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Torture doesn't work

It erodes national security and democracy.

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A morally bankrupt foreign policy. A degeneration of democratic checks and balances.

Those are just a few of the disturbing facets of the state of the US government revealed by the debates over the confirmation of Attorney General Michael Mukasey and his views on whether waterboarding constitutes torture.

But the deepest irony of the Bush administration's ambivalent stance on such medieval tactics – practiced in the name of defending national security – is that torture is not only wrong, it's also a stupid strategy that undermines the defense of democratic societies against terror.

US leaders must correct their profoundly mistaken analysis and ignorance of the lessons of history about torture.

Torture is an ineffective counterinsurgency strategy. One defense of torture is the "ticking bomb" scenario – the idea that an imminent, massive threat to civilians might be stopped by a single detainee who possesses crucial information and will yield actionable intelligence under physical coercion. But this is mostly a law-school legend, not a frequent occurrence in a complex conflict with multiple levels of planning and diffuse local support.

Despite fearful anecdotal claims, the effectiveness of torture in generating intelligence is questionable at best. But we do know that torture produces many false confessions and new enemies, and distracts from more effective, legitimate techniques of interrogation and intelligence-gathering. We also know that democracies that have turned to torture in counterinsurgency – for example, the French in Algeria – have lost, while the British found a solution in Northern Ireland after they gave up abusive tactics.


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