Friday, December 09, 2005

Andrew Sullivan on torture, and more

Andrew Sullivan responds to Charles Krauthammer's article on torture, here. Definitely worth reading.

Some highlights:

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another. Not just confinement of his mobility--the abolition of his very agency. Torture uses a person's body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood.

...

This is a radical and daring idea: that we must extinguish human freedom in a few cases in order to maintain it for everyone else. It goes beyond even the Bush administration's own formal position, which states that the United States will not endorse torture but merely "coercive interrogation techniques." (Such techniques, in the administration's elaborate definition, are those that employ physical force short of threatening immediate death or major organ failure.) And it is based on a premise that deserves further examination: that our enemies actually deserve torture; that some human beings are so depraved that, in Krauthammer's words, they "are entitled to no humane treatment."

Let me state for the record that I am second to none in decrying, loathing, and desiring to defeat those who wish to replace freedom with religious tyranny of the most brutal kind--and who have murdered countless innocent civilians in cold blood. Their acts are monstrous and barbaric. But I differ from Krauthammer by believing that monsters remain human beings. In fact, to reduce them to a subhuman level is to exonerate them of their acts of terrorism and mass murder--just as animals are not deemed morally responsible for killing. Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit.

And, if they are human, then they must necessarily not be treated in an inhuman fashion. You cannot lower the moral baseline of a terrorist to the subhuman without betraying a fundamental value.


These two crucial points bear repeating.

(1) One of the great dangers of sanctioning torture in any form is the risk of developing the mentality that "they deserve it" -- which means that torture may be used even when it's not necessary to extract vital information, and may become an occasion for morally sanctioned sadistic enjoyment.

(2) However horrendous the terrorists' deeds may be, to regard them as subhuman is a betrayal not only of our own humanity, but of the need to hold them accountable for their evil acts.

Sullivan also addresses Krauthammer's question about what is to be done in a "ticking timb bomb" when we have in our custody a terrorist possessing information that could prevent, say, the nuclear annihilation of New York in the next 24 hours.

It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They do so for demonstrative reasons. They are not saying that laws don't matter. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

In extremis, a rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with the kind of horrendous decision on which Krauthammer rests his entire case. What should a president do? The answer is simple: He may have to break the law. In the Krauthammer scenario, a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself--and so must those assigned to conduct the torture--to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punished -- or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law for, in Krauthammer's words, such a "terrible and monstrous thing." In Michael Walzer's formulation, if we are to have dirty hands, it is essential that we show them to be dirty.

What Krauthammer is proposing, however, is not this compromise, which allows us to retain our soul as a free republic while protecting us from catastrophe in an extremely rare case. He is proposing something very different: that our "dirty hands" be wiped legally clean before and after the fact. That is a Rubicon we should not cross, because it marks the boundary between a free country and an unfree one.

Krauthammer, moreover, misses a key lesson learned these past few years. What the hundreds of abuse and torture incidents have shown is that, once you permit torture for someone somewhere, it has a habit of spreading.

Precisely.

Sullivan also offers a helpful historical analogy:

In World War II, American soldiers were often tortured by the Japanese when captured. But FDR refused to reciprocate. Why? Because he knew that the goal of the war was not just Japan's defeat but Japan's transformation into a democracy. He knew that, if the beacon of democracy--the United States of America--had succumbed to the hallmark of totalitarianism, then the chance for democratization would be deeply compromised in the wake of victory.

No one should ever underestimate the profound impact that the conduct of American troops in World War II had on the citizens of the eventually defeated Axis powers. Germans saw the difference between being liberated by the Anglo-Americans and being liberated by the Red Army. If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe. If you didn't, the terror would continue in different ways. Ask any German or Japanese of the generation that built democracy in those countries, and they will remind you of American values--not trumpeted by presidents in front of handpicked audiences, but demonstrated by the conduct of the U.S. military during occupation. ...

If American conduct was important in Japan and Germany, how much more important is it in Iraq and Afghanistan. ... In Iraq, we had a chance not just to tell but to show the Iraqi people how a democracy acts. And, tragically, in one critical respect, we failed. That failure undoubtedly contributed to the increased legitimacy of the insurgency and illegitimacy of the occupation, and it made collaboration between informed Sunnis and U.S. forces far less likely. What minuscule intelligence we might have plausibly gained from torturing and abusing detainees is vastly outweighed by the intelligence we have forfeited by alienating many otherwise sympathetic Iraqis and Afghans, by deepening the divide between the democracies, and by sullying the West's reputation in the Middle East.

And that's an excellent point, too. In response to my recent column on torture in The Boston Globe, I received an email with the saracstic subject line, "The horror. The horror," whose author wrote:

You write: "If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there's no telling how low we're going to go on that slippery slope."

But if we declare torture is never acceptable and broadcast it to the world, the next time we capture a couple of terrorists they can comfort one another with this gentle reminder, "Don't worry; all they can do is mess with your head."

But is there any appreciable benefit for us from terrorists, including rank-and-file insurgents in Iraq, knowing that they may be tortured if captured? Will such knowledge lead some to commit suicide or fight to the death rather than surrender, thus preventing us from obtaining useful infomation? And is it possible that the rank-and-file insurgents are people whose hearts and minds could still be won -- something that will be much less likely if we gain a reputation as torturers?


Update: A question that has come up in the comments, and has also been raised by Jonah Goldberg at The Corner: Why is it so much worse to torture someone than to kill or imprison them, since loss of freedom and especially death also amount to drastic violations of human rights? It seems to me that one of Andrew Sullivan's points -- that torture uses what is animal in us to defeat what is human -- is very salient here. Unlike imprisonment, torture robs the individual of all control of his or her body and mind. It's quite possible to maintain one's human dignity and selfhood while imprisoned; not so under torture, which reduces one's entire being to animal sensation. Death does not do that; it simply ends the individual's existence, in this world or altogether (depending on what your beliefs are). Of course, there are many examples of people choosing death over severe pain -- not only because of the suffering involved, I suspect, but also because of the loss of dignity.

Update 2: Jonah replies, arguing, in essence, that Andrew Sullivan and I (and other anti-torture absolutists) are merely expressing a subjective viewpoint that torture is worse than death or punishment. He makes an argument that I think has showed up in my comments as well:

I would take fifty lashes and some waterboarding over the death penalty any day of the week. Indeed, I'd take fifty lashes and waterboarding over fifty years in jail.

Well, so would I, probably. But I think that's neither here nor there. If I had a choice between being gang-raped and being accidentally run over by a car and killed, I'd choose the gang rape, but that doesn't make the rapist morally superior to the reckless driver. A lot of criminals here in the U.S. might choose having a hand chopped off over serving 25 years in prison. Yet we, quite rightly I think, regard societies that chop off people's hands and ears as punishment as far more barbaric than ours.

Jonah also writes:

Young and Sullivan are imposing their aesthetic standards of their consciences, for want of a better term, to the torture debate and elevating them above everyone else's.

Not to sound overly melodramatic here, but I find it rather frightening that Jonah is reducing a basic principle of post-Enlightenment Western culture -- the bodily inviolability of the individual as a cardinal principle -- to mere aesthetic preference.

50 comments:

Brad said...

"Insisting on the humanity of terrorists is, in fact, critical to maintaining their profound responsibility for the evil they commit."

Tremendous words.

Revenant said...

Are there any new arguments being presented here? It seems like the exact same points were covered during the last round of torture debates. Anyway, two points:

This is a radical and daring idea: that we must extinguish human freedom in a few cases in order to maintain it for everyone else.

The imprisonment or execution of convicted criminals are both based in the principle of denying human freedom to a few in order to preserve it for many. Sullivan's quite wrong in thinking the concept is radical or daring. It is neither; it is ancient and well-founded in accepted systems of ethics and morality.

If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe.

The British did use torture during the Second World War. Indeed, the Brits used torture on troublesome groups (such as the IRA) until relatively recently. Also, so we really want to use Allied behavior during World War II as the gold standard for moral conduct in war? If torture is wrong because FDR refused to use it, is internment of American civilians right because he *did* use it?

Jonah Goldberg had a pretty good refutation of Sullivan's argument in this Corner post.

Tom said...

Re: the ticking time bomb argument - has there ever been a case in the real world where someone has prevent said bomb from going off by torturing someone with information regarding it?

Anonymous said...

revenant, you are again obfusticating a critical issue. Taking your points (I use the term generously) in order:

1) "The imprisonment or execution of convicted criminals . . . ."

Irrelevant. We're talking about torture here, and ordinary criminals are never tortured in civilized countries (at least not yet). Torture represents a degree of violation of humanity that imprisonment does not touch. Don't change the subject again.

2) You say, essentially, that the Brits and FDR did some things wrong, therefore we should disregard everything they did right. You completely ignore the fact that the Allies did indeed treat their enemies far, far better than the Nazis or Soviets or Japanese treated theirs. Indeed, the Japanese Internment is instructive here: We violated the human rights of our Japanese citizens by wrongfully imprisoning them, but the Japanese Army did not merely imprison Americans, it tortured and murdered many of them.


The argument against torture is, in a nutshell, that human rights matter, and that even our enemies are human.

I now eagerly await your posting that human rights really don't matter and that our enemies aren't human anyway.

Pooh said...

While he does indeed obfuscate, Revenant is correct in his point that we do restrict the freedom of the few to insure the freedom of the many. All law in some way is reducable to that statement.

That doesn't get us very far though, as Sullivan's Rubicon metaphor is apt. Even if the issue is simply where a line should be drawn, it must be on this side of the river rather than the other.

Even if one rejects the moral argument against torture, I have yet to see a cogent defense of it on purely pragmatic grounds. I'll grant that some of the insurgents hate us on spec, but Abu Gharib makes recruiting much easier.

You may say that "well of course we don't know what useful information has been developed because it's an operational secret." A valid point, yet I think at this point we'd have been given a specific example of useful information if there is one to give. (I'm not especially concerned about issues of admissability, rather about developing 'actionable intelligence'. When a guy will tell you literally anything to make it stop, how can you believe what he says?)

Rainsborough said...

The large historical point is that the Enlightened humanitarism, Britain as its politics came to embrace this humanitarism, America as it improved upon it came to hold that to torture degraded both the victim and perpetrator in ways that their very humanity precluded. One may find this turn regrettable, but it did happen. (Note for instance Washington's orders at Trenton to treat the Hessians with humanity.)
It's also a historical fact that Germans in the way of the Soviet advance sought desperately to reach the American/British lines.
Torture easily can be forever--it's not hard to prolong its more exquisite forms so as to destroy personality irreparably.
It's hard to think of an action toward another human being better calculated to deprive them of freedom than torture. Death destroys their agency, torture turns it to the will of the perpetrator.
Interesting to observe two recent developments in the argument: (1) the cessation of denials that torture is our policy, (2) the proffering of a defense of torture based not on the value of information extracted but on the consignment of certain category of human beings to a status that implies that they deserve whatever they get, that their status as human beings affords them no protection.
The presumption against killing is overcome in war--but only on the battlefield, against others who are current sources of harm (regardless of their moral innocence). The presumption re-emerges in full force if the enemy is captured and rendered harmless.
The victim of torture cannot be a source of harm in the sense that that status justifies killing on the battlefield.
Sullivan isn't sanctifying the will. He's appealing to the irreducible attributes of humanity retained even by the most evil of men. The notion is that no one can deserve to be treated in what everyone concedes is a deeply repellent and inhuman way, and that one reason for rejecting this treatment is that it's inconsistent with upholding the value of freedom as an absolute. Another is what it does to the perpetrator, still another how quickly the cancer spreads.
It's sad that a majority of Americans have been led to believe that torture may be justified. But even if one succumbs to this mistaken view, it's quite obvious that the loss of respect incurred by the world's only superpower greatly outweighs whatever morsels of information may have been extracted from the victims of the new regime. Pragmatics as well as morality convict torture. We've sold our souls for a mess of pottage.

Anonymous said...

rainsborough wrote: "We've sold our souls for a mess of pottage."

That's the larger point here, which torture apologists and obfusticators refuse to acknowledge. Not very many years ago the question "Should we torture our enemies" would have been regarded by almost all Americans as beneath consideration. Of course we don't torture, torture is wrong, anyone can see that.

What, exactly, changed in America to bring this issue onto the table? No, it wasn't 9-11. America has been through worse experiences than that (the Revolution, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor) and came through with our souls intact. Something has changed here recently that is corrupting the very soul of America, and I cannot fathom what it is. But I fear what is happening here.

tim maguire said...

I more or less agree with Sullivan's points except for one: the ticking-bomb scenario.

First, I think this scenario is a red-herring because it never occurs in real life. But if it did occur, torture would be acceptable to resolve the problem. And there's no absolution needed. Krauthammer is right on this one. Sullivan is wrong.

Sullivan argues that torture should be allowed in this case, but the torturer should be punished anyway to maintain society's torture purity. That's a sick and selfish attitude. Important here is that Sully makes the argument full in the knowledge that he's not the one who will be doing the torturing. Someone else will do the torturing for him, then he will happily benefit from the information achieved through the torture. Finally, the torturer will be punished for him, for all of us.

His hands will be cleaned with someone else's blood. And that's his morally acceptable approach. I find it morally despicable--not for the torturer, but for Sully and that argument's adherents who maintain their superiority by making someone else do their dirty work, and then punishing that someone else for the method by which it's done--a method he himself embraces.

Sully needs to get consistent--either it's never ok or it's sometimes ok. "Ok but not really" is unacceptable.

Revenant said...

Irrelevant. We're talking about torture here

... which, it seems to me, deprives its victims of less freedom and liberty than either imprisonment or execution. So if the reason for refusing to use torture is that it denies people human freedom, we must cease using imprisonment and execution as well.

Torture represents a degree of violation of humanity that imprisonment does not touch.

That is nothing more than your opinion. You have not demonstrated that it is true. Either do so or stop pretending you're making a factual claim.

You say, essentially, that the Brits and FDR did some things wrong, therefore we should disregard everything they did right.

I said nothing of the sort. I said that you can't prove torture is wrong by citing an Allied refusal to use it, because the Allies were not paragons of morality.

The argument against torture is, in a nutshell, that human rights matter, and that even our enemies are human

That is no more an argument against torture than it is an argument against the use of lethal force in self-defense. You're assuming the conclusion -- namely, that human rights include the right not to be tortured, no matter how heinous your actions or how dire the need, and that all humans have a right to freedom from coercive pain that is more absolute than their right to either freedom or to life itself.

Revenant said...

It's also a historical fact that Germans in the way of the Soviet advance sought desperately to reach the American/British lines.

German soldiers were not primarily concerned about being tortured by the Soviets. They were worried about being executed by the Soviets, who had quite lost their sense of humor when it came to the German military. And the primary reason they feared mistreatment at the hands of the Soviets was not that the Soviet Union practiced torture, but that the Soviet Union was hell-bent on revenge for the millions of Soviets who died in the German invasion.

Rainsborough said...

Of course, what most of the Germans feared was rape.
I think Sullivan did well to remind us of when and how the rejection of torture came about, to remind us how deep seated a part of our culture it is, and to ask whether we want to renounce that part of our heritage. I take some heart that ninety Senators voted otherwise, and that recent reports have it that most Representatives would as well.

I must admit it seems perfectly obvious to me that my deliberately inflicting physical pain on somebody for hours and days on end dehumanizes him (and me) in a way that locking him in cell doesn't. Whether this is a empirical or a normative proposition might be open to discussion. But is its truth?

Synova said...

Excellent points about imprisonment and execution denying human freedom.

As for the "they can only mess with our minds" comment... I think that the discussion of torture would benifit greatly if torture itself wasn't so often defined as discomfort or humiliation. If nothing else it is a disgraceful dismissal of some of the truely horrific things that have been done to people.

(So far no one has done that here.)

Cathy Young said...

rainsborough:

I must admit it seems perfectly obvious to me that my deliberately inflicting physical pain on somebody for hours and days on end dehumanizes him (and me) in a way that locking him in cell doesn't.

It also seems perfectly obvious to me that deliberately inflcing physical pain on somebody for hours (let alone days) on end dehumanizes him (and me) in a way that killing him in combat doesn't.

Partly, it's the systematic nature of the process that makes it particularly repugnant and dehumanizing.

I think this is an excellent point in Sullivan's essay, as well:

"It [i.e. torture] takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human."

Revenant said...

It [i.e. torture] takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human.

That doesn't make much sense. The concept of torturing someone in order to get them to do what you want is very much a product of rational human thought. Indeed, it takes advantage of our animal nature -- the fear of pain and the vulnerability to conditioning.

I suppose if you tortured some random person out of pure viciousness, that would be animalistic. But doing it to somebody who has already forfeited his right to any form of freedom -- e.g., a mass murderer such as a terrorist -- in order to extract information or yield other useful results? That's not an animal preying on a human, it's a human manipulating an animal.

Anyway, I think ignatius said it best. Sullivan's position on using torture is the same as mine -- it should be used, but only in rare circumstances. The only difference is that he thinks it should be kept illegal in order to allow him to retain his completely unjustified sense of smug moral superiority while other, braver people sacrifice themselves for his benefit, whereas I think we should establish strict rules for when we as a society will allow torture to happen.

thecobrasnose said...

For a few months, I took Andrew Sullivan seriously. Then he took to making lordly pronouncements about who was not a real conservative (GWB, his administration, members of the religious right), or was not a real Catholic (Mel Gibson, a good number of ordained Bishops, the Pope). Now he has apparently taken on the task of deciding who is a real human being, and that apparently does not include those who think the use of fake menstrual blood, barking dogs, or an Israeli flag in an interrogation with a suspected terrorist is beyond the pale. Yes, I’m aware that AS’s definition of torture is far more expansive than that—but it was those that most compromised Sullivan’s credibility in my eyes.

I’m not a torture enthusiast, but if I were in a position to be tortured by the agents of any nation, those from the US would be at the very top of my list. If the enemies (and hell, most of the allies) of this country would commit to abandoning their current practices and using the worst of present US tortures, humanity would be immeasurably benefited.

I’m not blind to the abuses of the CIA and the military. But when an Iraqi run prison was discovered to have used grave bodily torture against Sunni inmates, the Sunni called for American investigation and reform. Sullivan for his part bitchily remarked, “We led by example, didn’t we?”

The United States was the first country to forbid “cruel and unusual punishment” as a national policy, and the prison system as it is understood in the west is largely the product of American Quaker mercy and reform. The ambition toward humane behavior and against the animalistic (and traditionally human, as evidenced by thousands of years of recorded history) is ingrained in the national character. That is not to say we’re done. But it is why I tend to find the likes of Andrew Sullivan and editorialists from certain European countries shrill and largely unconvincing in this matter.

Rainsborough said...

I doubt if the average victim of the torture we've administered--which in some instances has ended in the death of the victim--regards ours as an improvement than any other. One of our standards is waterboarding, directly descended from the medieval professionals. And Yoo's memo famously puts the limit at causing organ failure.

Was it bitchy of Sullivan to refer to our hypocrisy and inconsistency? Or merely a stinging reminder of the pragmatic price we've paid for surrendering standing for principles in an unequivocal, credible and special way?

Synova said...

We waterboard every US soldier that goes through SERE training. BTW. (Or every one that makes it that far.) And every single one of those hardened soldiers breaks... every one. No, it's not *fun*.

I honestly don't believe that we've had deaths from *torture* though there have been deaths while in US custody, certainly. (And, quite frankly, we've got the responsible soldiers in prison as a result.) But what we know *works* doesn't kill people.

(I'm making not a single claim for the CIA, btw.)

A couple of people have mentioned long term infliction of pain... what do you mean when you say that?

The claim that the US tortures prisoners, quite frankly, relies on a definition of torture that gets incredibly mushy. Fake menstral blood? Naked women rubbing on you? I can't imagine how either of those things works, but I also find it difficult to imagine what harm is done.

Most people, thinking of torture, envision pulling fingernails, brands, electricity, being hung from the ceiling by your feet and beaten. In other words, long term infliction of extreme pain. We envision prisoners capturing dogs and tearing them apart to eat rather than picturing nourishing, religiously sensitive, meals.

So when Al Gore tells the Swedes that the US does torture people, as though this is a fact he has proof of... is he talking about sleep deprivation and being forced to listen to Britney Spears or is he talking about the long term infliction of pain?

I'm all for the US taking the high ground. The remark that the US "leads by example" as if the Iraqis needed help to figure out how to torture prisoners is a willful delusion... they've lived that stuff for decades. The US *example* is actually an excellent one. Maybe it could be better but short of not even asking captured terrorists any questions, I don't know how.

Opposing torture is such a complete no-brainer that I have to say that it's taken concerted effort to push so very many people into the position where they have no choice but to find themselves defending it.

The "wrapped in an Israli flag" thing went a long way to make that happen.

Rainsborough said...

http://action.aclu.org/torturefoia/released/102405/

Deaths while under U.S. custody: there are over twenty, quite well-documented. Doesn't putting a man in a sleeping bag and pummeling him count as torture? Or if not, there are several other methods we've employed.

Context counts. Waterboarding for training purposes differs from waterboarding for the purpose of extracting information known to be of value or as to humiliate or degrade the victim.

Of course the Iraqis need no training in torture. But it might help in our instructing them in new approaches if we ourselves had clean hands--as we once did.

Rainsborough said...

Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber went to stage production of A Man for All Seasons. He was struck by these lines:
"Only an unhappy few were found to set themselves against the current of their times, and in so doing to court disaster. For we are dealing with an age less fastidious than our own. Imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice."

Cathy Young said...

synova: sorry, but I have no patience with the "waterboarding isn't torture" argument.

Suffocation that induces a drowning sensation isn't torture? Please. Charles Krauthammer, who defends the practice in extraordinary circumstances, at least frankly admits that it should be considered torture.

By the way, I suggest that you take a look at the Army's own report on detainee abuse as well as the FBI report. The evidence is there. Al Gore didn't make it up.

cobra: I agree with you that AS went too far when he appeared to include draping a prisoner in the Israeli flag a form of torture. I would also tend to agree with you on the "fake menstrual blood" issue. However, I should note that my Boston Globe colleague Jeff Jacoby, a conservative and definitely a War on Terror hawk, shares Sullivan's position in that regard, because he very strongly believes that it's beyond the pale for the U.S. to use deliberate affronts to someone's religious taboos in order to exert psychological pressure.

And of course I agree with you that if I had to be tortured and could choose the torturer, I'd choose the Americans over even today's Iraqi authorities, not to mention Saddam Hussein. But that's neither here nor there -- "we're better than the Iraqis/the Soviets/the Cubans" etc. is really not, I think, the standard we should measure ourselves by.

revenant:

The concept of torturing someone in order to get them to do what you want is very much a product of rational human thought. Indeed, it takes advantage of our animal nature -- the fear of pain and the vulnerability to conditioning.


I think that's precisely what Sullivan means: that torture is uniquely evil because it uses a human being's animal nature to reduce them to something less than human.

I suppose if you tortured some random person out of pure viciousness, that would be animalistic. But doing it to somebody who has already forfeited his right to any form of freedom -- e.g., a mass murderer such as a terrorist -- in order to extract information or yield other useful results? That's not an animal preying on a human, it's a human manipulating an animal.

Well, except that when you open the door to such practices, chances are that they will at least sometimes be done for someone's sadistic enjoyment (rationalized by the attitude that "they're just a bunch of animals" -- which, I still maintain, is an attitude that runs counter to the principle of holding terrorists fully accountable for their acts).


Sullivan's position on using torture is the same as mine -- it should be used, but only in rare circumstances. The only difference is that he thinks it should be kept illegal in order to allow him to retain his completely unjustified sense of smug moral superiority while other, braver people sacrifice themselves for his benefit, whereas I think we should establish strict rules for when we as a society will allow torture to happen.

Actually, Sullivan says that the torturers will need to be either punished or pardoned.

The danger of legalizing torture under any circumstances is not that it will sully Sullivan, to coin a phrase. It's that, once you've made it part of the rules that torture is okay in an emergency, you're at a starting point much closer to approval of torture under other circumstances, including a very broadly defined "emergency."

Revenant said...

which, I still maintain, is an attitude that runs counter to the principle of holding terrorists fully accountable for their acts

"Holding them fully accountable for their acts" pretty much involves them dying in screaming agony, in my humble opinion. Of course, our system doesn't allow cruel and unusual punishments, so we have to settle for simple death instead. But if we can put the person to good use before killing them, well, so much the better.

Actually, Sullivan says that the torturers will need to be either punished or pardoned

But a pardon would still involve the person being prosecuted, losing a substantial degree of freedom for months or years, plus large sums of money spent on lawyers -- and, in the end, no guarantee that the pardon will be forthcoming. So it's still a person sacrificing himself so Andrew can sleep better at night.

It's that, once you've made it part of the rules that torture is okay in an emergency, you're at a starting point much closer to approval of torture under other circumstances, including a very broadly defined "emergency."

Well, we're retreading the same ground here, but I think history shows that the slippery slope to lawlessness is a lot less slippery when you clearly define "legal" and "illegal" and firmly punish only the former than it is when you tacitly acknowledge that you'll let lawbreaking slide so long as its being done for "really important reasons". Sullivan's position is that latter -- it sends a message to the CIA, military, et al, to go ahead and break the law when its important. We should not write our laws under the assumption that the government won't be bothering to obey them.

thecobrasnose said...

Hi, Cathy, and thanks for the considered response. But.

...it's beyond the pale for the U.S. to use deliberate affronts to someone's religious taboos in order to exert psychological pressure

If that is torture, a mild form of it is practiced upon religious believers on a regular basis in the US with the aim of persuading a person that (insert name of faith here) is stupid, racist, homophobic, etc. and should be abandoned. No, the typical Christian isn't plucked off the street and forced to desecrate a crucifix, but popular and high culture is littered with blasphemous images that serve little purpose other than to offend them and demean their deeply held faith. Is this not psychological pressure?

Which is not to say believers in this nation should be protected by the state. Far from it. But it does leave me cold to practices such as US personnel being required to handle a Koran with gloves and implicitly buying into the captives’ idea that they are intrinsically unclean, and unimpressed with the motives behind deadly riots over rumors of mistreatment over a mass produced book. To treat “someone’s religion” (read: Islam) with respect is good manners, good policy, and good PR. To disrespect it, however, doesn’t qualify as torture in my admittedly non-holy book, and the ability to respond without violence to religious affronts is an excellent sign of a healthy society.

"we're better than the Iraqis/the Soviets/the Cubans" etc. is really not, I think, the standard we should measure ourselves by.

I agree to the point that we should not take pride in a bare minimum of civil practice over dictatorships. But we’re not talking a bare minimum here—we’re talking about the difference between waterboarding (an awful thing to endure) and sawing the head off of a screaming human being. You don’t have to defend the current US policy on torture in order to recognize that it is immeasurably better than that of our enemies (and I’ll say it again, most of our allies), and that the distinction is a vital one. That distinction is blurred by the likes of Sullivan and Edward “Abu Ghraib has opened under new management” Kennedy to the effect that the concept of torture is defined down to the point that mistreatment of a book or gross activity with red ink is grotesquely made equivalent to rape, electrocution, dismemberment, etc.

Detainee abuse that results in death and severe and lasting physical harm is already forbidden by the government, and those who engage in those atrocities are identified and punished as a matter of policy. It’s not a perfect policy by any means, but as Voltaire famously noted, perfection is the enemy of the good. When Sullivan, for example, holds the US and its allies to an ideal standard, the net effect is to (as synova noted) harden sympathetic, civilized people against his arguments.

Cathy Young said...

cobra, I agree that it's a stretch to regard religious taboo-violation as "torture," and I do think it's rather ironic that, in the name of liberalism, we are now expected to make accommodations for the religiously based belief that women are unclean.

I think, however, that defining torture as only something that causes either death or lasting physical harm is much too narrow; it's certainly not the language used in law.

And yes, I agree that moral equivalency between the Saddam Hussein regime and the US is ridiculous. I don't think we should be held to standards of perfection. But I don't think the McCaine bill does that, either. Our laws should follow the basic standards for civilized conduct. Human beings will sometimes fall short of that standard. That doesn't mean the law should be changed.

William R. Barker said...

Basically... I'm with Krauthammer.

First... the obvious: Terrorists aren't covered by the Geneva Convention. Period. Nor should they be.

Second... feces happens. Yeah, just as innocent people are sometimes found guilty in a court of law, whether we're talking coercive interrogation methods or old fashioned torture sometime, somewhere, somehow, innocents will be mistakenly treated as terrorists. I'm not downplaying the moral and ethical horror of this reality... I'm just accepting that this is an inevitable reality.

Third... my definition of torture - and Krauthammer's - no doubt differs from your definition (Cathy) and certainly from Andrew Sullivan's. But hey... let's go straight to "real" torture for the sake of argument and I still believe that if the CIA has to chop a terrorist to pieces bit by bit in order to stop a major terrorist attack... so be it.

Forth... many of our enemies - those who Cathy describes as "monsters" - DO DESERVE TORTURE!

Do I take the slippery slope argument lightly? No. It's a real concern. Am I slightly perplexed at the "make it against the law but allow the law to be broken sometimes" suggestion? Yep. At the same time, what those who believe in such an argument are calling for is accountability. I'm all for accountability, so maybe there we share a bit of common ground.

* Revenant... good points as usual!

* Tom... as for the "ticking time bomb scenario," if it had happened do you really think we'd necessarily know about it? I tend to doubt it. It's the logic of the scenario that I accept.

* Cobrasnose... yep... I'm pretty much with you. Andrew Sullivan is a smart guy. He's the one who turned me on to Cathy's blog! But while I still read him and wish him well, he has gone overboard on several issues over the past year and a half or so and it's getting worse.

* Synova... good points.

Anyway... I'm not really out to change anyone's mind, nor am I trying to "back up" my contentions in this post. Simply... I'm just reacting to Cathy's original post and what others have said.

Revenant said...

the slippery slope to lawlessness is a lot less slippery when you clearly define "legal" and "illegal" and firmly punish only the former

D'oh! I meant "the latter", of course. I don't imagine firmly punishing everyone who obeys the law would help matters one little bit. :)

Cathy Young said...

LOL, Revenant! point taken.

Pooh said...

A few thoughts

The Israeli flag/menstrual blood thing is pointless. Is it torture or is it not? Who cares, how will it possibly be useful in extracting information? It's not as if the terrorists are vampires and those items are garlic.

That leads me to a bigger question which has simply not been answered: leaving the moral dimension aside for the moment (which is sad that we even have to, but ships do sail...), is there any evidence that torture is a net positive: does the actionable information gleaned outweigh the false information (see Curveball) and extreme negative PR involved? I'm highly skeptical. In the context of WoT, the PR effect has been massive. Both on the insurgency and here in the U.S. How much of the vehemance of the anti-war people comes from this? I think a fair amount. And the bizarre double talk employed by the administration does nothing but sap credibility, home and abroad. In short, I think its a strategic blunder of the highest order.

Cobra, you might win slippery slope of the year with that one, though I think you spoke partially in jest.

Synova, I think that the use of waterboarding in training is a red herring. First, the recruit consents. Second, intent matters.

Wm. R Barker, I disagree on the Geneva Convention point strongly, the Yoo memos rely on a, forgive the inevitable pun, tortured interpretation of both the practice itself and the reach of the Convention. (but who cares? Int'l Law is completely salutory in any case. Rule of Law requires not just 'law' but also a credible enforcement mechanism to ensure the 'rule')

Cathy Young said...

The Israeli flag/menstrual blood thing is pointless. Is it torture or is it not? Who cares, how will it possibly be useful in extracting information? It's not as if the terrorists are vampires and those items are garlic.

LOL -- good analogy there, pooh!

Are you sure? ;)

Seriously, I don't know about the flag thing, but my understanding is that to a devout Muslim, if he has come in contact with menstrual blood, he is "unclean" and unless he has performed ritual ablutions he cannot pray to God.

So it's a pretty major thing, psychologically.

Revenant said...

The point of tactics like the blood/flag stuff is keep the subject confused, alienated, off-balance, etc. It is a proven (but very slow) tactic for breaking people's resistance to questioning.

Pooh said...

Hrm, thanks for that Rev.

Assuming arguendo that such things are torture, do they work faster than 'traditional' interrogation techniques "for breaking people's resistance to questioning?" I guess I'm making the same "why even go there" point. Again.

Anonymous said...

"Seriously, I don't know about the flag thing, but my understanding is that to a devout Muslim, if he has come in contact with menstrual blood, he is "unclean" and unless he has performed ritual ablutions he cannot pray to God."

Is the technique involving fake menstrual blood any more humane because the "blood" isn't actually real? Either way, the prisoner will think he's "unclean" and won't be able to pray to God. What difference does it make whether or not the blood is real? The ends are the same. Is it simply more civil to use fake blood?

This technique seems to say that we don't actually disrespect the prisoner's religious beliefs; we just make the prisoner think we do. The effect on the prisoner is the same whether or not the blood is real. Is the message this technique sends to the world (especially the Muslim world) that much better just because the blood is fake?

Richard Aubrey said...

WRT flag/blood.

This argument has to sell, one way or another, in the realm of normal people.

That means the flag/blood issue will be a major handicap. Normal people won't be bothered by it because they're normal.

It will be seen either as a serious brain-glitch or as an attempt to haul in non-issues in order to punch up the numbers, a tactic the advocacy folks are always doing and which normal people normally look for.

The consent issue having to do with whether something seen in fraternity hazing is torture or not is bogus, as well. The question is whether it amounts to torture. Does it fire up the pain receptors or not? Keep in mind that the detainee in question can end the whole thing by talking.

It is nice that Roosevelt did not reciprocate by ordering torture. He didn't have to. It was being done, anyway. So he could remain above the issue. The difference was that the US interrogators beat up POWs to get info. Japanese tortured for the fun of it.

This argument is going to have to become a lot more disciplined before it's ready for Broadway.

Cathy Young said...

The notion that something cannot be "torture" if it sometimes used in consensual hazing strikes me as severely misguided.

Several years ago, there was a hazing scandal in the U.S. military (Air Force, I believe? or one of the academies?) in which young men had their badges pinned to the skin on their chests and then ripped off, tearing out a chunk of flesh and skin. The videos showed them screaming in agony while this was done.

The young men in the video voluntarily submitted to this hazing ritual, probably out of a combination of group loyalty and misguided machismo. But is there a single person who would not regard this as "torture" if practiced on a captive?

William R. Barker said...

Pooh... how the heck can you say I'm wrong on the Geneva Convention issue??? I mean... I'm clearly right... just read the damn thing and you'll see it clearly doesn't apply to terrorists who wear no uniform and fight for no nation. Whether you "like" it or not, that's the reality.

Revenant said...

Assuming arguendo that such things are torture, do they work faster than 'traditional' interrogation techniques "for breaking people's resistance to questioning?" I guess I'm making the same "why even go there" point. Again.

My understanding is that they ARE the traditional interrogation techniques. Well, not the blood/flag things specifically, because traditionally most of the people we interrogate aren't woman-hating antisemites, but traditional interrogation methods center around making the subject feel helpless, confused, and alone.

Now, a religious fanatic might feel that he's never really alone because he can always talk to God. But if you screw with his mind so that he feels he can't even do that -- because he's unclean -- then maybe he really does feel alone. Similarly, being made to wear an Israeli flag communicates to the prisoner, in a very direct way, that he is helpless in the face of those he considers his mortal enemies.

Anonymous said...

What I would like to know is this:

The opponents of torture --- what IS torture?

An extremely open-ended torture definition could be used in ways nobody imagined.

After all, did anybody expect the Americans with Disabilities Act to be so utterly abused? How about Title IX?

Nobody likes to see rampant mistreatment of anybody.

But, I don't trust the critics of torture to be the ones who can define it.

I don't think Abu Gharib constituted torture. Mistreatment, yes. But torture? No.

Pooh said...

Anon,

I don't think Abu Gharib constituted torture. Mistreatment, yes. But torture? No.

Well, I suppose you could be correct, but that's not exactly probabtive. Was the 'gaypiling' intended to be an information gathering technique or just sport?

WRB, you could be right, I could be conflating Padilla 'enemy combatant' stuff with out and out terrorists WRT Geneva conventions. I'll look into that when I get home from work tonight.

Rev,

An interesting point. My thought still stands though: these things will obviously be provocative in a PR sense (especially the blood thing - that's just gross. Not my best argument ever, but still...) while not neccesarily providing any benefit. So why even go there?

An interesting aside in this debate is that,within the realm of 'coercive techniques' we are discussing, there is a direct relationship between the 'torture-likeness' of a technique and its likely effectiveness. If that makes sense.

Revenant said...

My thought still stands though: these things will obviously be provocative in a PR sense (especially the blood thing - that's just gross. Not my best argument ever, but still...) while not neccesarily providing any benefit. So why even go there?

I can't really answer your question because I don't think those things are provocative. My reaction when I heard about the blood and flag incidents was "so?". Neither incident is, in my opinion, something that would give a reasonable person a negative opinion of the USA. Especially the flag thing.

Pooh said...

You and I aren't exactly the audience I was thinking about.

Revenant said...

Well, I'm not sure what audience you're talking about, exactly. It seems to me that anyone who could be pushed from the "friendly/neutral" column to the "enemy" column on the basis of something as trivial as this was inevitably going to be our enemy anyway. In all but a few cases, they presumably already were.

Now, it is true that a goal of ours is to convince those people to be non-hostile to us. But that's not going to be possible until after they change their attitudes towards things like Jews and women. Because, well, we're pro-Jew and pro-woman here.

EB said...

...it's beyond the pale for the U.S. to use deliberate affronts to someone's religious taboos in order to exert psychological pressure

I would like to announce the formation of the First International Church of Freedom. As the founding member and Pope for life, I'd like to inform you of our basic tenents.

The International Church of Freedom holds sacred the basic need for all worshippers to live in complete freedom without any restrictions placed on them by outside persons.

The International Church of Freedom requires that all worshippers pray 16 times a day in a field of daisies (clover if no daisies are available) with no form of barricade or other structure that may obstruct the view of god's creation.

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The International Church of Freedom demands that all followers follow these instructions as passed down by the great lord almighty or they will go straight to hell. Right after years and years of great psychological distress.

I trust that all governments of the world will provide the International Church of Freedom and its followers the same respect given to all faiths.

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but I find it rather frightening that Jonah is reducing a basic principle of post-Enlightenment Western culture -- the bodily inviolability of the individual as a cardinal principle -- to mere aesthetic preference.

I saw this over at Balloon Juice, and came over here for a peek -- and I just have to say, I'm quite surprised that this is a basic principle of post-Enlightenment Western culture. I not saying it's not, mind, and I'm not trying to be argumentative. I'm just saying that it's an element of post-Enlightenment Western culture of which I was wholly unware.

I mean, from my perspective -- and my perspective is not really Western, I must admit -- I think the use of the rod is preferable to and more civilised than incarceration, particularly incarceration in the kinds of circumstances we (in the US) incarcerate people. When I read about that Singapore caning case, a few years ago (for graffiti, I think), my thought was that Singapore came off as rather superior. It's always fascinating for me to discover these ways my own cultural understandings diverge -- sometimes dramatically -- from those of the shared public culture (the European culture) of the US.

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