Why are so many people, including high ranking people who should know better, so convinced that torture "works," and that it provides reliable intelligence? Do they have supporting data to back up this assertion, or is it just a gut feeling? Well, now we are just a little closer to tossing this bizarre view point to the trash heap of history. Darius Rejali, in his painstakingly researched book "Torture and Democracy," has investigated the records of numerous countries that conducted torture throughout the 20th century, including France during the Algerian uprising and the Germans during WWII. He has convincingly shown, with actual data and analysis, that torture is ineffective for intelligence gathering simply because it produces an avalanche of disinformation, making it almost impossible to separate any real intelligence from false leads.
It is clear to me that Rejali did not begin his project fifteen years ago (prior to 9/11, BTW) with any preconceived notions that he then set out to prove. As he explains, he was actually trying to find out why so many countries, including democracies (though generally in secret), resort to the tactic. His initial thought was that maybe there is something to it, since so many countries repeatedly make use of the approach as an intelligence gathering tool. It was only after conducting years of exhaustive research, thoroughly catalogued in the book, that he realized that the countries who resort to the tactic do so out of ignorance and because they fail to think through what they are doing. And it turns out that many countries, even the Nazis in Germany, eventually figure out that the approach is counter-productive, and eventually revert back to more "traditional" police methods to gather intelligence. This was the case with the French in Algeria, who did not begin to meet with success in the city of Algiers until AFTER they abandoned torture as a policy.
The bulk of the book consists of Rejali cataloguing the use of torture in dozens of countries around the world, including an explanation of the techniques and an explanation of which methods are used in which countries. At first, it makes for compelling reading, but the sheer exhaustiveness of the research, which Rejali had to present to make his case, is pretty depressing, and in truth, it's not necessary to read it all before you say - okay, okay, I get it, I get it, it doesn't work....
For those who want to take a shortcut, the chapters toward the end of the book comprise the majority of Rejali's analysis, and it is possible to skim or skip the middle chapters since the evidence against torture is provided in such relentless and eventually nauseating detail. In other words, one could save a lot of time, if they accept the initial premise that torture is an ineffective tactic, by simply going straight to the two penultimate chapters toward the end - "What the Apologists Say" (which blows big holes in the so-called "Battle of Algiers argument"),and "Why Governments Don't Learn."
I am convinced that the book should be required reading for all people in this country, both private and public citizens, who remain convinced that torture is an effective intelligence gathering tool. It should also serve as an antidote to those who have watched too many episodes of "24" and thus believe the "ticking time bomb" scenario is actually realistic.
For my part, it is depressing that no one takes the time to think this through, and that a book like this is even necessary to convince people that torture is a bad idea. The truth is that, like myself, Rejali appears to be a utilitarian, who would condone the use of torture if it could actually be shown that it is an effective means to gather intelligence in a dire situation. However - it most definitely is not. As Rejali shows again and again, the fundamental fallacy of the "torture is effective" argument is that it presumes magical telepathic powers. How does one know with certainty that the suspect we have caught really does know anything about the ticking time bomb, or where the next terrorist strike will occur, or where the kidnapped little girl is located? We may suspect that he does, but what if it turns out that we're wrong? Undoubtedly he'll start "singing" something if we torture him - but now we'll waste vital time chasing false leads if it turns out he is the wrong guy. Here's a scenario to illustrate the point further. In Iraq a bomb goes off. People gather. US troops arrive. People scatter, including what appears to be a group of ten or so young men. They actually have nothing to do with each other, they just happened to have congregated on one side of the site together. The US authorities manage to grab five of them. Turns out that someone with magic telepathic powers would know that one of the five actually was a bad guy involved with the bombing. But our intrepid torturers don't know this. They start torturing all five of the men. All five subsequently start "singing" information. In the case of four of them, it is by definition all gibberish because they really were innocent bystanders who just ran when the US showed up. Now they most certainly will provide bits and pieces of rumors and stories they've heard around town that sounds like it might have some meaning because they're naming real people and places (of course they would - they're from there) but ultimately none of it has any utility. The one "bad guy" sings too. Half of what he says is gibberish - but some of it is actually real intelligence. (This, BTW - was the problem the French ran into in Algiers, which we have been facing in Baghdad and Afghanistan.) So I challenge all people who believe "torture works" to answer this one simple question: In the above scenario, how on earth are you going to differentiate the 10% real intelligence from the 90% that is gibberish? What magic powers are you going to use to do so? Until we develop mind-reading powers, we cannot be sure whether the person we are torturing even knows anything useful, but then, if we had those kind of powers, we wouldn't have to torture him in the first place - we could just read his mind.
If only the real world worked as simply and neatly as it does in the fictional universe of "24."