Sunday, May 10, 2009

Torture, terror, correlation, and causation

This piece at true/slant looks at a correlation between terror attacks and human rights abuses.

...Now, the paper’s conclusions deal not just with torture, but with a broader category of “physical integrity rights” which “protect individuals from the extrajudicial murder, disappearance, torture, or political imprisonment by the authorities.” What it finds is that more respect for physical integrity rights, represented on the x-axis below, leads to less terrorism, represented on the y-axis...

Graph at link above.

So, what about torture specifically?
Torture has a negative and statistically significant relationship to terrorism in all three models. In other words, countries that engage in more torture (and thus have a lower score on the torture variable) consistenly experience more, not less, of both domestic and transnational terrorism. This mirrors the more general finding reported in the paper that respect for human rights is associated with less terror as well.
Now, correlation doesn’t prove causation. While Walsh and Piazza put forward a theory of causation (that violating physical integrity rights spurs terrorism, as mentioned above), it’s not conclusively proven by the paper.

More study is needed.

And, of course, there’s the question of whether the causation might be the other way around. As in: Do countries that experience more terror tend to adopt torture? Walsh answers this possibility in this comment on his blog:
This is an important point. I think it’s unlikely to be the case, but it’s not a open and shut case. The best way to address this with statistical data would be to use a two stage least squares or instrumental variable model. We’ve tried this but had difficulty coming up with an appropriate instrument. In the paper that’s referenced in the initial post we used a second best strategy of lagging terrorism by a few years. Our main findings held up, which suggests that the abuse is driving the terror and not the other way around. But this is a question that’s begging for a more definitive answer.
At the very least, this has to give supporters of torture (or “enhanced interrogation”) some pause. The proof that overly harsh tactics are counterproductive in a struggle like our is far from trivial. This is important work adding to that debate.

One of the things that's going to muddy the waters is that a lot of what we classify as terrorist attacks also violate the personal integrity of their victims. As terrorists ramp up their attacks, is it so unreasonable to expect people to want to violate their personal integrity?

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