the fact that the evidence produced under brutal torture was deliberately misleading. Given the failure of the Bush Administration to get anywhere near bin Laden, it seems likely that they were in fact misled, deluded by the ancient belief that evidence extracted under torture is the most reliable kind.

It’s noteworthy that the URL for the story is “torture”, but the article itself doesn’t adopt that description and doesn’t even use the word until well after the lede.

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  1. Sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:24 | #1

    All true. However, would you go so far as to say torture is never under any circumstances justifiable? How do you respond to the “ticking timebomb” scenario (regardless of how rarely this actually arises in real life)?

  2. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:39 | #2


    Yeah, I agree with you Sam. You don’t need any evidence to support torture. All you need to say is that you can’t prove that it wouldn’t work sometime, ever. And don’t forget how it cleared Europe and America of witches!

  3. Sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:51 | #3

    What do you mean by the word “support?” There is a difference between saying “torture should be used routinely ,” and “there are imaginable situations where torture is morally necessary.” Evidence that it usually doesn’t work can be used to dismiss the first statement, not so the second.

  4. May 4th, 2011 at 14:56 | #4

    I’ve tried torture. It works. It is quicker & more effective than sitting around asking questions politely.
    Sometimes people give fake answers under torture. However it is no surprise that interrogatees will readily lie when asked polite questions accross an interview table.
    Even in a polite “civilised” setting, fear of being tortured if caught in a lie will often lead to more forthright answers.

  5. Freelander
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:57 | #5


    I’m with you Sam. I don’t really support it. I just think it is completely justifiable and should be reintroduced immediately.

  6. Hal9000
    May 4th, 2011 at 14:59 | #6

    You’re a man out of his time, SATP. The development of civilisation since the Renaissance seems to have passed you by…

  7. sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 15:18 | #7

    Ok. Thats quite clearly not what i said.

  8. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 15:47 | #8

    Sam – Torture may have moral justification in the ticking time bomb example but the evidence of efficacy is too weak, and the consequences too horrid to warrant institutionalisation of torture. Torture should be illegal and those that engage in it should answer to a judge. That does not mean you should never torture people it just means it should not be lawful to do so.

  9. Nick R
    May 4th, 2011 at 15:48 | #9

    Whether torture is ever acceptable is an interesting topic. The best argument that I have heard is that the ‘ticking time bomb’ argument is valid, but the scenario is so contrived and unlikely that it should have negligible influence over lawmaking.

    I remember seeing a U.S. academic on Lateline years ago arguing for the legalization of torture. He himself claimed to be morally opposed to it in all forms, however it tends to go ahead whether we want it to or not, and if it is legalized then we may get some control over it.

  10. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 15:51 | #10

    The exjudicial assassination of individuals should also be illegal outside the theatre of war. That the US did not follow proper constitutional protocol in declaring war on Al Quaeda is of ongoing concern. However I doubt the President will be impeached for having OBL bumped off.

  11. sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:21 | #11

    Sam Harris has this characteristically provocative piece. http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/why-id-rather-not-speak-about-torture1/

    TerjeP, should a judge convict you if you commit torture in a ticking timebomb scenario?

  12. John Quiggin
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:23 | #12

    I dealt with the ticking bomb problem years ago, and even found a real-life example, though it may be lost to linkrot.

  13. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:26 | #13

    Sam – actually it would probably be a jury not a judge. And if we could answer such questions once and for all then we would not need juries or judges. However reality is usually not so neat. In any case I think the real issue is more around sentencing.

  14. sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:34 | #14

    @John Quiggin
    It wasn’t lost to linkrot. In such a case, I sincerely hope every police officer in the department chipped in to help him pay the fine.

  15. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:40 | #15

    Sam – the following case is interesting. In it the threat of torture was effective in locating a kidnapped child although he was unfortunately already dead. The police involved suffered sanctions but they probably did the right thing.


    People should not let the law stop them doing the right thing.

  16. sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 16:52 | #16

    Yes, it is interesting. Coincidentally, this was the same story JQ linked to. Hence my comment about chipping in for the fine. I think a law that punishes people for doing the right thing is a bad law, and one that should be ammended with an escape clause or something.

  17. TerjeP
    May 4th, 2011 at 17:47 | #17

    So you don’t think tax dodgers should be fined. :-)

  18. Ikonoclast
    May 4th, 2011 at 17:59 | #18

    Arguing artificial hypotheticals is completely beside the point. There are crucially serious real world issues involved here. The clear facts are that the way the USA, and not only the USA, has acted (with renditions, murders, tortures, extra-territorial prisons and black prisons) is illegal, immoral and fully equivalent (in those specific regards) to the actions of a fascist state.

    The very fact that people think they can isolate and argue the torture issue with apparent earnestness and attention to niceties of situation and definition, illustrates that they have completely lost perspective on the real world picture. A form of insiduous morality drift has occurred, a nasty brutalisation of public perception and debate. The real question is not whether torture is ever moral or not. The real question is whether nations like the USA and many others can retreat from the self-deceptive web of rationalisations and brutalisations which is pushing the whole world into a self-destructive fascist abyss.

  19. sam
    May 4th, 2011 at 18:12 | #19

    I wouldn’t if I thought taxes were immoral :)

  20. Jarrah
    May 4th, 2011 at 18:17 | #20

    Terje, as he often does, has it exactly right. About torture, not tax dodgers :-)

  21. Donald Oats
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:06 | #21

    In fact, if you don’t torture, how can you know for certain that there isn’t a ticking bomb?

    On a slightly different note, I wonder how long it will be before claims that OBL was in fact captured alive and is now in custody, awaiting some enhanced interrogation techniques? The nutters are out there.

  22. Donald Oats
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:09 | #22

    Donald is being somewhat cynical, just to clarify.

  23. Alice
    May 4th, 2011 at 20:53 | #23

    terje says “People should not let the law stop them doing the right thing.”

    So does that mean you agree that Blankein should succumb to mob justice…maybe you are right Terje ( but even I wouldnt agree with you comment notwithstanding the extent of sense of injustice with Blankfein getting away).

  24. Ikonoclast
  25. TerjeP
    May 5th, 2011 at 03:55 | #25

    Alice – you’re cranky with Blankfein for bankrolling Obama. Am I getting warm. Maybe not.

  26. Freelander
    May 5th, 2011 at 06:57 | #26

    No Picture.

    Obama says: “Trust me.”

  27. Freelander
    May 5th, 2011 at 07:01 | #27

    Hey. Maybe its time to give Obama another Peace Prize?

    After all, he missed out last year.

  28. Alice
    May 5th, 2011 at 08:32 | #28

    Lukewarm Terje. People who bankroll the people we vote for so that they can come knocking for their kickbacks later leave me cold no matter which politician benefits. Does that mean I want to get rid of politicians Terje? No because then we would be ruled by the bankrollers and if you think that would be kinder to average Joe, you must be dreaming Terje.

  29. Ikonoclast
    May 5th, 2011 at 09:31 | #29

    I appear to have been blocked. Perhaps my link was too long. I will leave the link out.

    Torture is always wrong. If you make a general “ticking bomb” case for official, state sanctioned, sate run torture you are saying (for example) you would have seen it as acceptable for Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi to have been tortured.

    I would also remind people writing on this blog that Australia is a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, albeit the Howard and Rudd governments appear to have failed to act legislatively as of 20 April 2009.

    (Link ommitted)

    Notwithstanding the above, standard criminal law in all states covers all the actions that could constitute torture, or in part, comprise torture. The offences include, for example, murder, manslaughter, wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent, assault, kidnapping and child abduction. The list (depending on the state) also includes many narrower offences such as discharging a firearm with intent, causing bodily injury by gunpowder, not providing a wife or child with proper food and care, and setting traps to name some examples. Criminal law gives coverage in Australia and child laws for example can cover offences committed against children by Australian citizens outside Australia . I have cut out reference to some specific offence words which would invoke automatic moderation.

    You cannot validly opine about “idealised” ticking bomb cases in isolation of the comprehensive political and social reality of what happens when extra-legal actions or even legalised tortures are implemented by a nation state. That comprehensive political and social reality is that any state embarking on engineering extra-legal apparatus or legalising torture and like actions, is a state embarking on a totalitarian project.

    Again, as I said, the very fact that people are debating this seriously illustrates how far down the dangerous slippery slope certain nations have slipped into incipient fascism.

  30. Alice
    May 5th, 2011 at 09:46 | #30

    @Donald Oats
    The nutters in the US will be out soon (they drink way too much green tea) and will be saying as a result of DNA testing…Osama and Obama are genetically related and that Obama is really not a US citizen. Lets go the whole fruit loop denialists road…Osama is actually still alive, clean shaven and is now impersonating Obama.

  31. Ikonoclast
    May 5th, 2011 at 09:47 | #31


    Torture is always wrong and it doesn’t work as well as interrogation without torture. There is plenty of evidence on this. Hope this link works.


  32. Sam
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:00 | #32

    “If you make a general “ticking bomb” case for official, state sanctioned, sate run torture you are saying (for example) you would have seen it as acceptable for Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi to have been tortured.”

    No you’re not. That doesn’t logically follow at all.

  33. TerjeP
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:17 | #33

    The list (depending on the state) also includes many narrower offences such as discharging a firearm with intent, causing bodily injury by gunpowder, not providing a wife or child with proper food and care, and setting traps to name some examples.

    I see that neglecting your husband is still acceptable.

  34. Ikonoclast
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:25 | #34


    It does logically follow. You don’t know enough history. The ANC had a bombing campaign.

    “Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), translated “Spear of the Nation,” was the the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) which fought against the South African apartheid government.[1] MK launched its first guerrilla attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. It was subsequently classified as a terrorist organization by the South African government and the United States, and banned.” – Wikipedia.

    “According to Nelson Mandela, all of the founding members of the MK, including himself, were also members of the ANC. In his famous “I am prepared to die” speech, Mandela outlined the motivations which led to the formation of the MK:

    “Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.”" – Wikipedia.

    When Nelson Mandela was first arrested he could reasonably have been suspected (by the standards of the S.Af. Police) to have knowledge of the MK bombing and military actions camapaign. Therefore, by your lights, as a supporter of torture, he could have been tortured to elicit information.

    You see you need to be careful once you start advocating certain policies. The historical company you end up in and the untenable nature of your position become patently clear very quickly.

  35. Ikonoclast
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:30 | #35


    It was a short list I copied from a website. I left that item in (from N.S.W.) for its humour and curiosity value. As the list is not comprehensive, we cannot assume there is not a “neglect of husband” law on the books somewhere. Actually, I suspect there probably are some anachronistic laws of that nature on some statute books, possibly dealing with the husband’s supposed connubial rights.

  36. Freelander
    May 5th, 2011 at 10:36 | #36


    Also, in the 1930s Churchill equated Gandhi with Hitler. As far as he was concern they were the two public enemies. Of course, Churchill had more in common with one than the other.

  37. Sam
    May 5th, 2011 at 11:30 | #37

    I know my history. I say you are misapplying logic. The idealized “ticking bomb” scenario has several features.

    1) Virtual certainty that without the possession of critical information, innocent people will die in a specific event at a precise time in the very near future.
    2) Virtual certainty that a person in one’s custody has conspired to bring about the present situation, and possesses the required information to stop it.
    3) All other known methods to extract the information have failed.
    4) Virtual certainty that the person will give up the information under torture.

    This situation never arose in the case of Gandhi or Mandela. Much, much weaker versions of some of these four requirements may have been present. It is logically possible to advocate torture in the idealised case, and not in your historical cases. Similarly, it is possible to advocate drinking one’s own urine when one is lost in a desert, without marketing it as a commercial beveridge.

  38. may
    May 5th, 2011 at 12:20 | #38

    @Steve at the Pub

    you have tried it on somebody else?

    who? when? how? why? where?on your own or were there others?

    did they sign any thing? or were they unable to hold a pen so a thumb print was deemed acceptable?

    has any one tried it on you?

    what would you sign/say to get them to stop?

    this time it’s different?
    the term fifth column,spies in the ranks etc,was used at another time that was just as,if not more fraught than this.

    this time it’s different.

    saying you had to be there doesn’t mean much.

    bring to trial if possible,martyrdom happens for the passionately devoted believers anyway.
    seeing him live to stand in the dock means he didn’t get to die his way out.

  39. Ikonoclast
    May 5th, 2011 at 12:33 | #39


    Let it never be said that I never change my mind after argument. You certainly have an ostensible case in saying I am misapplying logic given the strict idealized “ticking bomb” scenario you specify. However, I still have trouble, though perhaps not insurmountable trouble, with the scenario.

    Up front, I would say such a strict definition should and could never be used to justify torture as a general policy. As a concession, I would say that you don’t need clause 4. Clauses 1,2 and 3 would be strong enough if tightly defined by extensive legal definitions. I would suggest that only the Prime Minister, Head of the Armed Forces, Head of AFP, a Chief Justice, or ranking officer in the field (only when strictly necessary) could make the call. A feature would be that specified legal witnesses ought to be present where possible and that a Full Royal Commission in due course would always follow any invocation of the law. Further, the “ticking bomb” event must be one considered likely to cause major loss of life. Definitions would be tricky.

    A quick litmus test would be “would Muhamed Haneef have been tortured under such a law?” If the answer is yes, you have framed the law way too laxly. Sadly, such an ugly law might have to spell out permitted and unpermitted tortures. Imagine how bad such a law would look on paper.

    I would still have a distinctly uneasy feeling about a law like this even if so tightly defined. On the other hand, if the ticking bomb is a truck load of high explosives or worse yet a nuclear device then it shows the dilemma is real.

  40. may
    May 5th, 2011 at 12:39 | #40

    but he did die his way out so the question of a trial is moot.

  41. sam
    May 5th, 2011 at 14:32 | #41

    “Let it never be said that I never change my mind after argument.”

    Certainly not. I really admire your flexibility. I myself find it very psychologically difficult to reverse an entrenched philosophical position in the face of a good argument.

  42. Donald Oats
    May 5th, 2011 at 18:06 | #42

    Torture defiles us all. If a ticking bomb scenaro presented itstelf, then it is with deep regret that torture is performed. Damn bummer if the information is faulty and you don’t have the right suspects. Anyway, although I’m not privvy to the info or who was subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, the vast elapse of time from the point of capture to acting on the information obtained by duress leads me to the conclusion that the claim is rubbish. The Republicans and some ex-SEAL personnel are claiming that someone locked up for several years in Gitmo, Egypt, and other hell-holes is privvy to the current where-abouts of OBL? Even after several years of isolatiion? You’ve got to be kidding.

    In fact, the flip-side to this is even more perverse: are we to believe that shortly after their capture, these would-be terrorists revealed vital information on the where-abouts of Osama bin Laden, and then, the USA chose not to act on the intell for – you know, like – half a decade or more? Would that make any more sense? I think not.

    Either way, the torture works well claim is specious, or at best not well founded for the evidence is very weak that any good intel was provided in a timely manner.

    PS: Anyone seen the film “Five Fingers”? *Ouch!*

  43. Alice
    May 5th, 2011 at 19:03 | #43

    Terje says “I see that neglecting your husband is still acceptable.”

    Terje, neglecting your husband is an important self correcting household device and an entirely natural part of the economy, yet only available to the gentler sex. Without it, equilibrium in the household cannot be reached, as you men might charge off on in search of your own egostistical adventures at the expense of many women and children.

    Much like the automatic stabilisers it can only moderate, but not remove entirely the damage men and their egos are capable of doing when they are marginally attached to a household.

    There is nothing quite like a little mild judicious neglect to make a man wonder what he has done wrong and womne know it.

  44. May 5th, 2011 at 22:43 | #44

    There is nothing like a little mild judicious neglect to make a man decide the convivial atmosphere of the pub is beckoning him, & there is no point coming home before closing time!

  45. Alice
    May 6th, 2011 at 06:51 | #45

    @Steve at the Pub
    So it can hardly be described as torture then.

  46. Freelander
    May 6th, 2011 at 11:32 | #46

    Great to find out, in the latest iteration toward the truth, that the body armoured armed to the teeth SEALs went on a murderous rampage killing the unarmed left, right and centre. I imagine the SEAL who mercifully only shot bin Laden’s wife in the leg was duly punished when they returned to base.

  47. May 6th, 2011 at 13:04 | #47

    Freelander is unhinged.

    Alice, far from torture, being ignored/neglected by their wife is downright welcomed by some blokes. “At least I don’t have to listen to the cow’s screeching voice any more, line ‘em up again luv”
    Rather OT though.

    Torture is serious business. It is agony.
    Inflicting discomfort or inconvenience is not torture.
    Implying that “bad stuff” could happen is not torture.
    Torture is inflicting agony. Trite as it is to say, it isn’t pleasant, application of torture corrodes the soul (if you have one). There are those who enjoy/relish application of torture.

    Torture has gone out of fashion mainly because these days life is so easy, with most of the pragmatic decisions being outsourced/eliminated from the life of the modern punter.

  48. Freelander
    May 6th, 2011 at 13:21 | #48

    @Steve at the Pub

    I think most who post here were already aware of the long term effects of alcohol on the brain. Too many examples abound.

    Do yourself a favour. Call closing time.

  49. May 6th, 2011 at 14:03 | #49

    @ Freelander:
    Such effect is only possible if there is a brain to “effect”

  50. John Quiggin
    May 6th, 2011 at 14:41 | #50

    Steve, I’m going to enforce the no commercial policy. Not that I particularly mind a beer but the value of your contributions is not sufficient to justify bending the rules for you. Please use a different gravatar.

  51. Freelander
    May 6th, 2011 at 16:35 | #51

    @Steve at the Pub

    Sorry Steve, I haven’t known you long enough to make that call. Also, that’s a harsh call. And as others who post here know, I strenuously avoid being harsh. By the way, are you sure you meant “effect”?

  52. May 6th, 2011 at 17:00 | #52

    @ Freelander
    “Effect” was your word not mine.

    @ moderator, if I knew how to change gravatar I would, I’ve had this one a long time.
    This is not to be confused for an apology for using a heritage listed object as a gravatar. Though I do not endorse or consume the stuff myself, I’m proud of Qld, proud of the state’s heritage.

    Enforce what you like, it is your site.

  53. boconnor
    May 6th, 2011 at 17:29 | #53

    Iconoclast at 18, page 1

    Strong and true comment. We seem to have lost our collective moral compass if we can intellectualize about torture.

  54. May 8th, 2011 at 10:42 | #54

    Prof Q, I think calling the product SatP appears to be promoting “beer” is stretching a point …

  55. May 8th, 2011 at 13:37 | #55

    … the stuff is actually a test of one’s constitutions David. How Qld’ers have can not only manage to get it down, but actually appear to relish the act of drinking it, is beyond me.
    They’ve been doing it for years.
    It is sort of a Qld version of Leyland; unique, iconically parochial to possess, & completely unpalatable should you try to use it.

  56. zoot
    May 8th, 2011 at 18:26 | #56

    if I knew how to change gravatar I would

    SATP, Google is your friend; try this: http://tinyurl.com/4245av2

  57. Alice
    May 8th, 2011 at 22:22 | #57

    Seeing as I can hardly see Satps gravatar I think we could be a bit more tolerant even if the beer is bad it is a bit of a QLD heritage icon

    He is just a working pub manager and actually some of his stories are pretty interesting (listen Steve – Im not sure that you got it right blaming that girl who kicked her dance partner in the shin on the dance floor as being responsible for that brawl outside of 10 blokes to one, because a) how do you know she even knew that fellow and b) how do you know what he did or didnt do before she kicked him in the shin on the dancefloor? Circumstantial evidence.

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