Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tell It Like It Is

In the debate (more like a shouting match) over torture, I think it's fair to want to know to what extent it works. To that question, there are conflicting answers. For every Cheney-like declaration are ones on the other side, from professional interrogators, saying the opposite. I do think it's indisputable that over the history of human beings torturing one another, it's been in the production of false confessions that it's been a real sparkler. Witch hunts and other forms of religious inquisition come rapidly to mind. As do military examples. No argument: for convincing a person to say whatever you want him or her to say, there's nothing quite like torture.

But something I read today was provocative:

[T]he memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can -- and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

Now, I think the point of that quote was both to justify "enhanced techniques" and to deny that they were torture: rampant sophistry is a major weapon in the armamentarium of torture proponents, and this quote is, on one level, a pretty chilling example. Still, it's an interesting thought; if true, it's important in that it frames the argument differently. It moves it to where I think it should be.

With no significant exceptions, the tactic of the RWS™ and their washed-up and embarrassing politicos, has been to deny that we torture, or to laugh it off, or to suggest that releasing memos saying what everyone already knew somehow makes us unsafe. By every definition, many of the techniques used were torture, and the US has condemned and/or prosecuted people of other countries for doing them. Bush tried to make his statements "true" by undefining the word, by getting a bunch of third rate lawyers to make fourth rate arguments that somehow what we did was legal.

Another true statement: by international law, to which the US has been a signatory, torturing prisoners is a war crime. By definition. Inarguable.

So here, at long last, is my point: we shouldn't be parsing words, hiring sh*tty lawyers to tell us what we want to hear (it took tortured logic -- and the cynicism of a true believer -- but not actual torture to get them on board), or pretending it's no big deal. Or lying about it. If there's an argument to be made, make it. It would, I suppose, go something like this:

  1. Based on the following information (it would have to be provided), torture works. It provides useful and reliable information, and does so more effectively than other methods.
  2. Since the time of the Geneva Conventions, the world has changed, the stakes are higher, the time-frames shorter, and we believe there are circumstances in which the greater good demands the use of torture (they would have to be enumerated.)
  3. For the following reasons (we'd need to hear them) we believe the harm to our country in terms of resorting to what have been considered illegal and inhuman methods, and in terms of its effect on our claim to higher ground in the war of ideas, is less than the potential harm from using other proven techniques.
  4. Therefore, it shall now be the (overt, instead of hidden and denied) policy of the United States that we will no longer follow the Geneva Conventions and other international law as pertains to torture, and we will use it at our discretion.
  5. And now you know.

I don't claim to know the facts, if there are any. Based on the statements of many professionals, I believe torture to be unreliable and less effective than other methods, and that if it has sometimes provided useful information, it's also resulted in dangerously wrong information (some of which was the basis for the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Deliberate disinformation? Giving bin Laden exactly what he wanted?) I'm pursuaded that other techniques would have done better. And I believe that the harm done by our methods and our lies about them, in terms of world opinion, of contradiction of our ideals, of "proof" to our enemies that our democracy is false -- that all of those considerations add up to a huge mistake in resorting to torture.

But I'd like it if the argument were straight up. If torture advocates are right, we ought to be able to hear why. It might still be true that the majority would support a correct argument; and if democracy is truly the best way to govern, they ought to be able to hear one.

In the open.

[Update: here's an article about the opinion of Obama's intelligence chief that sheds some light. Unfortunately, it comes down on both sides.]

[Update #2: unsurprisingly, the right wing brain trust is willfully misconstruing the above.]


MargaretWV said...

Don't you remember? The pro-torture argument is in your Netflix queue: "24," Seasons 1-7.

I. N. Esher said...

It never works. Right?


Sid Schwab said...

In your haste to your usual snark, INE, you evidently overlooked the update at the bottom of my post. The post, you might also have noted, was a serious thought about a serious subject. All you got is the same old sarcasm?

Really, I bet you could find something useful to say, one way or the other, if you tried. Or wanted to. It is a little harder, though.

Pretty tiresome.

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