The Persistence of Torture: Explaining Coercive Interrogation in America’s Small Wars
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Why has the United States used torture in small wars over the last hundred-plus years? After all, torture is morally bankrupt, risky, and frequently ineffective as an interrogation method. I argue that the anti-torture norm has two features that can lead to torture. First, because it is difficult to separate torture from milder acts, the norm lacks specificity. This allows practitioners to portray their behavior as something short of torture and redefine torture to exclude their behavior. Second, the anti-torture norm can, paradoxically, encourage torture by attracting those who believe unscrupulous methods confer advantages on those who use them. The two explanations interact as well: torture occurs because actors believe that torture is harsh enough to work, and the definition of torture is blurry enough that actors believe they can sell their methods as legitimate. Through archival and bibliographic research, I confirm these patterns in three different settings: the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), the CIA from its founding to the Vietnam War, and the post-2001 war on terror.
- Political science