TOM THE DANCING BUG: Why is "Zero Dark Thirty" being unfairly singled out?

Tom the Dancing Bug, IN WHICH Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture as an effective means of gathering information is defended. BE THE FIRST ON YOUR BLOCK to see Tom the Dancing Bug every week! Members of the elite and prestigious INNER HIVE get the comic in their inboxes at least a day before publication -- and much, much MORE!

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  1. Ah, the old “from whence”, torturing grammarians on both sides of the Atlantic since “time was memorial”. 

    1. Since Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Defoe, Smollett, Dryden, Trollope and even the King James Bible have all used it, I think Ruben Bolling can sleep fairly soundly over this.

  2. Is there definitive evidence that the “thesis” that information obtained through torture did not lead to capture of Osama Bin Laden is indeed FALSE? Just curious. Just because torture is wrong doesn’t mean that it did not produce valuable intelligence. (Other than McCain and others just denying it). Yes lots of innocent (or maybe not that innocent but not that deserving of torture) were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” and certainly some of that information was bad. But I find it hard to believe they did not get any actionable intelligence at all out of it. I am not justifying it, I am just saying it did happen and they likely did get something out of it that was useful. Whether or not that led directly to Bin Laden I don’t know. But even if it led to something to something to someone that led to Bin Laden then the thesis stands.

      1. I think I get what SionHouse is saying, and it’s not justifying it in any way. There were arguments post-WWII as to whether we should use the results of Dr. Josef Mengele’s research, or just destroy it because of the horrific way the results were obtained. As it turns out, the vast majority of our understanding of how the human body reacts to extreme cold comes from his experiments. Using this, we’ve saved thousands of lives that would have otherwise been lost to hypothermia and other cold-related issues.

        Worth it? Nope. Justifiable? Nope. I’ll tell you this, though: I’ll be damn happy we got something out of his work if I ever fall through ice on a frozen lake.

        1. While I get what SionHouse thought experiment is saying. there are some pretty big holes in his logic so it falls apart on its own and is only left with justifying torture without any good reason.
          Ultimately, your analogy is valid if a third country takes the information from a torture victim and decides to act on it, that way you can both repudiate the action and examine the validty of the information while still maintaining your own dignity.

          1. The analogy isn’t valid even then.  The difference is that Mengele was (sometimes) doing science, and therefore discovered some actual facts.  His methods were horrific, but as long as he adhered to the scientific method he still produced actual information.

            If the torturers adhered to actual interrogation technique then they too might discover real facts, but by the time you’re a torturer you’ve already thrown competent interrogation technique out the window.

          2.  Are you saying that the CIA (or whichever agency) tortures detainees for reasons other than to acquire information?

        2. In your analogy to defend the use of information obtained by torture the United States is one of the most reprehensible Nazis in history. That’s a pretty good litmus test on how inexcusable torture is.

          1. I don’t know if it was SionHouse’s point, but he’s damn right about one thing: the unjustifiability of torture is not contingent one way or another on it’s efficacy. We could make the USA the safest country in history exterminating the population, but that’s not a defense of exterminating the population! Disclaimer: haven’t seen the movie and don’t plan to because bad spy porn is stupid.

            Holy crap, I’m arguing over state-sanctioned torture on a webcomic! FSM help me, I wan’t out of this Philip K. Dick novel!

          2.  The fact that it IS, clearly, a Dick novel, and a grim one at that, says you’re stuck, as are we all…

        3. The other question is, did the torture of detainees inspire some people to become terrorists?  ie, did it do more harm than good?

          1. The War on Terror is a large, massively deadly example of the Streisand Effect. Al-Qaida was a tiny organization until we ploughed half the resources of the Western world into an accidental recruiting campaign for them.

    1. Wait, you’re saying this issue isn’t simple and one-sided? Get off the internet, you don’t belong here.

    2. “Is there definitive evidence that the “thesis” that information obtained through torture did not lead to capture of Osama Bin Laden is indeed FALSE?”

      I think you should be asking if there is evidence that enhanced torture works. That is a meaningful question.

      1. The dilemma is that even if the evidence shows that enhanced interrogation / torture does NOT generally work, if it can be shown through credible evidence that in THIS case, torture directly led to Osama Bin Laden being found, then we are going to have to accept a certain level of culpability if we are to accept the ultimate outcome of eliminating Bin Laden. 

        So the difficult questions are: are you willing to trade Bin Laden being neutralized for not torturing? (I realize it’s a slippery slope) but still – it can go both ways.  What if a few more bombings claiming dozens or hundreds more innocent lives were prevented by eliminating Bin Laden then instead of 2 or 3 years later through zero-torture methods?  There’s a bloody trade-off either way – even if it’s hypothetical…

        1. are you willing to trade Bin Laden being neutralized for not torturing?

          Frankly, yes.  I think he was mostly a boogeyman.  I don’t think he was dangerous except when he had money to give to dangerous people and I don’t think he was important enough to justify the ridiculous shit undertaken to — if we’re being honest here — get revenge for 9/11.

        2. If neutralized is being used here as a euphemism for killed, then personally I’d rather have him not neutralized and nobody tortured.

      2. I agree.  Because then we could make a list of all the people that answer “yes” and hunt them down like dogs.  After all, the only way they could know is if they were a party to torture, right?  So they ought to be fair game.  I’m just running with this “ends justifying the means” theme here…

    3. Why are you putting the burden of proof where you are?  First of all, you’re sort of asking for proof of a negative.  Second of all, if torture had worked I would have expected the Bush administration to sing that fact from the rooftops.  Finally, most of the people claiming torture doesn’t work don’t have access to the sorts of records that would prove or disprove this (and even if they did there’s no way to know whether the one document containing actionable intelligence gained through torture has been lost or destroyed, hence the “prove a negative” objection).

      More importantly, your point seems to ignore the nature of intelligence gathering.  If you can confirm whether a piece of intelligence is actionable or not trustworthy independently of the provenance of that intelligence then you simply didn’t need that intelligence in the first place since you could get all your information from the independent source.  What counts in intelligence gathering is provenance — whether a source is trustworthy.  If torture tends to yield faulty intelligence then intelligence obtained through torture has a poor provenance and can’t be trusted — unless it can be independently corroborated in which case you didn’t need to torture in the first place.

      1. The Bush administration and its defenders *did* make various such claims, principally revolving around the supposed Library Tower plot; you can google it if you want rehash the details.
        I personally don’t find the argument that torture doesn’t work to be a good one to rely on. You can of course make a strong case that historically it was almost always used to extract false confessions rather than information, that the best interrogators didn’t use it, and so on. But its proponents can always say ‘well, this is different’ and put forth various hypothetical scenarios to try to justify its use in utilitarian terms. I think the stronger case has to be made that torture is wrong *even if* it can be used to save innocent lives, in the same way that it’s wrong to randomly select people to be involuntary organ donors (prima facie also a lifesaver).

        1. But its proponents can always say ‘well, this is different’ and put forth various hypothetical scenarios to try to justify its use in utilitarian terms.

          Only by ignoring the actual mechanics of intelligence gathering.  You seem to be ignoring the argument you’re responding to: the utilitarian argument only works if you’re sure this instance of torture produced good intelligence.  You can only be sure that the intelligence is good with independent corroboration.  With independent corroboration, you didn’t need to torture to get the intelligence.

          More realistically, torture produces intelligence that you cannot trust.  It may be good, it may not, but there is no way to know except the likelihood of torture producing good intelligence.  If the likelihood is low then torture is simply a poor means of gathering intelligence.

          I agree that it’s worth making the moral argument independently of the pragmatic argument.  If you want to do that, go for it.  I prefer to make the pragmatic argument.

          The significance of the Library Tower plot was really the fact that it was apparently the best the Bush administration could do to justify torture and it was still laughable.

          1. While I agree with your conclusions, I think the more nuanced support of torture comes from its supposed ability to generate leads, not to verify facts. So, for instance, “who is your handler?” might generate a lead that can later be verified. 

            The more interesting utilitarian question is this: it it more effective to torture people, or to not torture them? I am not well-placed enough to provide an answer, but there is plenty of evidence supporting the hypothesis that you get more and better information by not torturing.

            Also, I think it’s self-evident that in modern conflicts, torturing people gives your enemies mor advantage that it gives you.

            Finally, it’s morally reprehensible and you should not do it as a matter of strict policy.

    4. The question is why you are saying they “likely did get something out of it that was useful”, when the actual military interrogation professionals say the exact opposite.  (The CIA banned torture years ago.  Not because of the high moral standards of the CIA, but because it doesn’t work, and acting on intel you receive that way is a good way to get many innocent people killed.)

      There are a lot of scientific studies indicating reasons why this tends to be true, but the main one is that torturers do not possess magical lie-detecting abilities.  They’re as likely to torture a true statement into being changed as a false one.  And much more likely to torture nonsense out of an innocent than a confession out of the guilty, since that’s much easier to do – and torture is a lazy interrogation shortcut.

      It’s important to bear in mind that the Bush-era tendency to approve torture was from the top down – i.e. it was mostly encouraged by civilians with no interrogation experience, intel experience, or relevant competence of any kind.  (These are the same people, let’s bear in mind, that fired about five different generals pre-invasion for telling them that the Iraq war wouldn’t be completely over in two years with the kind of forces they were committing.)

      There are much more overwhelming systemic reasons why it’s an intelligence and military disaster that I haven’t touched on, but that’s reason enough by itself.

    5. I’d be willing to bet that the US government knew or could have known Bin Laden was in Pakistan under the protection or at least suffrance of its government a LONG time ago, by ordinary intelligence gathering. Possibly they knew he would be basing himself there even before he was used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan.
      Basically, doubting their motives and their competence at every turn is a good working heuristic.

      So are “torture is wrong”, and “the end cannot be separated from the means”, by the way.

  3. Well, the former administration does claim torture works.  However, they are proven liars and also pretty clearly a pack of sadists, so nobody with a functioning brain cell really pays any attention to their claims.

    Edit: that was supposed to be a reply to wysinwyg. Damn disqus anyway.

    1.  Yah, bit if it had worked they would have had a specific example to publicize.  The lack of any single publicized example is pretty telling considering all the shit that does get leaked from the white house to justify its policies.

  4. Torture worked so well that the CIA destroyed all the video evidence of the torture sessions. Sounds like they had something to hide.

    Note that that same people who think that the government can’t do anything right makes only one exception – torture.

    Torture always ramps up to an industrial scale. Over and over we see it becomes a routine tool for interrogating innocent people. A significant number of them will die because they are in less than perfect health. Heck college students die during hazing, right? So you have to accept a priori that you will be taking innocent people and torturing them to death. Torturing innocent people to death? Who’s the good guys.

    Broomstick riding witches who dance with Satan are real. The Salem witch trials proved this since we know that torture is so effective at getting the truth. Even in small rural villages, industrial scale torture operations have their place.

  5. The classic book “Psychological Warfare” compared the efforts of all the participants of WW2. Each country had it’s own approach shaped by its culture and bureaucracy.  The Japanese and Chinese were a stark contrast.  The Japanese routinely tortured prisoners to death.  But if the Chinese caught a Japanese, the prisoner was treated as an honored guest.  They got a nice room, steak dinners, a nice suit of clothes, hookers.  And boy did they cooperate!  They convinced other japanese to defect, got radio operators to give up information, etc. 

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