Opportunity Costs of Torture

bamboo shoots forced under the fingernailsYesterday, I listened to Michael Krasny’s excellent Forum show. It featured a debate between Glenn Greenwald and Mark Bowden on the issue of torture, especially as it applies to the appointment of John Brennan as CIA Director and the movie Zero Dark Thirty. It was interesting. Greenwald really went after Bowden. He seems to have no patience with even the smallest amount of torture apologetics. And I think he’s right.

Just the same, I can see why Bowden gets a bit angry. In general, Bowden’s position on torture is pretty enlightened—at least compared to that of most Americans. He believes that we should not do it. The problems come up when he does the old John Yoo maneuver of defining torture away. “Of course, I’m against torture! But bamboo shoots forced under the fingernails isn’t torture!” Not that bad, but still.

Mark Bowden repeated one thing that sounds reasonable. He said that it was wrong to say that torture is never effective because clearly it sometimes is. I accept this. The problem is how this bit of information is presented. As we know from economics, choices have opportunity costs associated with them. If you go to see Bruce Springsteen, there is an opportunity cost of missing the Pink Floyd concert that is at the same time. So the question is not whether torture sometimes provides good information. The question is does the torturing provide more information than other options like rapport building. And that, I think, is where the “torture is effective” argument breaks down.

I recommend listening to the show. It is a good primer on these issues:

And check out Greenwald’s article on the John Brennan nomination at the New York Times, Nomination Ignores War Crimes.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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