Walking in the steps of soft interrogation

:: life, politics

For many years I visited Frankfurt Musikmesse. Roughly speaking, Musikmesse is Europe’s equivalent of the NAMM show in the US.

Folks from my company would stay north of Frankfurt at the Mövenpick Hotel in Oberursel. It was more affordable and very comfortable. The front desk staff remained the same for many years. They got to know us—the obviously American, odd musician types—and were very friendly.

A couple years ago, I’d scheduled to fly home on Sunday, in case I needed to have more meetings on Saturday. The meetings never materialized, and I took it as a free day. The April weather was unseasonably warm. I walked into Oberursel’s small “downtown” and explored it like I never had before. At some point I ended up wandering into paths that led through parks and open fields. It was very beautiful.

Today I read the BBC article about Obergefreiter Hanns Scharff, the WWII interrogator who used kindness over violence. In short, he got amazing results via his “firm conviction that interrogation could succeed without treating prisoners in an inhumane manner.” As the BBC says, this is a timely topic:

Scharff died in California 20 years ago but his legacy remains. At first his name did not figure in the sharp and bitter public exchanges about the morality of waterboarding and so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were sanctioned by President George Bush and inflicted on alleged terrorists detained in Abu Ghraib prison, Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA detention centre.

What did he do instead?

He pretended to be a prisoner’s best pal. Masquerading as a nice guy, Scharff arranged for special treats outside the confines of Dulag Luft. He arranged for one prisoner to enjoy a brief flight in a German fighter plane, prisoners were treated to slap-up feeds with German fliers, granted medical treatment and even permitted to go on an outing to the local zoo.

Typically, after extracting a precautionary undertaking that he would not use the opportunity to make a bid to escape, a prisoner could enjoy a visit to Oberursel forest, with Scharff acting as chaperone and guide.

Rambling along woodland paths the two men chatted about the flora and fauna and engaged in small talk, including for example, musing about British and US social activities or customs.

Wait, what? Oberursel?

It turns out I may have unknowingly been walking on the same paths as did Scharff and his prisoners over 50 years ago.

Others should walk that path. Well, the metaphorical path: Not only is torture unethical, it’s less effective than smarter interrogation approaches.