Once again, the subject of torture has become the topic de jour, suitable for front page fodder. Now for me, listening to Joan Rivers for more than two minutes is cruel and unusual punishment, such that it makes one want to retire to the local sawmill to relax and avoid the nasal screeching. So biting analysis of current red carpet fashion trends aside, what can we say about torture?

First and foremost, there is substantial evidence that prolonged torture can produce whatever testimony is desired by the torturer. It is this argument that is used to establish that torture is a useless and misbegotten tool of interrogation and that the United States of America should never stoop to its utilization. Before proceeding along these lines, it is instructive to compare some methods of torture that have been well documented and in frequent use over the last few centuries of civilization. I might add that many of these were not taken to be cruel and unusal punishments, just standard fare.

One of my favorites, used in the nautical realm, is keel-hauling. In this instantiation, the subject is bound with separate ropes, one binding his ankles and another his hands. He is ‘turned off’ the bow of the ship with a rope on either side and dragged to the stern of the ship, passing his body under the keel of the ship. Not so bad one might say if the bloke was really good at holding his breath. An understandable misconception if you are envisioning smooth streamlined steel hulls. But during the epoch when this was prevalent, hulls were primarily wood, and wooden hulls became fouled by the tendency for small marine creatures (mollusks and barnacles) to attach themselves to the hull. A clean hull within three months would become totally encrusted dropping five to ten knots off of the hull speed. Barnacles are shellfish with particularly nasty sharp edges on their shells so keel-hauling a bloke is the equivalent of pulling him over a cabbage grater with very large teeth. Needless to say, the ability to hold one’s breath was not a significant determining factor. The survival rate was generally low enough that the threat of keel-hauling was sufficient to make the most recalcitrant subject open up like a book.

One favorite of the Middle Kingdom consisted of having the subject ingest the sprouts of small plants which would proceed to grow in the subject’s intestines causing extreme pain. And with all of that accumulated acupuncture knowledge, the location of ganglia clusters and accumulation of nerve endings provided ample opportunity for inventive interrogation techniques. Bamboo shoots under the fingernails is one example — the fingers are a very high nerve density area.

Ah — Merry Ole Englande. One interrogation technique extensively used was the drawing and quartering procedure. Granted that this method was somewhat terminal, useful only for extracting the last expression of truth before facing the final arbitrator. In this procedure, ropes were attached to each arm and each leg and then to horses. After the ropes were tensioned, the horses were prodded to walk forward with the result that the thighs and upper arms were dislocated from their joints, and I mean ‘hyper-extended’. Following this procedure, the quartering consisted of using a sharp axe to separate the already extended limbs. It should be noted that the head was allowed to remain attached so that the appropriate confession could be obtained (interspersed, we assume with screams). Again, perhaps cruel, but by no means unusual.

American Indians, those noble inhabitants of the southeast (before forceable relocation to the southwest), devised a plan where by the subject was buried to the neck. Confessions were a matter of timing — did the interrogator get his answer prior to the wild animals and crows getting their desserts. Once in the southwest where digging was difficult, the subject was tied to hills of fireants, sometimes with sweet sap from trees and plants rubbed into the hair.

As one can see, the list can go on and on in ever more graphic detail. We won’t even get started on the Spanish Inquisition. After all, anything done in the name of God, and with the moral authority of saving your immortal soul, simply can’t be cruel and unusal punishment.

The US Navy Seals utilize a Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program to harden special forces troops. This is a case where the training involves cruel and unusual procedures specifically because it is believed that the enemies of the US will use such methods on our forces. This training allows forces to know what to expect (and likely provides motivation for the ‘evasion’ portion of the training.) So the US certainly does use torture—specifically on its own troops as a training aide. This brings to light a minor point—if torture is of limited efficacy, why train people to resist? Why not just instruct forces to capitulate and tell the enemy what it wants to know? The answer is that once you provide information you are of no further use, and can be eliminated (read killed). So survival is, in part, an exercise of holding off sufficiently long to deny the enemy a reason to eliminate you.

The part that people seem to miss is that all of this is an exercise in psychological warfare. People want the United States to be viewed as that “shining beacon on the hill” and above such despicable behavior as actually torturing people. While we would like to engrave in a stone tablet the noble statement that the United States will never participate in cruel and unusual punishment or condone torture, the minute we do so puts the United States at a severe disadvantage. Yes, it might be policy that torture is never used, but as soon as that policy is made public, and the enemy becomes aware of it, captives will clam up and spout words like ‘Miranda’ or ‘Habeas Corpus’ knowing full well that they only have to wait. al Qaeda will have a training program in American criminal law faster than you can say IED.

By not enunciating a policy, the United States has the psychological advantage — the perpetrator doesn’t know for sure that he won’t be tortured. After all, it is likely that torture is the standard procedure in his home kingdom, so it would be prudent to assume that the United States would do it also. It is the thought of torture, not torture per se, that evokes the desired response. What the perpetrator needs to know is that if you mess with the US, bad things will happen. Period. End of Story.

Certain politicians are using the noble sentiment of the people of the United States, who by and large find torture abhorrent, to serve their narrow political ends. Most of them likely know better (or perhaps I give them too much credit), but the short term political gains outweigh the benefit to the United States at large. The techniques which have been shown to be effective, and have reportedly been used, don’t approach the barbarity of the techniques developed by the early Spanish (Inquisition), the Dutch (“keel-hauling”), native Americans (ant-hills), and even Genghis Khan or Pol Pot.

Pundits may debate the ethics of torture and presume to hold America to a higher standard, but when America plays by the rules, and the other side has no rules, has memorized your rulebook, and games the system, the game gets tiring rather quickly. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard, but it’s not necessarily in our interest to broadcast what that standard is.