The National Review’s Stupid Defense of Torture

  It's mildly amusing to see Andrew Sullivan mournfully assert, in the context of discussing National Review's increasingly tight editorial embrace of unlimited executive authority, that the magazine has abandoned the principles of William F. Buckley Jr., considering that a … Read More

By / November 7, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!


It's mildly amusing to see Andrew Sullivan mournfully assert, in the context of discussing National Review's increasingly tight editorial embrace of unlimited executive authority, that the magazine has abandoned the principles of William F. Buckley Jr., considering that a tight editorial embrace of Francoism generally and Generalissimo Franco personally was among the principles upon which Buckley founded NR.

Kudos to Andrew nonetheless for flagging this embarrassing paean to torture by Deroy Murdock that appeared in National Review Online a few days ago. Murdock's argument is that:

1) Khalid Sheik Muhammad is a very bad man

2) He was waterboarded

3) He consequently sang like a canary

4) His torturers aver that torturing him helped lead to the apprehension of a number of other VBMs (such as the scourge of Highland Park, Jose Padilla)

5) Torturing Khalid Sheiik Muhammad saved countless many lives

Minor conclusion: "Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud." Major conclusion: "President Bush [should] reinstate waterboarding, proudly and publicly, so America can get the information we need to prevent Muslim-fanatic mass murder and win the Global War on Terror." Jewcy's readers are invited to play spot-the-fallacy. (Allow me, on a peremptory note, to allay Murdock's fears: We are quite likely engaged in an array of innovative, unconscionable intelligence-gathering activities this very moment; and surely, as soon as we've become more inhuman than our enemies, victory in the GWOT is at hand.)

Needless to say — and I hope it is needless to say — every single one of Murdock's premises is factually and pragmatically, never mind morally, way off base. First of all, no one would dispute that Khalid Sheik Muhammad is a mass-murderer for whom lifetime incarceration is eminently justified. Yet citing KSM, alone of all the victims of torture in the extra-legal American detention system, and pivoting from that one instance to the assertion that "Waterboarding is used on foreign Islamic-extremist terrorists, captured abroad, who would love nothing more than to blast innocent men, women, and children into small, bloody pieces" is a deceitful rhetorical canard that Murdock makes use of so that he and his readers need never concern themselves with the fact that the vast majority of individuals held incommunicado in secret detention centers, or otherwise rendered to bestial governments to be dealt with as bestial governments deal with their prisoners, have no proven connections to terrorism and have been picked up on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. (Murdock's claim is also an example of an inductive fallacy, for those keeping score.) Pace Murdock, you (and I) have no idea who the victims of waterboarding are.

Secondly, of course Khalid Sheik Muhammad sang when he was waterboarded. That is what happens when you torture people — they'll tell you whatever they think you want to hear. No one, however, by dint of being tortured, magically becomes disposed to giving his or her interrogators reliable, accurate information; all that one hopes to achieve by confessing in the face of torture is to make the torture stop. It is up to interrogators to sort out useful information from non-useful, and doing so requires doing precisely the hard intelligence work that would obviate the need for torture as a means of extracting information in the first place. If the goal of an intelligence policy is to garner, well, intelligence, adding torture to the toolkit yields either zero or negative utility. (For an example of the latter, have a gander at the case of Ibn al Sheik al Libi, who is, yes, a Very Bad Man, who was tortured by the CIA at a black site near Kabul and "confessed" to his captors that Saddam Hussein had been providing training and materiel to al Qaeda fighters. God knows how al Libi might have gotten the notion that US intelligence services were seeking evidence of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. One way or another, al Libi's testimony made its way into Colin Powell's infamous February 2003 presentation to the UN. Funny, that.)

Thirdly, any discussion of torture for the sake of the GWOT is bound to be misleading if it does not take account of the hyperbolic, wolf-crying tropes that government officials employ every time a suspected terrorist is apprehended or a plot foiled. (Gregory Djerejian has a good summary with commentary of one instance of the sort of thin gruel we're talking about.) Whether it's a small group of Cherry Hill, NJ poseurs diabolically scheming to attack a heavily armed and armored US military base with weapons they didn't have, or a lunatic who hoped to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch, or UK-based terrorist scoundrels who might have succeeded in hijacking planes to the US if wishes were ponies, or that weirdo who packed his shoes with C4 but didn't have the means to detonate it, the US (and UK) government(s) have consistently, deliberately, shamefacedly overhyped, oversold, and outright lied about all these and many other purported existential crises. (DHS might admit, sotto voce, that a particular plot "was not technically feasible," but why should nuances such as these stop a hack like Murdock when he's on a roll.)

Just a sprinkle of induction should get us from the premise that the administration and its defenders will trumpet the best examples of the utility of torture they've got, to the conclusion that this sad assortment is the best they've got, so forgive me if I'm not quivering in my boots.

Before going any further, take a moment to review Murdock's piece. You'll notice the absence of any consideration of whether waterboarding is, in fact, torture (except for one perfunctory closing sentence, about which more in a moment). This is not a bug, but a feature. By the lights of Murdock's argument, the moral status of any interrogation procedure is wholly determined by its utility, which is in turn determined by the tendency of that procedure to produce raw, unanalyzed data, regardless of the reliability of such data. (Murdock, I'm sure, would demur; let's hear his principled distinction between the KSM and al Libi cases, then.) Torture itself, on this view, becomes, if not an empty concept, a useless concept for deciding what boundaries to place on the acceptable techniques interrogators may use, since the tendency of an interrogation method to cause severe physical or mental suffering is completely orthogonal to its justification.

Murdock does, before putting his pen to rest, make gestures towards a comprehension that some forms of torture may be so bad that they should never be undertaken (but waterboarding isn't it.) Murdock unfortunately gainsays this one nugget of decency in his very next sentence when he observes, "If terrorists suffer long-term nightmares about waterboarding, better that than more Americans crying themselves to sleep after their loved ones have been shredded by bombs or baked in skyscrapers," thereby bringing us back, through a dizzyingly circular logic, to the original question. (I must pause here to note the aptness of John (not Juan) Cole's questions for the GOP candidates, particularly the first: "Would you have sex with a man to stop a terrorist attack?")

To return to the thought with which I began this post, if there is one bit of advice William F. Buckley would be uniquely suited to give to the current generation of NR writers, it's that they should stop giving bullshit a bad name.

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