Posted by: sean | June 13, 2005

Torture: efficacy and principle

Joseph Lelyveld wrote a very interesting piece on torture for the New York Times Magazine yesterday, entitled Interrogating Ourselves. In it, he discusses intelligence gathering in the “war on terror” and the torture and “highly coercive interrogation” techniques (i.e. “torture lite”) that seem to have become commonplace in American anti-terrorism investigations.

He analyses the tough question of whether torture and torture lite work, whether or not they can save lives. He discusses American and Israeli interrogators, the latter seeming to be leaps and bounds ahead in the torture domain, both in terms of efficiency and legal codification. He informs us that American interrogators are deemed “unprofessional” by their Israeli counterparts.

Lelyveld is highly practical and warns the reader of the moral neutrality of such language as “the efficacy of torture.” So in the end, the piece hinges on logistics rather than principle. But I can’t help but think of the recent judgement passed down by the Israeli Supreme Court, which was about rerouting part of the security wall because it unlawfully made life even more difficult for many Palestinians, but can also be applied to security and the rule of law in general and as they relate to torture:

This is the destiny of a democracy: She does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back.

Chief Justice Barak went on to say, “there is no security without law.” And while Lelyveld’s piece shows us that these important ideas have not been completely implemented in the interrogation chambers of Shin Bet, that doesn’t make the assertion itself any less true. So while I am nothing but critical of the Israeli state, they seem to have gotten it right this time, on paper at least. It’s a shame that so far, the US has had neither the foresight nor the wisdom to come to the same conclusions.

Note: for another interesting discussion of torture, see Mark Danner’s pieces in the the New York Review of Books, available online for free here and here and his write up of Abu Ghraib here.



  1. […] Conventions is not dependent on the nature of its enemy. The Israeli Supreme Court itself has said, This is the destiny of a democracy: She does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her […]

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