A year of research transforms
Norwich student’s views on torture © Nov. 21, 2008, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich University senior Michael Self has studied implications of the use of torture in interrogation for a year.

photo by Jay EricsonFor a year, Norwich University senior Michael Self studied implications of the use of torture in interrogation.

Not long ago, if you had asked Norwich University senior Michael Self whether torture should be used to pry information from terror suspects to prevent another Sept. 11-type event, he would have answered, “Absolutely.”

But, after spending a year conducting research on torture, often referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the criminal justice major changed his mind.

“I was definitely of the warrior mindset, which almost followed the Bush administration’s approach, which was when we went into Afghanistan we viewed the Geneva Convention as an obstacle to the goal of getting actionable intelligence,” said Self. “Coming off of 9/11, my mindset was, ‘Tough. Get business done.’”

Deeper into his research, however, Self’s view began to evolve.

My ultimate conclusion is that it’s not worth torturing terror suspects.

~ Michael Self,
criminal justice major

“I learned about the ineffectiveness of torture, about the extreme costs in terms of credibility, the loss of moral high ground, violation of international law and the bending of American ideals in an ideological war,” he said. “My ultimate conclusion is that it’s not worth torturing terror suspects for the chance—I emphasize, chance—to get actionable intelligence.”

Self’s research grew out of a paper he wrote for a criminal procedure class at Norwich, the oldest private military college in the U.S., for Associate Professor Robin Adler. He decided to examine interrogation techniques employed by the military on captured enemy combatants in the war against terrorism, which he calls “the war against Islamic extremism.”

He started his research based on what he initially thought was a “yes or no” question. For a year, Self directed it to his parents, fellow students, faculty members and interview subjects: Is it worth sacrificing the human rights of terror suspects for the chance to gain information that could prevent another 9/11?

“As many times as I have tried to tell my fellow scholars that it is a yes or no answer, it most certainly never gets answered that way,” said Self. “It is, as I’m forced to conclude, complicated.”

He believes the question is made more difficult by hot-button issues surrounding torture, such as military tribunals, Supreme Court rulings on the rights of detainees and the controversial detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It’s also complicated, he believes, because people have already made up their minds.

“They hear ‘torture’ and they close down and it’s very difficult to engage them,” said Self.

He describes the divide as one between attitudes of “moral elitists” and the “warrior class.”

“Moral elitists are people who have already made their minds up that it’s not worth torturing people no matter the cost in the short term,” said Self. “The attitude of the warrior class is ‘Do you want to be safe? Then let me do my job.’”

Self’s research was hindered by what he terms “the black wall”—silence of individuals connected with national security. However, through interviews with former military personnel, United Nations documents, U.S. government documents, professional literature and credible Internet sources, he completed his initial paper. Adler was so impressed she arranged for Self to present his findings at a criminal justice conference in Missouri in March 2008.

While working on his paper, Self interviewed Rowland Brucken, because of the NU associate professor of history’s research into the U.S. role in establishing instruments of international law and human rights after World War II. Brucken encouraged Self to continue his work, which led to a summer undergraduate research grant that included a stipend and housing.

Brucken is not surprised Self’s position on torture changed.

“I was confident that the more he got into the research, his views would evolve, although not necessarily to the extent they have now; that his views would change as many views on topics change once people get more information,” said Brucken.

A crucial moment in the evolution of Self’s thesis came when he made a presentation at Norwich in summer 2008. At the time, Self still held that torture is allowable in limited circumstances.

“He faced some very challenging questions from professors and students in the audience because his thinking on the subject was evolving,” said Brucken. “His thesis back then wasn’t a strong one because it was equivocal and that opened him to criticism from either side. I think it was a sign to Michael that he had to come to a more succinct thesis, however it evolved.”

Brucken will include some of Self’s research in a book he is writing. The chapter is on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of the abolition of torture as a human right that belongs to everyone,” said Brucken.

Self is wrapping up the research that dominated his academic life for a year. He hopes to present his paper at other conferences and possibly have it published.

“Because we’re in an ideological war, trying to win hearts and minds and because of the limited effectiveness of torture, it’s just not worth it,” said Self. “I never would have said that before I started this research.”