Opinion Society

Take the World to Tiffany’s: America Must Show the World We Stand for Our Values

Wikimedia Commons; pixabay
Written by Vera Wilde

Revelations about American torture post-9/11 keep coming. Recently, such revelations show the Justice Department lied to Congress about reading the CIA Torture Report, the CIA doesn’t seem to think it was such a big deal to violate international law, and coercive interrogation practices in domestic police departments relate to those abroad. They also suggest direct links between these post-9/11 American detention and interrogation practices, and the development of the Islamic State.

Like any relationship, security is about trust. Make the world feel safe, and she can be amazing. Break her trust, have a nice night on the couch. Procedural justice research bears out the evidentiary basis for this common-sense logic. Evidence shows that when people trust that police are legitimate, they’re more likely to cooperate and behave in law-abiding ways. When they don’t, they’re less likely to talk to police and follow the rules. Feeling that you can trust the police leads to trusting police, which can in turn help the police do their jobs to keep us safe.

America is sleeping on the couch. We are in danger because the world has lost trust in our moral authority — with good reason. And the world is less safe — less free to be her amazing self — because of it.

We’re on the couch for three main reasons. First, U.S. forces tortured innocent detainees abroad after 9/11. Second, police killed unarmed civilians like Michael Brown at home in several recent, high-profile cases. And third, our security forces then failed to show the world that we mean it when we denounce prejudice and violence — that we stand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This was a failure of so-called costly or honest signaling—signaling that it takes a lot of effort to produce, so it’s relatively credible.

Officially sanctioned U.S. torture has become a tool for terrorist recruitment, legal impunity for police brutality a rationale for brutality in turn. Like makes like. Mistrust breeds mistrust in what international relations scholars call a mistrust spiral.

But the inverse is also true. Trust makes more trust. That matters, because higher trust correlates with better individual health, educational, and emotional outcomes — as well as better economic development outcomes at a country level. Trust is a proxy of the world feeling safe to flourish.

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And that’s good news because, the vast majority of Americans — including those who protect and serve in various ways — are law-abiding people. We share strong norms of fairness. We basically want to do the right thing, when it matters. It’s human nature, and it’s our liberal democratic legal and cultural framework. Or, if that doesn’t ring true to you — our most cherished values of liberty and justice for all have always been aspirational, and that’s fine. We have all done and want to do better than our worst mistakes.

But we can’t just say we mean it when we express fidelity to our shared core values of liberty and justice. We have to show it, too.

We have to take the world to Tiffany’s.

Wedding rings exemplify what scholars call costly signaling. They make no sense in terms of direct utility. The metal and diamond could be put to better use industrially. People could use other stuff to decorate their bodies, cheaper and just as pretty. Yet diamond wedding rings — expensive, useless, and public — are relatively common because they work well as costly signals that the purchaser is invested in a positive joint future.

Costly signaling is a common-sense concept with everyday applications in everyday relationships. But when it comes to security, we’re sucking at it.

Few police chiefs fire officers for killing unarmed civilians — even when those deaths result from officers violating departmental policy. The few who do tend to incur internal backlash. For example, when Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn fired an officer who fatally shot an unarmed civilian last fall, he incurred a no-confidence vote from his police union.

So what? By sending a costly signal that his department condemned the shooting as a rule violation — and meaningfully mourned the resultant loss of life — Chief Flynn probably averted another Ferguson.

Police leadership organizations — Major City Chiefs, Major City Sheriffs, and International Association of Chiefs of Police — need to make firing officers whose policy violations cause death best practice for the field. As usual in the land of red tape, the leadership organizations lag behind the leaders. This is what defines true leadership. Chief Flynn is a profile in courage.

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Similarly, when it comes to costly signaling that we denounce torture, the feds are behind the curve. As a nation, we’re making a big mistake failing to address our security forces’ serious ethical lapses with costly signaling.

We haven’t gotten out of Iraq. Haven’t closed Guantanamo. We haven’t even shut down all our defunct interrogation programs.

American military and intelligence forces instead keep running a bunch of “lie detection” programs. These programs bluff about our ability to detect deception using physiological measures — when there is no deception response to detect. They strap people into chairs to use their bodies against them in a process usually structured by the adversarial and imperfectly evidence-based Reid Interview and Interrogation method that dominates in North American law enforcement. In so doing, these programs cross a bright line of sacred bodily space.

We should shut down these defunct interrogation programs while apologizing for torture, because America is a law-abiding nation. Respecting the integrity of the body and mind — and the ideal that we all have within us a sacred space, untouchable by the state, where we keep pristine the parts of ourselves that we owe only to God — was one of our founding values. We enshrined that ideal in the Bill of Rights in reaction to the coercive interrogation practices of the Star Chamber in England.

What’s more, shutting down all federal lie detection programs to send a costly signal that America condemns coercive interrogation makes us safer against the gravest human threats to global security. Because bad interrogation doesn’t work. We can only debate whether the ends justify the means when the means don’t have consequences that undermine the ends. And torture undermines security by undermining trust and motivating terrorists.

Lie detection has its own, special perverse effect of undermining security where it matters most. It doesn’t work on the worst of the worst — terrorists and spies — because they know polygraphs don’t work. Information about how to “beat the box” is freely available online. And you can’t put information back in the box.

To paraphrase the Dos Equis dude: I don’t always lie to the government. But when I’m a spy I do, and I do my homework. So lie detectors don’t detect or deter the real subgroups of interest in military and intelligence contexts.

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Steve Fienberg and Paul Stern, co-chairs of the National Academy of Sciences Committee to Review the Scientific Evidence on the Polygraph, testified about this application of Bayes’ Rule to the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2003. As a result, the Committee seemed to think the programs should be shut down for national security. But Congress — true to its original design — did nothing. They also did nothing when the CIA demonstrably lied to them about these programs.

The world does not know the U.S. is a law-abiding nation — a nation worth celebrating and protecting — in spite of abuses of power if we do not show and tell them. So we have to take the world to Tiffany’s. When police officers engage in the worst possible abuse of power — taking a life when better practices would have averted that outcome — police leaders must send a costly signal about our shared core values by firing those officers. And when military and intelligence forces run defunct interrogation programs that don’t work and hurt security — like black sites and the polygraph programs that helped funnel some innocent people to them — the Commander in Chief has to shut them down.

Some of those — initially— innocent people have since gone on to become terrorists. They find themselves now working with a group —ISIS — that wants to end the world. Not everyone on-board the ISIS ship is down with that destination. But some dissenters don’t know how to leave without dying.

Most people would rather live in a world in which we embrace shared core values and work for a better future together — than end the world. Let’s make it easier for that sane if silent majority to win the peace.


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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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Take the World to Tiffany’s: America Must Show the World We Stand for Our Values

by Vera Wilde
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