By William Urban

This being Americaís silly season, that is, election time, it is the moment when otherwise sane individuals will repeat the most incredible statements, just because (apparently) they are being said by people they usually agree with.

One dispute that has come to my attention repeatedly has been whether Americans should employ "torture" to extract information from terrorist and insurgent captives. I personally think this is a phony issue, since most torturers would smile at our efforts to define the practice. They wouldnít deprive their victims of sleep or strip them naked, but would rip out their fingernails. When we read of bodies found daily in Iraq with "signs of torture", surely no one thinks they had been dunked in water.

But what I find strangest is the statement that "torture doesnít work." This is so commonly repeated that nobody thinks twice about it. And that is a problem. I donít think it stands scrutiny.

We human beings have thousands of years of experience with torture. If it didnít work, surely it would have been abandoned long ago.

Now, Iím not talking about torture as amusement, like Native American women practiced on captives; or torture as revenge, as seems to the case in Iraq; or torture as political theater, as practiced by terrorists on American journalists ó slitting throats as a means of sending a message.

Iím talking about getting information. In this regard we have the testimony of John McCain and James Stockdale, who both said that no one can withstand torture long; they knew from personal experience what they are talking about. If two unqualified heroes say that everyone will break, that means that the torturers will get what they want. There may be some who can hold out, who can maintain a plausible cover story, but for most of us, itís like trying to not think about an elephant. When the pain gets really bad, we scream out "elephant" whether we intend to or not.

Romans would not accept the testimony of slaves except under torture. They knew that the survival strategy of slaves included saying whatever the masters wanted, but that when subjected to intense pain, they would forget the falsehoods quickly. They also knew that when they "broke" (an interesting word) one slaveís story, they could use his testimony to break down others quickly. (Romans were quick to use the death penalty, and they didnít worry about pain and suffering, which apparently hastened the process of confession.)

In Stockdaleís case, he was happy that the North Vietnamese didnít know what questions to ask.

The question of tortureís effectiveness is a separate issue, I think, from the debate as to whether waterboarding or sleep deprivation or loud music should be employed. Effectiveness is a matter of observed factóas to whether the victims will provide information. Torture involves intense pain and usually results in permanent injuries. Most people will say anything to get it stopped, and the torturers are usually in a good position to tell a lie from the truth; certainly, they are well-positioned to resume the torture again and again until they get what they want.

The larger question is, as I indicated, political. Some who oppose "torture" also want captured terrorists given all the rights of Americans who are arrested for crimes. This is a novel idea, and not a good one. At the heart of this attitude is a belief that incarcerating anyone is probably wrong. In contrast, law and order advocates believe that we should protect society first. What we need to concentrate on is prisoners taken in combat, prisoners who do not belong to a legitimate army, and who might provide our soldiers with valuable intelligence.

This is an important topic, and honest people can disagree about what should be done about prisoners, and how to persuade them to divulge information. But we should not simply repeat what we hear without giving some thought as to whether the argument is little more than political propaganda.

Above all, we should remember that we are human. How would a mother who wants to protect her child from playing tag at school (Iím not making this up) react if that child were kidnapped and the police had one of the criminals captive? I think Hollywood gives us the answer. Sometimes Hollywood is in touch with the public mood. Sometimes.

Daily Review Atlas (November 9, 2006), 4.