Friday, November 18, 2005

The torture debate: Just say no

Some would say that the very title of this post indicates the depravity to which our country has sunk: are we seriously, in 2005, discussing whether it's all right for us to sanction torture of prisoners?

Others would say that it's a post-9/11 world, and desperate times demand desperate measures.

"Thou shalt not torture" should be, in my opinion, about as close as there is to a moral absolute. I agree with Andrew Sullivan when he writes:

I draw the line at cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of people who are defenseless. And I draw the line at conflating the guilty with the innocent. Right now, we are crossing both lines - and severely damaging our cause because of it.

Admittedly, the prohibition on "degrading" treatment (contained in the Senate anti-torture bill sponsored by John McCain) could be construed broadly so as to prohibit even psychological techniques that do not cause physical pain. Perhaps that part of the bill needs some fine-tuning and clarification. But it simply won't do to say that "we do not torture," and then to say, in the next breath, that we can't ban torture because it would tie our hands in extracting information.

A few things to ponder. First, torture reduces a human being (the one being tortured) to a subhuman level, when his existence is defined entirely by physical pain and suffering. Second, it degrades the torturer accordingly; and it creates the very real danger that at least some of the torturers will enjoy it, particularly if they have been primed to see the one being tortured as an evil person getting his just deserts. Never underestimate the dark corners in the human soul.

There is, of course, the classic "but what if we've captured a terrorist who knows the location of a nuclear bomb set to go off in a major city in 24 hours" scenario.

Kevin Drum deals with that. So does Stephen Green (Vodkapundit). Both essentially come to the same conclusion, summed up by Green:

A) That's unlikely as hell. B) Torture still might not get us any usefull information. C) If it somehow did, then there's probably not a DA who would indict our torturer, and there's certainly no jury that would convict.

I should note that (C) seems to invalidate the anti-torture argument, since it implies that it's sort of okay to torture sometimes, and to get away with it. In practice, though, the deterrent would still exist, since any would-be torturer would know that if the torture doesn't reveal any useful information, he (or she) is in major trouble.

By the way, let's not forget what a "ticking time bomb" exemption would likely mean in practice. Let's say that we do know that there's a nuclear device planted in a major American city. How likely is it that in the panic, some innocent guy -- maybe more than one -- would get grabbed and tortured by mistake? And how likely is it that the list of acceptable circumstances for torture would broaden to include less extreme scenarios?

Also, let's not forget that none of the prisoner abuse allegations so far has involved this kind of scenario. In fact, there's absolutely no evidence that the "coercive interrogation" techniques some defend have produced any useful information at all.

And yet we have people defending torture; some openly, such a few commenters on Stephen Green's thread, and some euphemistically such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which prefers to speak of "aggressive interrogations." The Journal's editors would have us believe that such things as exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold, or even "waterboarding" (which induces a drowning sensation) are not really physical torture but "psychological techniques designed to break a detainee."

Paradoxically, I think that for some people in what one might call the anti-anti-torture faction, this is a moral issue rather than a pragmatic one. They're offended by what a few of Stephen Green's commenters call "moral preening" on the part of those denouncing torture. They think the absolutist opposition to torture comes from weaklings who don't have the fortitude to do what needs to be done, and who would rather allow a lot of innocents to die than dirty their hands (not literally, but by having nasty things done in their name).

In an excellent column at, Julian Sanchez makes an interesting point:

Even if we believe torture—or, if you prefer, "aggressive interrogation" that occasionally leaves the suspect a habeas corpse—is likely to produce useful intelligence rather than whatever story the questioner wants to hear; even if we believe that it is only ever used against the most vile; there is something odd about the rhetorical frame in which torture apologists operate. Implicit in many of their arguments is the notion that there's something contemptibly fainthearted about those who want to hew to the principles of basic decency fit for a nation that styles itself primus inter pares of the world's liberal democracies, even if foreswearing the most brutal tactics means accepting some additional risks. The apex of resolute manliness, on the other hand, consists in begging the government to dilute traditional liberties at home and ape our enemies' barbarism abroad, if only we might feel a bit safer.

That said, some liberals probably exaggerate the extent to which the torture scandals are contributing to anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world. If the Abu Grahib debacle did not exist, the America-haters would no doubt have invented it. And I think that The Washington Post's Richard Cohen fails to appreciate the irony when his Jordanian driver Bassam tells him how appalled he is by the abuse and degradation of Muslims at Abu Grahib and Guantanamo: far worse abuses, after all, are common under most Arab regimes. (Was Bassam equally appalled by Saddam Hussein's atrocities?)

But while that should be an issue for Bassam, it should not be an issue for us. "We're not as bad as Saddam Hussein" is hardly a standard to measure ourselves by.

Saying no to torture probably won't make America-bashers love us any more. But it will certainl make things easier for America's supporters around the world. And besides, this isn't about being loved by our enemies or even our friends; it's about respecting ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Great post,Cathy! For my part, I don't give a damn how "good" or "bad" we look to others - I just know that I don't want to live in a country that thinks that torturing people they don't like is OK. The people who justify torturing suspected terrorists or "sympathisers" are quite likely the sort of people who will justify using the same approach on me if I get in their way.

One question for the pro-torture crowd - why is it that when the North Vietnamese used a lot of the same techniques on US POWs, it was torture, but when we use them on our adversaries, it's "aggressive interrogation?"

Revenant said...

Hm. My point of view is that torturing somebody isn't nearly as bad as killing them.

We have the legal and, in my opinion, moral right to execute anyone we capture in the act of waging a terrorist war against us -- e.g., fighting out of uniform and hiding among civilians. So in my opinion we have the right to torture them instead, if we decide that that is the more utilitarian use to put them to.

The arguments against pursuing that course of action are, it seems to me, pragmatic ones rather than moral ones. People, for whatever reason, more readily accept "I shot a terrorist" than "I tortured a terrorist". Torture therefore has a substantially negative public relations impact, if it is used. We should therefore refrain from using it in all but extreme cases.

Dean said...

We have the legal and, in my opinion, moral right to execute anyone we capture in the act of waging a terrorist war against us -- e.g., fighting out of uniform and hiding among civilians. So in my opinion we have the right to torture them instead, if we decide that that is the more utilitarian use to put them to.

At the peril of invoking Godwin, you know who else in recent memory employed this sort of tactic, don't you? The two most prominent that I can think of are Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. By your argument, the Nazis were morally right to torture and kill thousands of people suspected of being French resistance or Yugoslav or Russian partisans.

I find such an argument violently repellent.

The United States is not like Nazi Germany, true. But it is more like Nazi Germany now than it was five years ago. And that should disturb you.

Revenant said...

At the peril of invoking Godwin, you know who else in recent memory employed this sort of tactic, don't you?

France. :)

Revenant said...

Sorry, you deserve a more substantial response.

The tactics you ascribe to the Nazis and Stalinists were actually pretty common at the time (not that that makes them any better, of course). The Brits used them on the Irish, for example. The Nazis and Stalinists differed primarily in the *scale* on which they carried out the acts. Where the Brits tortured, say, hundreds, and killed dozens, the Nazis tortured and killed millions.

The second point I'd like to make is that I was referring to the torture of known, not suspected, terrorists. I don't think we ought to round up lots of Arabs and beat them silly on the off chance that one of them knows something (and I don't think we've been doing that either). But if we catch a guy with an AK-47 and a bag of pipe bombs, that's something else entirely.

Thirdly, the reasons for which something is done matter. Everyone who is not a complete pacifist agrees on that point, because any war involves killing a lot of people (something which would, in normal circumstances, be horribly wrong). Let's say terrorists attack our forces and then retreat into a civilian population. Would it be right of us to pursue, knowing that civilians will probably die in the process? I think the answer is "yes". Now suppose we caught one of the terrorists during their attack. Would it be moral to torture him in order to force him to reveal where his friends have gone? I think that the answer has to be "yes" as well -- doing so lowers the risk of loss of innocent life and increases the chances of defeating the terrorists.

The Nazis and Soviets tortured people in the service of a greater evil. I am arguing that there are cases for which it is acceptable to do it for a greater *good*. And yes, I know the Nazis and Soviets thought they were serving a good purpose too (or at least said they did). But I feel comfortable saying that a peaceful, terrorist-free democracy is Good and a totalitarian police state (peaceful or not) is Evil, and I doubt anyone here seriously disagrees with that.

Revenant said...

the enormity of its crimes (three dozen known dead at the hands of Cheney's minions, thousands of victims, acknowledged innocents still confined, laws twisted beyond recognition, habeas corpus--the core of the rule of law--in shreds)

Crimes? If the three dozen were, in fact, terrorists, then the appropriate term is "a nice start", not "an enormous crime". It is only a crime if they were noncombatants.

Let's be very clear on something: under international law and the laws of war, people caught waging war out of uniform are entitled to a hearing before a military tribunal -- nothing more. If it is determined that they were in fact guilty of waging war in this manner, they may be shot.

They have no right to a trial. They have no right to be treated as prisoners of war. If we catch someone fighting while dressed as a civilian and respond by throwing them into a cell for the duration of the war, we are treating them in a manner which is far kinder and more humane than that to which they have any moral or legal right. What they have a moral and legal right to is a short hearing before US Army officers, followed by a bullet in the head.

So enough about "habeas corpus". Habeus corpus does not apply to war and never has. The only people entitled to it, in this conflict, are US citizens captured within the United States of America. The grand total of such people captured and jailed to date is two, both of whom have received hearings in court.

Revenant said...

It's well established, a centerpiece of the law of war, that captured personnel are to be treated humanely.

It is a centerpiece of the law of war that captured SOLDIERS are to be treated humanely. It is well-established that a person caught fighting against you while disguised as a civilian is subject to execution.

To the best of my knowledge, the Iraqi soldiers we caught were accorded prisoner of war status and treated accordingly. The people we have held as illegal combatants are being held thus because they are illegal combatants. This is not a new category; what is new is the part where we don't execute them for their crimes.

Its rationale is compelling: once they are captive, enemy personnel are not a source of harm to our troops, hence the occasion for killing them is removed.

You've almost got it, actually. The rationale for granting protection to people who fight according to the laws of war -- e.g., in uniform, without using civilians as cover, against an enemy army -- is to encourage people to fight under those conditions. If we treat terrorists and war criminals the same as we treat enemy soldiers, what reason do enemy soldiers have for not acting like terrorists and war criminals? You need both the carrot and the stick, not just indiscriminately-distributed carrots.

Cathy Young said...

Let's not forget that a lot of the people in U.S. custody in Iraq, at least, are not terrorists or insurgents; the estimates of how many of them are wrongfully arrested are quite high.

Anonymous said...

What I don't understand is why they are keeping the folks that, via military tribunal, have been found innocent.

These people should have been immediately removed from the regular prisoner population at the very least. And then sent home (even if inconvenient for us) on the ASAP.

Cathy Young said...

bearblue -- agreed. That is a very disturbing aspect of what's going on.

Revenant said...


Captured insurgents are not noncombatants, nor are they soldiers who have laid down their arms. They are therefore not covered by Article 3. And the court referred to is, in our system, a military tribunal; our courts have upheld this.

Article 75 is not relevant, as the insurgents do not meet any of the listed criteria.

Anonymous said...

(Was Bassam equally appalled by Saddam Hussein's atrocities?)

The difference, I think, is that Saddam was known to be an appalling person, whereas the U.S. wishes to be thought of as a force of liberation and freedom. Finding out that one's "liberators" differ only in degree undermines moral authority. If innocents are going to be tortured, sure, a difference in degree matters, but it isn't exactly something to jump for joy over.

Steven said...

I'm anti-anti-torture because of all the non-torture -- say, "fake menstrual blood", one obsession of Andrew Sullivan's -- that gets lumped in. "Threatening" somebody with a harmless fluid with the claim that it is another harmless fluid is not torture. And as long as the anti-torture advocates claim that clearly non-torture actions are torture, I cannot come to any other conclusion that they don't actually care about real torture. They are just weilding a convenient cudgel to attack the United States, the war, or the Bush Administration, and I do not trust that they care about any secondary consequences of their attacks enough to trust their policy recommendations.

This does not mean I endorse torture; it merely means I am not willing to follow the policy recommendations of those who are claiming to oppose it.

As far as unlawful combatants:

U.S. law, binding international law and precedent of three hundred years, and consistent American precedent from the American Revolution to present is: If you are caught in a war zone, in arms and not in uniform (with one minor exception), you are subject to summary execution at the convenience of the capturing power. No trial, no appeal, no recourse to the law, whether you are called a "saboteur", a "franc-tireur", or an "unlawful combatant". All you get is a hearing, in front of military officers and without recourse to counsel, to decide if you actually were caught in arms out of uniform in a war zone.

The United States is specifically not a party to the 1975 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions; we rejected them. They are accordingly utterly irrelevant.

Now, General Mowhoush was not subject to summary execution under international law; his rights as a POW were violated.

Furthermore, it does not mean I endorse torture of these unlawful combatants. But all they are entitled to is a firing squad or a stout hemp rope, not habeas corpus.

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