Blogs > Cliopatria > A “Compromise” on Torture

Sep 22, 2006 5:40 pm

A “Compromise” on Torture

At Slate, Alexander Dryer makes clear what I and many others suspected, that when push came to shove the Republican Mavericks would cave. They did. They not only found a way to allow Bush to continue torturing people and evading the Geneva Convention, they did so in a way that will make it easier for Bush to hide that truth.

I will admit that my first thought when I started this blog in my head was to say this: “If anyone wants to know why I don’t think Republican moderates matter, here’s the proof.” And that is true. However, standing alone that statement is a distortion of a more complex, and infinitely sadder reality.

First of all there are the Democrats. Really, they exist. And a few, most consistently Russ Feingold of my fair state, have actually taken a stand on this issue that mattered. Most happily ducked this debate, just as they have ducked in the past. Oh, it made strategic sense to do so. The Republican division was convenient politically, and it gave political cover for opposing America’s use of torture for a bit. That way they could hold on to voters like me.

“Political cover for opposing . . . torture.” That is why the surrender of McCain and company and the cravenness of most Democrats are not the whole story. The politicians and research wonks of both parties have put their fingers to the wind and decided that torture helps the president and the Republicans. And I guess they are right.

Oh, it can’t be called torture. And there are still limits. The CIA can’t boil people alive. Barring rendition, of course.

I live in a country in which a majority of citizens are willing to torture to secure a slightly greater illusion of safety. The majority of our national politicians accept this. I guess that way they all can settle back in peace and watch 24.

So that is why I am sad.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 9/26/2006

Concerning the Democrats, I had thought that I had made roughly the same point. Far too few have stood when it has counted.

Concerning Republicans who are opposing Bush on this, well, it's hard to say about their impact. You are right; what they did was better than nothing.

Unfortunately, there are reports today that the compromise is being shifted even more in favor of the administration, to the point that the president could imprison people for life--or at least for his term in office. Why aren't the gang of three protesting this change?

Still, it is true that it is Specter, a Republican, who is calling attention to this. On the other hand, the author of the same article is not sure that this means that Specter will actually oppose the legislation when push comes to shove.

Jason Kuznicki - 9/26/2006

Shorter version of the administration's position: Waterboarding and cold rooms were awful when the Soviets used them. But when we use them... Why, 9/11 changed everything.

Really, it frightens me that so many people have forgotten what it means to be an American. Or perhaps they never really knew it to begin with.

We don't do this stuff -- and why? Because we believe in decency, even decency to our enemies. Even decency to the morally repellant. (If the United States has any Christian tendencies as a nation, here they are. These tendencies are being betrayed, incidentally, by many of those who care about Christianity every so much when it means they can pass marriage amendments...)

No, we Americans believe in decency -- not just as an abstract principle, but as a matter of practicality as well: Experienced interrogators will tell you that the way to get the best information from a captive is to build trust with him, to gradually remove his old allegiances with the enemy and replace them with allegiances toward his captors. This is how we used to interrogate; it is also how Israel, a state far more experienced with fighting terrorism, still does it. And it works.

Coercion produces Soviet-style confessions of precisely what the interrogator wants to hear. It's ineffective, and it's ineffective in the worst way possible, because it produces things that will sound plausible to the interrogator, but which have no necessary relation to the truth.

Consider the case of Shaykh al-Libbi, for instance, who produced much false information after being waterboarded, leading to wasted time and resources that should have been spent elsewhere. Or Abu Zubaydah, who was likewise tortured so long as he kept offering what the authorities wanted to hear. But then it turned out that Zubaydah was insane -- and that he had simply managed to offer up what the interrogators wanted to hear.

Meanwhile, we also believe in decency because we hope for decency in others, and we know that -- a hard core of fanatics aside -- the treatment of captured Americans will often depend on the humane treatment that we extend to those that we capture. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a profound tendency in which the U.S. military itself has placed a great trust for many decades.

And lastly, we believe in decency because when an enemy at large knows that he will be treated decently upon capture, he becomes far more likely to surrender. This isn't softness against our enemies -- It's a clever and very effective strategy. And it's a national shame that we have abandoned it in the name of toughness.

Timothy James Burke - 9/25/2006

You're missing some zeroes. One report claims that we've passed up to 14,000 prisoners through a network of secret prisons and military detention centers since 9/11. And quite a few reporters have documented the relatively casual use of brutality against such detainees: it's not just reserved for a special few. Of that number, many have eventually been released, and anecdotal reporting suggests pretty powerfully to me that at least some of the detainees were innocent of any complicity in terrorism, having simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I'm not asking our soldiers to be angels; I'm not expecting unrealistically that brutality will never take place, nor that in the desperation of some urgent circumstance, an American official or soldier will not use torture. But we walk into an entirely different territory as a nation and a people when our President asks to legalize and regularize torture. There is a huge difference between a thing that everyone agrees should not happen and that is against the law but which realistic people know may occur in dire and desperate circumstances, where those doing it ought to struggle with their consciences and be liable for their decisions, and a thing which from the highest pinnacle of political power in the land, we write into our laws as a sanctioned, approved behavior.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/25/2006

If the United States refuses to try cases against terrorists in an international court of law, that does not vindicate your apologia for targetted torture of prisoners of war held by the United States. I suspect that you understand neither the rule of law nor what a straw man is. In a decent society, the human rights even of those who violate other people's human rights are rigorously observed.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/25/2006

Is it possible for you to actually address the facts, or is that too much to ask?

Neither I nor the administration is advocating the casual use of brutality.

Quite the contrary. The issue is one of a very focused and specific use of very limited forms of brutality.

And the fact that only 14 men were remanded from the 'network of secret prisons' to Guantanamo seems to show that the administration not only intends but has already limited the practice of coercive interrogations to a very small number of individuals in very closely defined circumstances.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/25/2006

Then I simply do not understand your argument, because if laws exist to deter and punish such offenses, show me where the Conventions have deterred or punished anyone who has tortured or murdered American servicemen since WWII.

You cannot.

One of the main points of establishing the 1949 Conventions was to ensure reciprocity. For that reason, it does not seem to me to be good public policy to apply the benefits of the Conventions to combatants who systematically do not adhere to them. Quite the ontrary, the Conventions should be deemed to not apply to them, in which case they are not protected from coercive interrogation nor from being tried (even summarily, on the battlefield) and being executed for violating the laws of war.

In addition, if you appeal to the written text of the Conventions, their plain language regarding 'contracting parties' and its definitions of lawful combat seem to have been written precisely to exclude groups like al Queda.

The law has to mean something besides the bien pensant opinions of the liberal elite (i.e., made by the proper authority and properly stated and applied) for it to be a law.

I also assume that any clarifications or addenda in any new legislation would supersede, modify or cancel privisions of the Conventions.

Unless you wish to argue that the

Timothy James Burke - 9/24/2006

No, just the ones who casually advocate the use of brutality and torture.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/24/2006

Your impulse to say that "moderate Republicans don't matter" isn't quite borne out -- even by the facts you cite. For one thing, the Republican moderates did force the administration to modify the bill in the direction of greater recognition of the rights of the accused. You pass over that as if it were no small matter. The accused may think differently. For another thing, the Democrats have not exactly been noteworthy for their leadership on this issue. They've been perfectly content to hide behind the cover that the moderate Republicans you malign give them. Russ Feingold is about as representative of the Democrats in the United States Senate as Lincoln Chaffee is of the Republicans. You can admire their independence, as I do, but you can't take them as representatives spokesmen for their parties.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/24/2006

First, my definition (or, more to the point, the administration's proposals) are not more elastic than current law. In fact, they seek to prune the elasticity of current law which is persistently interpreted to be so broad that photographs of shackled prisoners are alleged to be 'war crimes' by the leftist press.

So what you really prefer is an elasticity that suits your moral and political preferences rather than the reverse.

Regarding our cooperation with (and rendition of terror suspects to) regimes that employ torture, a codification of coercive interrogations by our own people might in fact reduce our dependency on such regimes.

This is not an idle matter nor one that simply relates to the smelly business of acknowledging the (occasional) necessity of dealing with such regimes, but also to the amount and quality of the information obtained.

Any info we get from these regimes is necessarily suspect not only because we don't know how the information is obtained but because it is being fed to us by regimes whose interests in a particular case might be the opposite of ours.

For example, it is unlikely that the Syrian regime is going to tell us that suspect X rendered to them was in fact involved with the PFLP (headquartered in Damascus).

Ralph E. Luker - 9/24/2006

No straw man whatsoever. You seem not to understand why law exists. Both German and Japanese authorities faced war crimes tribunals after World War II. By your logic, one would abolish laws against murder and theft simply because they are sometimes violated. Law exists _because_ those things sometimes occur. That they sometimes occur is no reason to abolish them.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/24/2006

Is it the 'tolerant' left, the one that boasts of it's dedication to the 'open society', which considers its intramural political adversaries to be "parasites"?

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/24/2006

I said nothing regarding the efficacy of torture regarding 9/11 in particular. I simply and easily refuted your contention that the danger of a mass terrorist attack was too abstract or theoretical to weigh in on the debate. You are simply substituting another argument and failng to address my criticism.

Regarding the 'open society,' I find it hard to believe that a society to be 'open' also has to be 'open' to its enemies or accord them the same rights as it does to citizens. You are also ignoring a very great political difficulty regarding that position: why should a majority of the population support any regime that does so?

To respond that it 'shows how good we are' or that 'it shows we are better than our enemies' simply relaces the reality of the dirty war we are in with a shambolic exercise in moral preening, for we are certainly not going to convince our enemies that we are 'good' and thereby get them to lay down their arms by such antics.

In fact, it will nly excite them to greater violence and make or defense more difficult. In short, such moral preening supports the commission of even worse evils and lengthens our current conflict.

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/24/2006

Please provide one iota of evidence that adherence to the Geneva Conventions by the United States has ever been generally reciprocated in the period after 1945. Even in WWII, the Japanese treatment of American was atrocious and there many instances of abuse by the Germans as well, even if they for the most part maintained the conventions in their dealings with Amercan POWs.

Find another straw man.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/24/2006

Pierre, concerning the US stopping short of torture.. Even given your elastic definition, I gather that you have not read this:

Timothy James Burke - 9/24/2006

Because, of course, we had no intelligence from other means on the 9/1 attacks. If we'd only had torture, we would have had those guys <em>nailed</em> but without torture, we didn't know anything about them.

But even this concede too much. People who are too cowarldy to accept the risks of an open society should not attempt to rise in defense of one. Just skip the preliminary theatrics, please.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/24/2006

Let me see if I understand you correctly, Mr. Mauboussin: "Because of 9/11, the United States should open the door to the legalization of torture of American prisoners of war." Have I understood you correctly?

Pierre Mauboussin - 9/24/2006


Let me make a small change to what you wrote:

"Then you got something like Mark Bowden's article in the Atlantic, which took the "prisoner with knowledge of a ticking time bomb" scenario, normally seen as an abstract ethical thought-experiment roughly on a par with [a small group infiltrating the United States and flying jetliners into buildings and killing thousands], and pretended it was a real, urgent and regular problem-- ..."

Sound better? The only reason you set yourself up for that one is that you simply refuse to recognize, not only the nature of the threat, but that any serious threat exists at all.

Almost all critics of the Bush administration are over-generalizing the administration's argument into a straw man.

When the vast 'secret CIA prisons' were opened, lo and behold, 14 men were relocated to Guantanamo.

What the administration is proposing is the use of painful methods of interrogation that are more than those legally permitted under existiting rules governing law enforcement, but which do not extend into actions that cause gross physical injury that would be understood to be torture by the popular imagination, if not the legal community.

That is why, Prof. Dresner, a majority of the American people can refuse to support torture while simultaneously supporting coercive interrogations: they don't consider them to be torture. And if they did, I would think the Dems would be making a lot of noise about this, wouldn't they? Their silence is rather telling, don't you think?

And since there is considerable blathering about the morality of these interrogations, let me ask all of you a simple question:

What gives you (plural), the academic and legal community, the right and the authority to make scum like Khalid Sheik Mohammed part of my political, legal and ethical community without so much as a by-your-leave?

The SCOTUS, of course, has tried to do so in Hamdan, only by ignoring the plain meaning of both the Detainee Treatment Act (which removed their appellate jurisdiction) and that of the Geneva Conventions themselves, which cannot be twisted to cover combatants such as al Queda no matter what lies the affirming justices tell to support their decision.

The Bush administration is asking Congress for explicit authority to gut Hamdan, and it looks like it is going to get it.


Timothy James Burke - 9/23/2006

Some folks have suggested to me lately that trying to be reasonable and make connections or bridges to many different points of view is a fool's game. John Reagan is the kind of person who makes me think that they have a point.

Imagine if eight years ago, we'd read an op-ed piece in a significant newspaper in which the author said, "The United States should be free to employ torture because torture works. Because torture is a good thing if good people employ it." I think almost everyone would have questioned the sanity of the editors. But piece by piece, amoral people of ill will have pushed, prodded and poked at public consciousness. An outrageous suggestion here, quickly backpedaled on. A hypothetical there, quickly disavowed. A selective analogy, just for the sake of thinking.

Then you got something like Mark Bowden's article in the Atlantic, which took the "prisoner with knowledge of a ticking time bomb" scenario, normally seen as an abstract ethical thought-experiment roughly on a par with Schroedinger's Cat, and pretended it was a real, urgent and regular problem--and then pretended that Israeli and American military officers had come up with a crisply professional and fail-proof set of methods for torturing people with that kind of information. Bowden affected the manner of someone concerned about moral ambiguity while basically serving as a mouthpiece for a cabal of intelligence and security figures looking to normalize torture.

And so here we arrive: someone shows up and with an apparently straight face says, "Torture works, and there's nothing particularly wrong with it". So no objections any longer when some sadist tortures a prisoner, possibly an American, off in some other country or place, except: we're Americans, and what we do is right. What they do is wrong because they're not Americans, not because of what they do.

And maybe that's because, in part, the people who slowly worked to make it possible for someone to say that with an insouciant, thoughtless straightforwardness were met all along the way by reasonable men who tried to build bridges and have dialogues. We didn't do it alone, oh no. There's also the people, like the Euston signatories, so eager to endorse their pet geopolitical projects of transformation that they scarcely noticed the parasites riding on their back, drinking their blood and laying their brood inside the body of the well-meaning host.

But here we are, looking the abomination right in the eye. "Torture is not always so bad", he chirps. Why stop there, John? If effectiveness is the alpha and omega of your ethics, please just get it over with and move straight on to genocide: "Exterminating the brutes is not always so bad!"

Jonathan Dresner - 9/23/2006

Yes, yes, and the absolute pacifist is sometimes a bad citizen, and the tree of liberty must be blood-watered, etc., etc., yeah, we've heard them all before. We're historians, you know.

We're not naive, but neither are we going to be dupes about mistaking moral complexity for amoral license, nor about straw man absurdum arguments, nor are post hoc ergo propter hoc "it worked (at least it looks like it worked, or at least didn't result in total failure) so therefore it must have been justified" circularities going to fly.

John Jeremiah Reagan - 9/23/2006

I'll let Rich Lowry speak for me:
"Because they don't have faith in the sheer moral force of their argument, opponents of coercive interrogation also contend that it "never works," because it only forces people to lie. But it doesn't make sense that everyone always lies. Some people will lie; others will tell the truth. In this vein, Bush critics claim that Abu Zubaydah didn't give us any useful information and was "tortured" needlessly. But CIA officials say that "he was lying, and things were going nowhere" prior to tougher interrogations. Even journalist Ron Suskind, a Bush critic, says that "we did get some things of value."

Opponents of coercive interrogations want to conjure a just-so world, where terrorists always tell us what they know through the sweet art of persuasion and where we never have to do anything that morally discomfits us. Would that the world were so clean and simple. Let's hope the judgment that scholar Paul Rahe rendered on those unwilling to make morally complicated choices prior to World War II never has to be made against opponents of coercive interrogation: "They were more nice than wise. In refusing to commit the smaller sin, they incurred a far greater wrong."

Jonathan Dresner - 9/22/2006

Torture is not always bad.

Sure it is. That's why the administration is trying to redefine it so that it doesn't cover their preferred interrogation techniques.

Oscar is nicer than I: Even if there were studies showing that torture was an effective tool for extracting useful information (and there aren't any, that I'm aware of) I'd find it objectionable, and so do the vast majority of Americans (even according to recent polls). It's been almost two and a half centuries since Beccaria made the definitive case against "judicial torture": torture violates not just our "sensibilities" but our principles even if it is effective because efficiency is not our only value.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/22/2006

Your argument only begins to work if torture is as or more effective than other techniques. What evidence do you have for that, because there is plenty out there that refutes it.

John Jeremiah Reagan - 9/22/2006

Oh please. Torture is not always bad. Just as killing is not always bad. I'd have killed Hitler in a second and would do the same to Bin Laden if I had the chance. The problem isn't torture. The problem is there are well funded ideologically mad terrorists capable of killing thousands of people with contemporary weapons, or even by just flying an airliner into an office tower. The common sense of the American people is usually wiser than the consensus of liberal academics. This is just another instance of that common phenomenon.

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