Thursday, January 06, 2005

On Torture And Torture Guidelines

I don't support torture, but I do think that it's the height of stupidity to make public guidelines against torture. Here's why, reasoning from my own experience. (Who else's experience could I reason from??)

Sonshine is a great kid, and he's very smart. He is also a boundary-pusher. It never takes him long to figure out the weak spot in any discipline scheme and exploit it. Once I told him he could do what I asked him, or get a spanking; he promptly bent over, happy to accept the spanking in lieu of having to do what I asked. This was back when he was 2 or 3. He's way smarter now.

Sonshine only cooperates with people he respects. You can punish him until the cows come home, but if he knows there are limits to what you will do, he will push you right up to them, because he knows then you'll have to back off. The only reason he obeys me at all is because he wants me to respect him. If I ever slip up and start spanking him for his misbehavior instead of expressing my disapproval, he just slips right back into that attitude of "So what else are you going to do to me? Oh, right, nothing else! Hahahaha! Watch me defy you some more!"

However, Sonshine's Auntie M can also get him to obey, without having to invest large chunks of time in establishing mutual respect. She has the reputation of being "Crazy Auntie M"; unlike Mom, you never know what she'll do if you disobey her. She's managed to get this reputation without actually punishing him very much for anything, and never being abusive at all. He looks at her funny, but he obeys her, even though he doesn't seek her respect.

If Sonshine were a terrorist suspect captured by the U.S., and he were aware of the guidelines of what constitutes acceptable torture, he would have a field day with his interrogators. He would just laugh at them because he'd know there was only so much they could do to him. He would never crack; he'd just laugh at them as he checked off each thing on the list of acceptable methods. When they ran out of acceptable methods, he'd just laugh harder. To be sure, there are ways of making him talk. But if you were trying to retrieve time-sensitive information from him and didn't have a couple spare years to let him get to know you, you'd have to go with the Auntie M approach. It would be absolutely critical that he not know about the boundaries.

And that is why I think all this public debate about torture is going to hurt our ability to extract information from terrorist suspects. I would be fine with guidelines against torture methods like waterboarding, but I think that many of the things people are saying are "torture" aren't any worse than the punishments in a good parent's arsenal (for example, I put my kids outside on the porch to cool off when they've been fighting; they make peace in less than thirty seconds in the wintertime). But for crying out loud, don't let the terrorists know we're not capable of everything. Letting them think we might just waterboard them if they don't start talking can be a valuable technique.