Tag Archives: Torture

Yet More Fascism

To follow-up on my earlier post, I think liberal and libertarian accusations of creeping totalitarianism are as obnoxious and counterproductive as the histrionics of their conservative counterparts. Yes, John Yoo’s skewed interpretation of the Constitution is downright scary, and yes, the Bush Administration’s approach to detainee treatment and warrantless surveillance was Kafka-esque. But we certainly weren’t living in a dictatorship circa 2004, and there ought to be some context for these discussions. Put another way: Bush may have created a number of dangerous precedents for an unscrupulous successor to exploit, but if he was a despot, he would rank as one of the most ineffective autocrats in history.

Elsewhere: And if you’re looking for some context, Daniel McCarthy will gladly point you in the right direction.

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You set yourself up for that one

Andrew Sullivan lands a clean blow.

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Filed under Conservatism, Culture

Tortuous Distinctions

John Schwenkler’s short post on Phi Kappa Gitmo provoked an interesting exchange on detainee mistreatment in the comments section. One point that’s worth addressing is from commenter “Pan Cascadian”:

I think torture should carry very heavy penalties. Having said that, I can understand a particular commander feeling that torture was warranted or necessary in a given situation.

Pan Cascadian goes on to condemn torture, even under exigent circumstances, but this still raises a crucial point. Is it possible to limit the use of torture to certain extreme scenarios? Krauthammer’s 2005 article on the subject is frequently caricatured as some sort of proto-fascist diatribe, but it’s actually a carefully thought-out schematic for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’d venture that his proposed solution – a regularized torture regime that combines rigorous oversight with the training of extremely specialized interrogators – is actually more humane than the Bush Administration’s willy-nilly approach.

So why wouldn’t this work? Simple – it’s extremely difficult to limit the application of torture to a few readily-identifiable situations. Here’s a telling example from the Boston Globe (the whole article is well worth your time):

If the spread of torture techniques suggests a blurry line between “us” and “them,” it also teaches that there’s no real boundary between “there” and “here.” It would be ignoring history to assume that what happens in an American-run prison in Iraq will stay in Iraq. Soldiers who learn torture techniques abroad get jobs as police when they return, and the new developments in torture you read about today could yet be employed in a neighborhood near you. In Chicago, in the decade after Vietnam, the use of magnetos and other clean tortures left a disaster: At least 11 men were sentenced to death and many others given long-term prison sentences based on confessions extracted by torture, and in 2003, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates. Earlier this month the City of Chicago agreed to pay nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former death row inmates who claimed they were tortured and wrongly convicted.

Brazil’s experience with “enhanced interrogation” should also give one pause:

. . . the Brazilian military dictatorship’s use of torture was far from being a sudden shift in the politico-criminal landscape, pointing out that torture had been used against criminal suspects and the (Afro-descendant) poor since at least the late-19th century. (Skidmore suggests that the use of torture against darker-skinned “criminals” is a direct legacy of slavery, abolished in Brazil only in 1888; while it’s difficult to quantitatively prove this, it makes a lot of sense). And just as the dictatorship didn’t initiate torture in Brazil (though it certainly did escalate it), torture didn’t end with the military governments in 1985, either, and continues to be a problem today . . .

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Bad Framing (II)

Mother Jones takes 24 to task for normalizing torture. Here’s Kevin Drum:

After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don’t live in the world of 24, guys. And we don’t. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won’t do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it’s your call blah blah? Pretty low, I’d guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

Well, yes, we don’t live in the world of 24. One of the reasons I think 24 makes us uncomfortable, however, is that while its portrayal of terrorism is totally outlandish, it does get at the torture debate’s fundamental quandary. Like it or not, torture can be effective under certain circumstances. These circumstances are not nearly as ubiquitous as the show’s plot lines suggest, but it’s still a possibility we have to confront. Drum’s objection seems to be something along the lines of “Well, 24 is so self-evidently ridiculous that there can never be any pragmatic justification for torturing a suspect.” This is simply not true, and using 24 as a stand-in for other, more nuanced advocates of coercive interrogation makes for a pretty weak pragmatic case against detainee mistreatment. Over the course of a long post on waterboarding, Stephen Walt concedes as much, noting that “[a] realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country . . .” Absent some appeal to morality, the arguments for a categorical ban on torture are just incredibly weak.

UPDATE: Just to clarify – I wholeheartedly oppose torture. I do think, however, that any argument questioning coercive interrogation solely on the basis of “effectiveness” is extremely unpersuasive.

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Bad Framing

This strikes me as a bad way to go about arguing against torture:

There’s something intuitive about torture. Hurt something until it breaks. The phrasing of the the 24 scenario plays implicitly on that intuition: Do you do the thing that works and saves lives? Or do you let abstract principle ensure the deaths of thousands? Framed thus, it’s an easy argument to win. When applied to policy, though, it directly ensures the deaths of thousands and fails to capture the worst of the terrorists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture is ineffective under most circumstances, though I suspect that Reuel Marc Gerecht, for all his ideological posturing, knows quite a bit more about the efficacy of coercive interrogation than the American Prospect’s resident health care blogger. Regardless, it’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario in which traditional interrogation methods are rendered inoperative. Perhaps an interrogator is faced with certain time constraints. Or perhaps a particularly hardened suspect simply refuses to break. In 2005, Charles Krauthammer summarized our dilemma thusly:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion–yes, in this case even torture is permissible–is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you’ve established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that’s left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when–i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Moreover, there are empirical examples that prove his point. Consider the following excerpt from a Washington Post article in 2005:

Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.

“If we’d been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held,” Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines.

My larger point isn’t that torture is appropriate or morally justified; simply that objecting to the practice on purely pragmatic grounds cedes too much to advocates of  coercive interrogation. There will always be instances where torturing a suspect is more expedient or effective than the available alternatives. But the case against detainee mistreatment was never a tactical one. It has always been grounded in an important moral insight: human dignity should not depend on the whim of circumstance. I think it’s foolish and morally dishonest to suggest that a blanket prohibition on torture will never hamper our intelligence-gathering capabilities. But some things are simply more important.

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Filed under Morality, Terrorism

Victor Davis Cassandra

Greenwald the Indispensable highlights a noticeable shift in rhetoric from Senators Feinstein and Wyden on torture. The worst part about this nonsense is that Democrats are literally following a script laid out by Victor Davis Hanson, National Review’s resident classics scholar fire-breathing populist. Hanson remains serenely self-confident that his absurdly inflated assessment of the terrorist threat is God’s Own Truth, and therefore predicted that liberals would quickly jettison their “extremist” positions on FISA, torture and Iraq upon assuming power. Now that Feinstein and Wyden have capitulated, he’s two-for-two in the predictions department.

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The Benefit of the Doubt

Andrew Sullivan fisks Kristol’s latest on torture and presidential pardons. Obviously, I don’t want to see anyone implicated in torture get away scot free, but focusing on lower-level implementers – rather than the policymakers who implicitly or explicitly authorized their actions – strikes me as a bad idea. CIA agents who participated in waterboarding were probably operating under the assumption that what they were doing was both legal and necessary. The same goes for the NSA analysts who wiretapped phone calls without prior judicial authorization. Given the climate of political urgency immediately following 9/11, I think most low-level implementers should benefit from some legal latitude.

So in one sense, at least, Kristol is right. A public witch-hunt that hones in on a few hapless CIA agents misses the larger issue of the Administration’s complicity. As a matter of pragmatic politics, I also think going after a few big fish would be less divisive than the alternative. Low level bureaucrats following orders in the wake of an unprecedented national tragedy are actually pretty sympathetic figures. Bush Administration flacks who had access to the requisite legal background and were responsible for implementing an abusive interrogation policy, on the other hand, are not only more guilty, they’re also easier targets. Going after low level scapegoats is usually the path of least resistance, but Bush’s legacy of incompetence has laid the groundwork for holding people accountable. After eight years of disastrous mismanagement, an unforgiving public is a lot less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt to Administration higher ups.

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Filed under Morality, Terrorism, The Courts