It sounds a little benign, but the issues surrounding torture are very much communication issues. I don’t consider pure torture to be communicative in the proper sense of the term but a decision not to torture is certainly communicative because it means information will be extracted and processed through the communication process. There is nothing wrong with interrogating someone purely through the interactional process with the goal of trying to get information, as long as this process remains fully symbolic. But of course any process that is fully symbolic and “interactive” in the most straightforward sense of the term is subject to wide latitudes of interpretation, pragmatic complexities, and semantic confusions. Prevarication is always part of a pure human symbolic activity not to mention time constraints, speed of information acquisition, and other practical limitations.
People start to justify torture when the information is considered crucial and must be obtained quickly. Moreover, the moral argument is typically overcome by the principle of the “greater good.” In other words, the potential to save lives or do good outweighs the opportunity to maintain moral purity. Security and intelligence specialists feel responsible for protecting the lives of others and thus acquiring information from an enemy is vital. Torture becomes justified by an appeal to a “higher” good.
There remains the question of simply whether or not torture works. In other words if a political system institutes a program of torture is it the case that inputting torture leads to an output of truth. Arrigo posits three potential theoretical suggestions for how torture leads to truth. These are the animal instinct model, the cognitive failure model, and the data processing model. Each has complexities and strengths and weaknesses that are beyond our concern here but all share an “informational” quality in terms of predictions about whether or not the model leads to the truth it seeks.
Briefly, the animal instinct model is simply that in order to avoid pain or death one will meet the demands of the torturer and utter the truth. The problem with this model is that it requires considerable brutality and subjects will say anything to avoid the pain. A second model is the cognitive failure model and it holds that torture creates incompetence in the subject and it is impossible for him to maintain any deceptions. This process is lengthy which makes information less valuable over time of and often the subject can’t distinguish between true statements and erroneous ones. The third model is the data processing model and it poses the theoretical position that extracts bits and pieces of both true and false information from subjects and then uses that with other information to complete a comprehensive analysis. This is the most common model and approximates the way interrogation specialists whether they inflict pain or not actually operate. They defend the information value of their work by defending the notion of accumulating small bits of information that finally amounts to something.
In the end, torture just doesn’t work very well. Of course appeals to morality and democratic liberties are potent arguments that must be respected. But the arguments for enhanced interrogation or torture by any definition always include the pleas for speed and the “ticking bomb” argument that some disaster must be prevented immediately. More than a few studies have reported the ill consequences of coercive interrogation which are serious societal moral objections, false evidence, manipulated evidence, corrosive corruption and secrecy, and even the involvement of organized crime. Arrigo reports that changes in information value when torture is permitted are negligible.
When the public feels threatened it resorts quickly to extreme means to solve problems and identify dangers. The public support for torture varies as a function of its perception of threat. Managing these threats through communicative and political means will eliminate the conditions that nourish the demand for coercive interrogation, and eliminate the time pressure that justifies such interrogations.