Friday, April 17, 2009

Torture Memos: Food for Thought

In the wake of the recently released Torture Memos by the Obama administration, the following is offered as food for thought.

Coming in From the Cold: CIA Spy Calls Waterboarding Necessary But Torture:
A leader of the CIA team that captured the first major al Qaeda figure, Abu Zubaydah, says subjecting him to waterboarding was torture but necessary.

In the first public comment by any CIA officer involved in handling high-value al Qaeda targets, John Kiriakou, now retired, said the technique broke Zubaydah in less than 35 seconds.

"The next day, he told his interrogator that Allah had visited him in his cell during the night and told him to cooperate," said Kiriakou in an interview to be broadcast tonight on ABC News' "World News With Charles Gibson" and "Nightline."

"From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said. "The threat information he provided disrupted a number of attacks, maybe dozens of attacks."
And here's a look at the issue through the lenses of Science and Game Theory:

Assume for the moment that torture was used on terrorists like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (KSM) ("principal architect" of the 9/11 attacks). The science of immune systems (Immunology), Evolution and an analysis informed by Game Theory offer us billions of years of 'best practices' in dealing with deadly threats that can be translated to the moral challenges our society faces in the Global War on Terror.

Game Theory is often used as a tool to abstract and model the payoffs of various strategies and responses in biology and human behavior (eg: Cheating Viruses and Game Theory and Tit for Tat). John Maynard Smith and George R. Price used game theory concepts to develop the category of Evolutionary Game Theory analysis. The use of torture against terrorists as a last resort is analogous to the last resort strategies utilized by the immune system; a defense mechanism whose strategies have withstood the test of time through error and trial.

In principle, an immune system works to protect an organism by attacking pathogens that would do it harm. White blood cells, or leukocytes, are constantly at work defending against harmful microbes in the body. The fevers we experience when our bodies get the flu, a 'high-level attack' and a disease that takes 250,000 to 500,000 humans annually, are part of the overall defenses the immune system utilizes. A fever's prolonged high temperatures can cause death. That's why the body maintains a normal temperature when it is simply experiencing 'low-level attacks', like the germs that infect a small wound on your hand.

Unfortunately, the immune system's protection comes at a price; it's a two-edged sword with built-in imperfections. Sometimes it attacks the very organism it's trying to defend. This condition is called Autoimmunity. Rheumatology is one branch of medicine that treats one of these imperfections.

Eons of evolution have given us an immune system that precariously balances aggressive actions, like high fevers, with unintended consequences. We must remind ourselves that the attack-and-defend interplay between pathogens and immune systems is not a steady-state system, but is co-evolving. One of the more fascinating adaptations is the process of active immunity and its production of antibodies. With active immunity, an immune system is constantly re-programming itself in response to the diseases/attacks it has survived.

Much like the immune system uses a potentially deadly fever as a last resort defense mechanism, our society should keep waterboarding as a legitimate, but rarely used, tool to protect the greater good. Particularly against individuals like KSM who are determined to destroy our society.

The argument is often made that the Geneva Conventions and policies against torture are there to protect our soldiers. But the historical evidence doesn't support this claim. The Nazis and Japanese abused POWs during WWII. POWs were tortured during the Vietnam War. And more recently, our troops have been tortured to death in Iraq.

Like a doctor treating a patient, our society should be guided by the core principles of 'first do no harm' and the Golden Rule (treat others as you would have them treat you) as we debate and evolve our policies. Implied within the Golden Rule and the Geneva Conventions is an expectation of reciprocity; even from our enemies. It's worth remembering that al-Qaida and its operatives are not signatories to the Geneva Conventions and have no claim on its protection.

While water boarding is an extreme tactic, it is justified by the extreme measures our enemies have taken against us. Our challenge is to make sure that we judiciously use this tool and don't allow a potential abuse that would result in an attack on the very society we're trying to protect; à la an autoimmune disease. We must be mindful of the potential hazard of declaring the operation (our anti-terrorism tactics) a success at the expense of losing the patient (our ethics and morals).

Related:
Update: Intel chief: Harsh techniques brought good info

1 Comments:

Anonymous MAS1916 said...

Say what you will about Bush 43. He took care of job 1. After 9/11 there were no attacks on American soil. The interrogation efforts allowed then President Bush to thwart additional attacks and save American lives.

Obama is now going to apologize for that, too. Prosecuting those that kept us safe is absolutely unbelievable.

April 22, 2009 at 10:20 AM  

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