Sunday, November 18, 2007

Vince Flynn, Left-Winger?

The Friday Washington Times has an interesting interview with Vince Flynn, whose new novel featuring CIA operator Mitch Rapp just hit #1 on the NYT list.

I've met Vince and like him, and enjoy Mitch Rapp, too, but I have to admit that while reading the interview, I was struck by some of the fallacies in Vince's arguments, including an underlying set of assumptions that used to be associated with left-wing thinking, but that have now been adopted by the right.

[Torture is] far more effective than liberals would have you believe... What do you think we should have done? Given them [terrorists] a lawyer, three square meals a day and let planes get hijacked?

Leaving aside for the moment the question of effectiveness, note the either/or thinking by which Vince reaches his conclusion. Either we torture, or planes get hijacked. Is this true? Do we really have no anti-terror tools at our disposal but torture? If it is true, how did we get to the point where our options are so dire -- and so limited?

The binary assumption is common in modern rightist arguments. Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists. Either we stay the course in Iraq or we cut and run. Either we bomb Iran or accept their mideast hegemony. In a certain worldview, there are never more than two possibilities.

When I worked for the government, I was taught to make policy proposals in threes: two crazy, one merely unpalatable. For example, we can either nuke Iran, convert to Islam, or tighten up sanctions. The idea is to rhetorically limit the possibilities so the policy maker believes he has no choice. It's like a magician forcing a card.

The question, then, is why do intelligent people present their arguments in such a deliberately distorted fashion? My only answer is that, like the person recommending policy choices above, they do so because they want to reach a certain conclusion, in this case that torture is desirable. The emotional urge is understandable -- we took a hard hit on 9/11 and it's natural that we want to lash out in response. But if we want our policies to be effective, don't they need to be driven more by logic and rational thinking than emotional urges? And when did the right become the slave of naked emotion?

I think it [torture] should be done in the rarest of situations. Anybody who says torture doesn't work hasn't studied the history of torture.

I can't be sure, never having been tortured and never having tortured anyone, but I don't know anyone reasonable who argues that torture doesn't ever work. The problem here is again a kind of limited focus, because whether something sometimes works is only a small part of analyzing whether the thing in question is desirable overall. Maybe a drug works sometimes, but that's no argument for failing to consider its side effects -- or those occasions where the drug catastrophically fails.

I'll stipulate that in certain instances, you could get useful intel via torture. We still have to balance that possible benefit against all the real costs: an avalanche of false information obscuring the real intel; the creation of new, highly motivated terrorist cadres; tremendous damage to US soft power; psychic damage to our own people; the brutalization of our culture.

You could argue that the benefits of torture outweigh those costs. What you can't do is argue in favor of torture as though those costs don't exist.

The tendency to argue because of possible benefits while ignoring real costs has become a right wing emblem. When the subject is Iraq, the right's arguments are limited to the benefits of having overthrown a brutal dictator. Omitted from the analysis is a discussion of what we have paid to achieve that end: over 4000 dead servicemen and women and far more maimed, blinded, and traumatized; over half a trillion dollars so far, and possibly more than double that in years to come; massive military and economic opportunity costs; etc.

Here is a simple equation: value = benefit minus cost. It used to be liberals who argued for the value of an enterprise only by reference to its benefits, and conservatives who insisted also on an accounting of cost. No longer.

Torture, or aggressive interrogation, is only as good as the interrogators. Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance. He got waterboarded and he sang like a canary... he ended up naming operatives and giving up a treasure trove of financial secrets as well as plans for future attacks.

Another thing I learned in the government was that an assessment of the soundness of intelligence has to include an understanding of the motivations of the asset providing it. When the same government sources advocating torture assure me it works, it brings out my inner skeptic (again, odd that cynicism used to be a right wing characteristic, naivete a hallmark of the left). I've also learned, from George Orwell and personal experience, to be skeptical when assurances take the form of cliches like "sang like a canary." Cliches are typically substitutes for thought.

But maybe KSM did provide useful intel after being tortured. We still have to measure the value of what was obtained in that individual instance against the costs of torture overall. True, Vince argues that torture "should be done in the rarest of situations." But as Abu Ghraib has demonstrated, torture, once accepted "in the rarest of situations," has a tendency to metastasize, and anyone who argues that torture should be, say, safe legal and rare, has to include metastasis as one of the potential costs to consider.

[KSM being waterboarded] was not Uday and Qusai Hussein at work. This was done with clinical precision, not brute force. There are multiple interrogators, lie detectors, doctors and a group of analysts in the next room...

This one throws me. Is the argument that medieval, Inquisition torture is bad, but modern, scientific torture is good? I can't imagine Vince would want to articulate such a principle, but that seems to be what he's saying.

I know Amnesty International would disagree with me, but every American needs to ask themselves, "If you could turn back the clock one week [before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks] would you want Zacarias Moussaoui to have been interrogated by waterboarding?"

I've heard this kind of argument before. It's a subspecies of the "we only have two choices" approach -- again, waterboard or face another 9/11. But the subspecies has an interesting twist: note that it is by definition a fantasy. You actually have to go back in time, where you can have knowledge of the future, to make it work. Unless the people who promote this argument propose building a time machine, I don't understand its relevance. We can't travel backward in time. We don't have knowledge delivered from the future. It's the here and now in which the benefits and costs of torture need to be discussed.

[Americans] are not opposed to torturing men like Sheikh Mohammed, but they don't want to run around and talk about it in public.

This is a strangely emotional argument -- strange because, again, emotional appeals used to be a hallmark of the left, critical thinking the pride of the right. Of course anyone who lived through 9/11 would like KSM, OBL, and many others to suffer and die horribly. That's natural -- as natural as feeling the same way about rapists and murderers. But we've made a decision as a society to grant due process to rapists and murderers, which means not torturing them however much we'd like to. If you want to argue for torturing rapists and murderers, you have to argue that the benefits of the torture outweigh the costs of abandoning Constitutional due process. Similarly, if you want to argue that we should torture War on Terror prisoners, you have to argue the benefits will outweigh the costs. Either way, the existence of a righteous urge to do violence is not an argument for the rightness of violence. "If it feels good, do it" is a formerly left-wing mantra, now heartily embraced by the right.

Look at Hollywood. They all detest President Bush because their friends will think they are smarter by hating him. They wear it as a badge of honor . They try to prove to people they are smart and compassionate and enlightened, so people will like them.

Coming from a novelist capable of imagining the kinds of twists and turns that bedevil Mitch Rapp, the "there are no reasons someone could detest President Bush except for some internal psychological drama or the impoverishment of a certain social milieu" argument seems doubly odd, and I'm struck again by the self-imposed limitations of the current view from the right.

Americans would love to watch a great movie where Mitch Rapp is meting out punishment to these crazy zealots...

Agreed! And I would probably be first in line. But the kind of emotional gratification that drives great movie making shouldn't be confused with the fundamentals of effective policy making. Story is built on emotion and drama. Policy is built on logic and facts.

Mitch Rapp has taken on a cult following, but Hollywood doesn't get it for the same reasons they don't understand talk radio, Wal-Mart or NASCAR.

I don't know... if Hollywood could greenlight "Saw IV" (I love the roman numeral; it makes it seem so important), I think they could stoop to talk radio level just fine.

[I'm backing] Rudy [Giuliani]. He's a bit of a moderate and can unite the country and get the country focused on the war against terrorists.

Hmmm... Giuliani is endorsed by Pat Robertson, who claimed American homosexuals brought 9/11 down upon us; his chief foreign policy adviser believes we're already in World War IV and "prays" the US will bomb Iran; he has promised to appoint judges like Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas; and he has argued that we are in a "real war" with Iran and should not rule out a preemptive nuclear strike on Tehran.

If Giuliani is a moderate, who's an extremist?

[Giuliani] symbolizes the gravity of the situation, and I don't think the guy will back off for a moment having witnessed September 11.

When did the right become so dazzled by symbols that a candidate's symbolic value became a reason to offer him your vote?

I don't think Guiliani will waiver. If he gets ahold of Osama bin Laden, he will throw everything he can at the guy.

Everything? Is that a good thing?

Unwavering symbols throwing everything we have at the enemy... it's an emotional image, I'll admit. But where's the rational beef? When did the right's thinking become so... touchy-feely?

Obviously, I don't agree with Vince, but I give him credit for not resorting to euphemisms like enhanced or aggressive or alternative interrogation. I just hope that he, and other torture proponents, will better distinguish between the cost-free, satisfying torture we see in novels and movies, and torture in the real world, where it carries real costs. That's the kind of hard-headed distinction we used to be able to count on from the right. I eagerly await its return.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Future of the Book Biz

Sorry for the radio silence -- the new manuscript is due in January and for the moment it's hard to keep up with HOTM. If you're curious, I do have a three-part series on the future of the book biz at M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype. Enjoy and see you soon.

-- Barry