In the war of ideas, torture is a double-edged sword

Paul Phillips writes:

The intuitive case to me for why we should not use torture is this. I see the "war" we are presently in as a war of ideas. I do not find it plausible in the least that we can kill everyone who wants to kill us -- especially since every terrorist we kill creates some number of new ones, and it would not surprise me to find out that the second number is larger than the first. These people want to kill us because they have crazy ideas about the world they live in. If we don't want generation after generation to inherit those crazy ideas then we have to provide them with better ones. I like the idea that someone growing up amidst their brand of craziness will have the opportunity to wonder "why do we torture our enemies, yet they don't?"



I believe that in a battle of competing ideologies (and for that matter in any other endeavor) you must lead by example or you will never succeed. Yes, maybe torturing this terrorist will uncover information that will stop a bombing. Maybe you will save some lives today. But if the price of saving those lives is turning more people against us, making our competing ideas less appealing, extending the conflict even further into the future, then maybe -- even on the most pragmatic basis possible, even in the eyes of someone who has absolutely no ethical objection to torture -- it's not the right thing to do.

I'm not sure I buy that a torture which stops a bombing will lose more than it gains. Yeah, torture is a double-edged sword in the war of ideas - but stopping a bombing is a lot of benefit. However, I think the general point about the type of war we are engaged in is a very important one.

The largest military conflict of the 20th century, WWII, was ended by boots and nukes. We could occupy or nuke any country or set of countries in the world, and we would still be at war with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. This is a different kind of conflict, one mainly fought over memes, not people, and we ignore that at our peril.

Democracy in Iraq is a good meme. So is freedom from tyranny. So is commerce - and we should be encouraging it locally rather than feeding piggish American contracters like Halliburton. Killing local children, killing foreign journalists, holding prisoners without trial, torturing them, sending them to other countries to be tortured - these are bad memes. In the war of ideas, they are like bombing your own cities.

My off-the-cuff, generation X, media/meme-centric theory is that Bush and the military just haven't caught up with the modern world. A world where every bad thing we do is on every Middle Eastern news site just as fast as its on every American news site. Gossip has always travelled fast, but now it travels fast to everywhere, including to the middle of the desert, and to our enemies, and our enemies in the middle of the desert. In this world, you should be paying just as much attention to spin doctors like Karl Rove as to your generals. You want a marketing department, and you want to follow the buzz on the street - including the streets of Egypt, Tehran, and Dubai - as closely as the body count.

But I haven't slept much for a few days, so I could just be making up plausible sounding BS. What do you think?

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The flaw in the theory that

The flaw in the theory that if we don't torture anybody someone somewhere will have an "opportunity to wonder" why is that if we take any prisoners at all, it will be assumed we're torturing them. Once, if ever, released, prisoners committed to war against us certainly won't help spread the truth. We can't convince anybody we're not torturing by simply not doing it.

I am far from pro-torture, just commenting that that line of reasoning is a dead end, for the reasons you get at at the end of your post. There are very good reasons why we shouldn't torture having nothing to do with how our enemies will see us in a couple generations.

I think Paul Phillips would

I think Paul Phillips would agree that "Freedom from Tyranny" is the nuts; and torture, terrorism, and Karl Rove are bad beats!

Two things: (1) I think

Two things:

(1) I think we're crippling ourselves in the war of ideas. Recently, it was discovered that the Pentagon is feeding good press to local media in Iraq. There was a howl of outcry. How, exactly, are we supposed to win the war of ideas if the opposition in this country raises a stink when we try to advance those ideas?

(2) I keep hearing this notion that, "Every time we kill a terrorist, we create more." I think this is a chunk of conventional wisdom that's never really been proven. I'd like to see some evidence supporting the concept. It's been repeated so many times that it's been accepted as gospel truth without any underlying factual basis.

I completely agree with your

I completely agree with your point -- I want the enemy to wonder why we avoid torture and civilian casualties. But here's a devil's advocate point:

We are so reviled for what we did at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Yet in WW2 we nuked and carpet-bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians -- in fact, explicitly targetted them in a "break the will of the enemy" campaign that sounds suspiciously like terrorism. Yet, America was considered the hero of the world -- even to this day. Did the average German wonder "hmm, why did we carpet bomb London and the Allies don't carpet bomb us? Oh wait, they do! I'm going to fight to the death!"

I agree with your point, but there's something fundamentally different about the environmental variables of this war than in the past. Some pro-war people look at World War 2 and think: "we just aren't bombing them enough. If we reduced a few large cities to rubble, complaints about prisoner abuse would certainly dry up." Who's to say he's not right? Obviously it's not moral -- so why was it "moral" 60 years ago?

If killing an occupied enemy causes 2 more to rise up in his place, why were the occupations of Germany and Japan so bloodless -- after so many innocent civilians were slaughtered? There's something else in the mechanics of what's going on here.

I do agree with your policy recommendations -- we would best be served by seeming "spotless," yet the question remains: is there anyway to invade another country and remain "spotless?" On a fundamental level, imagine we prosecuted this war in exactly the way you and I want: minimizing civilian casualties at all opportunities, zero torture, zero exploitation, no propaganda, minimal American casualties, excellent and prompt rebuilding -- would people be happy? Would there still be massive public disapproval? Would there still be an Iraqi insurgency?

Is the war wrong (or maybe just a bad idea) because we did it badly, or is it wrong in the first place -- and all these various "implementation errors" irrelevant?

(2) I keep hearing this

(2) I keep hearing this notion that, “Every time we kill a terrorist, we create more.” I think this is a chunk of conventional wisdom that’s never really been proven. I’d like to see some evidence supporting the concept. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s been accepted as gospel truth without any underlying factual basis.

That's definitely an interesting question. Its pretty obvious that it's a question of incentives. If my brother the insurgent is killed, what motivates me and my friend to take his place? Obviously, we have to believe, at least a little, that what he was doing was right. And we have to believe that we'd be helping just a little. Or we're doing it out of pure revenge.

If it's just revenge, then there's nothing you can do. If you kill some evil terrorist who was murdering children, you're completely justified. It's not your fault if his two friends come after you in revenge, you just have to kill them too.

But if there's a gradient where only if we were saintly enough his two friends would say "oh, yeah, I guess Bob had it coming" then there's also a gradient for "oh, wow -- they really wiped Bob out. There's no way we're going to fight that." It's obvious that terrorism works -- and militaries have used it for millennia. If you convince a group of people that if they do X, they will be brutally exterminated -- they tend not to do X, no matter how angry they are at you. So there's some gradient where the "two new terrorists" aren't so horribly terrified by fear of massive retaliation that they decide to take up arms.

I think this is the mechanism that worked during WW2. We convinced the Germans and Japanese that resistance would lead to massive civilian casualties. Later on they certainly realized that we brought them good things like free markets, peace and representative government. But if they ever wondered about resistance, there were always the grisly spectres of Hiroshima or Nagasaki to rein in such impulses. There's some level where "atrocity of reprisal" overwhelms the "creates 2 new terrorists" factor. Is that something we want?

What happens if it turns out that fighting a (or maybe certain kinds of war) war effectively is inherently immoral?

I think this is the

I think this is the mechanism that worked during WW2.

Genocide is certainly an effective means of winning conflicts and imposing your ideals on a particular group of people (survivors).

I'm pretty sure *we* are not

I'm pretty sure *we* are not doing anything of the sort, because I know I'm not.

Government is all about

Government is all about making new enemies everyday. That's the controlling concept of power. Without enemies they are powerless. Who would then need them?

The marketplace of ideas is foreign to power, except when it promotes more power.

Doesn't look good, does it.