President Donald Trump has made the case that torture is an effective tool. He is not the first person to make this case, nor is the claim absurd on the surface. It is rooted in the assumption that someone has vital information but won’t voluntarily give it up. By applying extreme discomfort or pain, you can cause him to change his mind and tell you what he knows. In times of war, when the lives of your warriors or citizens are at stake, prohibiting torture means either you value the enemy’s life and comfort more than your compatriots’ or you value moral principles more than moral outcomes. If that were all a discussion of torture involved, it would be simple.

Let’s approach this with the most extreme example. A nuclear device is planted in Boston and set to go off in six hours, which is not enough time to evacuate the city. We know an individual who knows the device’s precise location. However, he wants it to explode and won’t tell us where it is. Would imposing agonizing pain to persuade him to tell us be appropriate? On one side, hundreds of thousands of Bostonians will die in a few hours. On the other, a single man wants them dead. Does the life of hundreds of thousands take precedence over his agony? It would seem utterly immoral to refuse to torture him. The mere fact that he would know such information and hide it places him beyond the limits of humanity. Sparing him while risking others’ lives would seem morally vile.

The problem with that example, of course, is that it stacks the deck. You know there is a nuclear device, you know when it is set to go off and you know someone who knows its location. That means you have already deeply penetrated the operation and, in addition to him, you have sources who likely are more useful in locating the device than the one who knows its location. For one thing, how can you be sure he knows? If you torture him, how do you know he will tell you the truth? You have only six hours. Torturing him is not morally objectionable, but it isn’t the most likely solution.

Let’s broaden the discussion. Assume you do not know the person who knows the device’s location, but you know someone, who knows someone, who does. Suppose you do not know the person who knows, or the person who knows him, but you know his mother, who has no idea her son is involved. She wants to protect her son and his location. Would it be appropriate to torture her? And most importantly, would it be the most efficient way to proceed when time is of the essence and there is little of it?

The problem with torture can be stated this way. When you know precisely what you want to know, and from whom you want to know it, and you are certain he knows it, torture is a very efficient tool. But when you are in possession of that much intelligence that you basically have broken the key elements, the likelihood is that less time-consuming analysis of available facts would return you to the source who provided prior information, and it would get you there faster. All that intelligence didn’t fall into your hands by miracle. Go back and look at it again.

If on the one hand you are looking for information about an organization, but you do not know what you don’t know, including who is likely to know it, torture is not a useful tool. In looking for sources, you must screen many people who are of no use, then motivate one or more to provide you a portrait of the organization. Torture does not work efficiently as a screening tactic. The problem with torture is not the amount of time needed to get someone to tell you something. The time it would take to get me to talk with a hot poker looking for a home is under 12 seconds. But it could be days or weeks before you verified the value of what I told you and about that long before you figured out what question you should have really asked me.

Equally important in trying to paint a picture of terror groups is subtlety. Personality clashes, amounts of money, the bomb maker’s experience, plus the endless issues you didn’t know to ask about are the key questions. A source that is prepared to speak in a relaxed, open manner rather than between shrieks of pain is far more useful. Upon identifying someone linked to the group, you can kidnap him, torture him and get answers to what you know. But it is only in doing the hard work of recruiting someone, with whatever inducement, that a nuanced and textured picture takes shape. Torture can reveal some facts, but understanding the enemy is far more complex than just facts.

The more you know, the more useful torture is. But the more you know, the less likely you are to need to torture. In the case of Boston, it would be no holds barred, and torture would be likely. But the Boston example is unlikely because by the time the investigators got the information they had, they could likely figure out the rest. The less information you have, the more you are likely to collect something new. But what you need more than anything else is to figure out what you need to know. And for that you need to begin by talking to a lot of people. Torture is inefficient.

The moral question of torture is whether it is ever appropriate in order to get information. The answer is obvious. If my grandchild were kidnapped, and the kidnapper wouldn’t talk, I would tear his eyeballs out in a second. The reason is moral. The kidnapper’s moral value is nonexistent because of what he did, while my grandchild is guiltless. Protecting the rights of a monster while endangering the innocent is the height of immorality. I don’t believe anyone who claims to be morally offended by torture, until I see him protecting a kidnapper while risking his child’s life.

But as much fun as making the moral argument is, it is minimally connected to the practical question of torture. Torture is rarely useful because you seldom know the owner of the information you need and precisely what you need to know. And if time really is of the essence, you need to be focusing on what you know.

The United States president was elected and sworn in, and is thereby obligated to exercise his best judgment. And on this matter he may choose to be silent. I would, however, like to understand his definition of the utility of torture.

Geopolitical Futures