This blog was created in part to combat the surprisingly prevalent notion that the world’s most difficult problems have simple and easy solutions. Susan Brooks Thislethwaite of the Washington Post has provided a perfect example with this recent blog post.
In her post, Ms. Thislethwaite argued that former members of the Bush administration should not be promoting the role water boarding apparently played in finding bin Laden. Her post did nothing to advance the discussion; it only created more divisiveness.
First, her post was riddled with emotionally inflammatory language: “unholy,” “corrupt,” “dark side.” This kind of language only makes those who disagree stop reading and those who do agree hate those who disagree just a tiny bit more. If she had the better side of the argument, why not make it with tact and let calm, rational readers decide?
Worse, Ms. Thislethwaite drastically overstated her argument in order to make it seem simple and obvious. She basically argued that torture should not have been used by the Bush administration because it doesn’t work. She supported this argument with the claim that the piece of intelligence that eventually lead to the death of bin Laden was obtained from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed many months after he was subjected to water boarding. She then made the classic argument that torture doesn’t work because detainees will just lie to end the torture.
Dick Cheney’s response to Ms. Thislethwaite’s argument would probably go something like this:
Ms. Thislethwaite does not understand how interrogation works. Water boarding is used to break the detainees. If the detainees know that their interrogators will never subject them to pain or discomfort, they will generally refuse to cooperate. However, if they are forced to cooperate, they rarely revert to combative positions because they understand that if they do, they will be subjected to the same pain or discomfort that was used to force cooperation in the first place. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether the key piece of intelligence was obtained five seconds or five months after the water boarding. The point is that the water boarding was effective in obtaining the cooperation of the detainee.
Furthermore, the argument that torture doesn’t work because people lie is nonsense. The argument assumes that the interrogators will never discover the lie. Detainees may lie to stop the torture once. However, at that point, the interrogators don’t pat the detainee on the back and let him go. They check to see if the information is accurate. If it is not, they repeat the torture at a more intense level or for a longer duration and tell the detainee not to lie again. This cycle usually does not have to be repeated many times before the detainee gets the picture and starts cooperating.
At this point, the proverbial Mr. Cheney, knowing he has made the better argument, leans back in his chair and thinks that there is nothing wrong with torture.
The problem is that the only reason Mr. Cheney’s argument is better is because Ms. Thislethwaite overstated her argument in an effort to make a difficult issue seem simple. The truth is that torture is probably effective. That is why it has been used so often throughout history. However, America should not use torture because the legal, political and moral drawbacks outweigh the benefits. There is a broad international consensus that torture is a war crime. Using it tarnishes America’s reputation and provides recruitment propaganda for terrorists. It inflicts pain and suffering on individuals who are not in a position to defend themselves. Even assuming America would not have found bin Laden without water boarding, the drawbacks of its use outweigh the benefits.
Now, that argument for why America should not use torture leaves room for debate. It assumes that reasonable arguments can be made for or against the use of torture. Some would say that getting bin Laden was worth the legal, political and moral consequences of using water boarding. Those who would take that position may be wrong, but they are neither evil nor stupid. Ms. Thislethwaite’s post implies that they are both. That is why her post exemplifies what is wrong with our media.