Tom Farer Interview (2007): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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The image that was decisive in the balance of power between liberals and neocons, or conservatives become neocons, is the "ticking bomb" scenario, which embedded itself in our culture after 9/11. Talk a little about how we can back away from this notion that every situation -- and you've said because it's a war on terror and terrorists are everywhere, so everywhere connected to the internet is a potential ticking bomb. So, there're no limits to the power of this metaphor, except maybe the incompetence of the administration. But how do we back away from the power of that image?
It is a powerful parable, I suppose. It's a narrative. And it's an old one. I was asked by a Dutch officer about twenty-five or thirty years ago, at a conference on the laws of war -- a Dutch officer who taught at the military academy in the Netherlands -- about this case. He said, "When I tell the new officers that torture is forbidden, one of them will always say, 'Give me the ticking bomb case.'" And he said, "I tell them, "Look, this is an order, it's in our field manual. You obey the order.'" But he said, "That's not good enough. What should I say to this chap and his successors?"
What I said at the time, and I repeat it in my book (some old ideas are good ideas): first of all, you could live for a century and never find the ticking bomb case. The ticking bomb case is an invention of law professors looking for extreme cases, and it's a nice stimulant to ethical thinking, "what would you do?" But are you likely to find the smirking sociopath who sits there, and you have credible evidence that this person has planted a small nuclear device in Wall Street? No. I think the likelihood of that case ever occurring is .0001.
What is the reality of it? The reality is that you know there are subversive organizations and they're hard to penetrate. Take the French and their effort during the Algerian war of independence to regain control over the Casbah, the crowded rabbit-warren of streets which are inhabited by poor Muslims. To them it was opaque. How did they penetrate through this opacity? They start picking people up -- they take a street, they pick up everyone, every male -- they're maybe not only males -- between the ages of 15 and 50 and they torture them, the water treatment, water boarding (that's a favorite, favorite of Latin American torturers) and electric shock. And everybody will eventually scream a name, an address, anything to stop the pain. Then they go and they look. They find a person, maybe they don't find anything, but they may take that person anyway and torture them, or maybe they find something. Eventually, over a period of time, they hope to unravel -- they pick a thread here, they pick a thread there, and they unravel -- tactically it can be successful. They were successful in retaking the Casbah. Of course, they lost the war.
One point I'm making, which I think is an obvious point, if you had any experience with it, is that torture metastasizes. It metastasizes almost at once, because you don't have the ticking bomb case, you have a conspiratorial group, you're having trouble penetrating it, and therefore you decide is the easiest thing is to torture a lot of people. Some will give you useful information, yes; many will give you information that wastes your time, but okay, you'll live with that. So, you start torturing on a large scale, and it keeps spreading, and then more and more people become infected by it, you see. And then you have to shield it. If it's a democracy, then you have to shield it from the courts, from the journalists, and maybe you have to even kill a journalist or terrify journalists by torturing a few. Where does it end? I don't know where it ends. There's no natural end to it.
So, given the role of torture in history as a marker of repressive regimes; and the decline of torture as a marker of a move toward liberal democratic government, political systems; and given the tendency of torture to metastasize, the use of torture by a government definitely is a threat to the maintenance of democratic government. You might maintain the façade of a democratic government but it begins to rot.
I also think it has a demoralizing effect on the military as an institution, and if you use the paramilitary, it also tends to draw -- since a lot of ordinary soldiers can't torture, you tend to bring into the security forces the scum of the society, the sociopaths, the killers, the people who'd normally be the enemies of society, who would be in prison.
It's no accident that security services that engage in torture are closely linked to the criminal classes, because the line between the two begins to fade and you begin to draw on the criminal classes to carry out your mission, just as when Bobby Kennedy decided he had the authorization of Jack to deal with the problem of Castro. He turned to the Mafia to try to assassinate Castro. It's not an accident, it's a natural move, because the kind of people who are attracted into organized crime are the kind of people who don't have difficulty killing and torturing. So, there is a whole complex of reasons why people who are trying to maintain a liberal democracy will be opposed to torture, aside from the fact that it violates the core values of human rights, of liberalism, and of democracy.
The next question, after the ticking bomb case, is your child and the kidnapper case. Right? Your child has been kidnapped, your daughter has been kidnapped, and the police capture the person they know -- it's in the parable, or the hypothetical, they always know.... In the real world they don't know, because the person that's confessed to having kidnapped your daughter -- you normally have how many people come in and confess when there's a famous crime? Think of the people who confessed to kidnapping Lindbergh's baby. So, you don't know. But in your hypothetical, this person says, "Yes, and she's going to die of starvation because I'm never going to tell you." And the police say, "It's your daughter. We're going to walk out of this room ... " -- and the guy is manacled -- "We're going to walk out of this room and leave you in here for twenty minutes, and we don't know what you're doing." They turn off the cameras, they turn off the tape. And the question is, would you torture this man, if you knew -- if you knew that he had kidnapped your daughter and she was dying. Well, you look inside yourself and -- this is the way they play you -- and you say, "Yeah, under those circumstances, I might." "Aha," they say, "Got ya! You admit you might. Therefore you've given the game away."
Well, my answer to that, which will satisfy some and not satisfy others, is law deals with many cases, but laws are general rules. They cannot deal with every human situation that is imaginable. So, law has to be brought to earth. What you may decide in some cases is that action is so heinous and so freighted with potential damage to the society that we will not legitimate it under any circumstances.
Come back to the ticking bomb case: if it arose, even though I think there's almost no chance that it would, but if it did, we can't legislate for that. It should be like euthanasia. Your father is dying in extraordinary pain, he begs you to turn off the systems, and you decide to do it. You have killed him. All right. We have not legitimated that because we're worried about the slippery slope. But you go to the jury, or maybe the DA doesn't indict because the DA investigates the circumstances, or the DA does indict but the jury doesn't convict. But the burden is on you. There's not an exception to the law. The burden is on you to convince the jury of your peers that this case is so exceptional that they should find a way of finding you not guilty. But because there's such a danger that they won't, it's only an exceptional case that someone will do that. So, that's why I wouldn't legitimate it.
Tom, on that note, I'm afraid we've run out of time. I want to thank you for being here. Thank you for writing this book, and I'm sure that our audience will want to buy it when it comes out in the fall, and it will be called Confronting Global Terrorism: The Elements of a Liberal Grand Strategy. Thank you for being here.
Thank you, Harry. Thank you for having me.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
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