Sunday, January 09, 2005


We Are A Horrible Nation.


Because some of us advocate torturing terrorists to gain information?

No, because some of us think the following amounts to torture:

Jan. 17 issue - Ibraham Al Qosi's stories seemed fairly outlandish when they first surfaced last fall. In a lawsuit, Al Qosi, a Sudanese accountant apprehended after 9/11 on suspicions of ties to Al Qaeda, charged that he and other detainees at Guantanamo Bay had been subjected to bizarre forms of humiliation and abuse by U.S. military inquisitors. Al Qosi claimed they were strapped to the floor in an interrogations center known as the Hell Room, wrapped in Israeli flags, taunted by female interrogators who rubbed their bodies against them in sexually suggestive ways, and left alone in refrigerated cells for hours with deafening music blaring in their ears. Back then, Pentagon officials dismissed Al Qosi's allegations as the fictional rantings of a hard-core terrorist.
Read the rest of the Newsweek piece here at MSNBC.

Wrapped in an Israeli flag? Females rubbing up against me? Left alone in a refrigerated cell for hours? Is it Gitmo, or an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house?

I'm not denying that the tactics described in this particular Newsweek piece are sordid. I'm also certain that they are very unpleasant. However, given the limited information available from these examples, I do not see how they can be qualified as torture.

While it would be wonderful to establish a hard line of what is and is not torture, I'm afraid that there are two strikes against such an effort.

First, torture seems to be like pornography-- it's a very subjective definition. Humiliation with an Israeli flag is not torture. Having your genitals hooked to a car battery; that's torture. Being cold and hungry is not torture. Freezing to frostbite and starving to illness; that's torture. And suggestively rubbing up against women? That's not torture, unless they look like Rosie O'Donnell.

Second, the moment you formally establish a line that shall not be crossed, you've eliminated the threat of escalation from milder, accepted practices of interrogation.

Watch any cop show in the world-- the moment the perp chained to the desk knows the bad cop won't actually throw him against the wall, the threat to do so becomes empty. Even if there are clear rules against the cop doing such a thing, that ambiguity must be preserved for such a tactic to work (Jonah Goldberg defines this as the "Sipowicz Rule").

Another relevant example: the old Chris Rock routine about smacking his wife. He'd never, never, ever, ever hit his wife. Not in a million years. No sirree. But he'd sure shake the shit out of her. Because the moment his wife knew that her loving husband would never, never, ever, ever hit her, she'd take great advantage of that fact.

Alright, let's address this from another angle. Let's assume that these tactics do not amount to torture, but we still recognize them as morally repugnant.

They may be distasteful, yes, but not if they work. Unless you subscribe to a Dalai Lama-esque view of violence, there is always a moral calculus at play. If by humiliating a member of Al Qaeda I can get him to talk, I may prevent a greater act of violence.

Critics will argue that by committing the torture I'm "sacrificing my soul" or some similar sort of abstract moral wounding. However, if that saves a life, or a school, or a city, that may be pain we as a society are willing to live with on occasion.

Critics will also argue that, moral considerations aside, torture doesn't work. They argue that the individual being tortured inevitably says exactly what the interrogators are listening to here.

I would grant this as true, if the object is to seek a confession of guilt. However, that is not the object here. The Jihadi in his cell at Gitmo is already guilty, picked up on the battlefield in arms against us. The question is whether he can provide any useful information. And, when combined with information gained via other interrogations and means of intelligence, even lies can be useful when cross referenced with known truths.

Ace says these things much more eloquently than I did, so I recommend reading his posts here, and here.

Let's step back for a moment and consider one element that I haven't seen discussed in many places: the need for this debate.

I have no fear whatsoever of the United States turning into a Stalinist or Naziesque police state. In my daily life I worry more about asteroid strikes, accidental nuclear launches, and planets where apes evolved from men than I do about that possibility. One of the (many) reasons I do not fear such a possibility is that we as a nation constantly question the morality and efficacy of our actions.

However, if such questioning went away tomorrow-- say the Patriot Act was actually the tyrannical law the nightmares of the Loony Left imagine it to be-- I *still* don't see how we could become anything like a fascist police state as popularly imagined. For it is not the laws written that prevent us from going down the slippery slope, but the normative cultural structure of American society that provides the foundation for those laws.

That being said, that normative structure could erode over time, to the point where even with the laws on the books nobody follows those restrictions.

I always like to use the examples of traffic laws because everyone can identify with them. As I've mentioned before, there doesn't need to be a law to tell people to stop at red lights. It is in the interests of all drivers to sacrifice their individual desires (I want to get to my destination as quickly as possible) in return for more valuable guarantees (I want to get to my destination as safely as possible, and avoid gridlock). And, drivers who ignore the red light rule will eventually get punished for doing so regardless if a police officer is on the scene to write a ticket.

An even better example related to this discussion? There are laws against spitting on the sidewalk, and littering. In most cities in America, people wouldn't even think of doing such a thing, whether there was a law preventing it or not. However, in some cities in our history (New York City, 1968-1994 comes to mind), such an a priori consideration was much less important than the law.

So what you have here is a tension between two independent elements: the law (there shall be no torture) and our normative restrictions (torture is icky). The law can be weakened while the normative restrictions remain, or even strengthen. Alternatively, the law can be strengthened, but everyone could still ignore it.

Bringing it back to my original caution, I think it is not only valuable but necessary that we have this debate, and always have this debate about how to treat our prisoners and detainees. That does not mean I relinquish my argument. While many who call for a debate do so in order to overturn the status quo, one can, if rarely, do so to ensure the status quo. It's typical everywhere in the world for the voices in the minority to be the ones calling for debate while the majority (or those in power; not always synonymous) don't want there to be a debate. It's not nefarious; it's human nature. But it's a part of our nature that must be constantly challenged in order for our Republic to prosper.

I usually have to pay $10 for that at the table, or $20 on the couch.
Remember, there is no sex in the champagne room.

Nor the interrogation room, I would think.
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