Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Ignorance is Strength"

When Orwell wrote it, it was a harsh indictment of totalitarian governments. But it is also the common coin of most public discussions. Richard Dawkins doesn't sully his beautiful mind with any actual knowledge of religion or theology, which makes him more expert on the subject than those who do (and he's proud of his ignorance). Such basic ignorance of science, of course, drives him to distraction. Teachers are rarely consulted by legislatures on what works in the classroom; they are told, instead, by those with no teaching experience because, after all, people with experience never know as much as the people who make the rules for them. And so today the New York Times offers a "news analysis" that considers the utility of torture from the point of view of those who directed it and who, surprise!, get to say "it worked!" Or maybe it worked; the NYT is cautiously uncertain. Perhaps we should consult someone with experience in the field:

Col. Kleinman's statements echo those of other interrogation experts: torture fails, non-coercive methods succeed. The FBI, as Ron Suskind said on the same show, had accrued expertise in interrogating terrorists. It was their non-coercive, non-torture investigations, that led to convictions in the WTC bombing case in the 1990's. The FBI walked away from the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah because they knew torture not only didn't work, but it was illegal. Who thought it did work? As Col. Kleinman says, all the people "at the top," people with no experience in interrogation, people who get their ideas for questioning suspects from TV and the movies.

So let's ask them, rather than the people whose job it is to interrogate suspects and conduct investigations, what works. Consider this discussion, where the interesting part is less Shepard Smith denouncing torture, than his guest trying to distinguish the Communist Chinese techniques of "brainwashing" which were meant to lead to false confessions, from the very same techniques, learned from those experiences, which in American hands lead to "true confessions":

I would say this man has as much experience interrogating suspects as those who formulated the torture policies do. And if you go here, and watch the second video, you'll hear it again: the argument is whether or not torture is "effective." Move the argument from law or morality to utility, and you win. Which bothers Shepard Smith; but not the New York Times.

Thus do our public discussions proceed.

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