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.


Jim Winter said...

I always laugh when a conservative - and usually a knee-jerk true believer, not someone who arrived on that side of the fence rationally - tries to win an argument by playing the "feelings" card to discredit the opponent. Usually, it's buried in angry rhetoric and a lot of shouting. Hmm... That sounds an awful lot like...


It is one of the reasons I consider myself a political athiest. I find it much easier to view things more rationally when I toss out the canned dogma we're spoonfed. In other words, my views on torture (a moral cop-out) should not dictate my views on, say, telcom deregulation (Could we please put Charles Kan- I mean, William Randolph Hearst back into his cold, cold grave where he belongs?) or gun control (Guns are bad, but I want the option to shoot back.)

Unknown said...

Hmm. Barry Eisler, Left-Winger? I enjoy your blog immensely, by the way. I happen to have a bleeding heart and gee, sometimes I think you'd be right at home at a leftie get-together.

Thanks for the interesting posts.


Anonymous said...

Hey Barry,
I really appreciate the way that you approach these topics. It's too easy to jump into an emotional response and get into the two option frame of mind (liberals are good, right winger are bad . . . liberals are godless and stupid, conservatives are enlightened and intelligent). Everyone is guilty of it, all of the knee jerk rationalizations one way or another.
One of my best friends, and a former roommate, was raised with a very conservative ethos. I consider myself to be moderately liberal, when I consider myself at all. We have had long talks about lots of these issues and the only thing that seems really clear is that both sides are sounding the same. Notice how it immediately jumps back to that binary again? Both sides . . . I'm not arguing for a Green Party, or a Ross Perot figure who has money and time to try and insert themselves into the political sphere, but I am hoping that we can lose some of this one way or another polarizing that is obscuring what it takes to actually run a country, communicate effectively with the world, and deal with conflicts; and not getting caught up in an artificially phony red state/ blue state sport.
Focusing on issues, the way you have on this blog, where we open them up to a dialogue and show both sides and break down the arguements is very heartening. Even more heartening is when it can be done by an (arguably) populist writer, who writes entertaining action fiction (though, I must say intelligent action fiction) so as to reach a wider spectrum of people. Like I said the last time I commented, I don't always agree with what you have to say, but I'm happy that you're breaking down the arguement and opening it up to conversation.


Oblivious to oblivion said...

You know, I always find it surprising that you – being a former member of the intelligence community – seem to be overlooking the evaluation part of the intelligence cycle. (I won’t get into the intelligence cycle, I’m sure you’re well versed on it.) But of the intelligence collection disciplines (HUMINT, IMINT, MASINT, SIGINT - to name the basic few) HUMINT comes down at the very bottom when evaluating overall reliability. Torture, interrogations, paid or confidential informants - all fall within the HUMINT umbrella – and all of which are not highly regarded until other information corroborates it. Don’t kid yourself for a moment that when an individual is interviewed, interrogated, or tortured that the interrogators don’t already know most of the information they are looking for. Most of the questions are made up beforehand to corroborate current intelligence holdings or fill in the blanks. Very rarely does an interrogator go in cold. (I can put you in touch with a GITMO interrogator, if you like, Barry and I am sure you will be quite enlightened.) So I would agree that torture should be done in the rarest of situations – and rest assured they are - not everybody gets tortured. Believe me, everyone in the intelligence community knows the value of torture and the information derived there from. It is carefully analyzed and weighed against other information.

But I suppose your real argument is the cost of interrogation/torture: “ 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.” To be entitled to prisoner of war status and be exempt from torture, (as described in the Hague and Geneva Conventions), the captured [service member] must have conducted operations according to the laws and customs of war: be part of a chain of command and wear a uniform and bear arms openly. Thus, francs-tireurs, terrorists, saboteurs, mercenaries and spies may be excluded. I believe Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Abu Sayyaf, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. etc., are all self described terrorists. So they have no rights under the Geneva Convention. They are not American citizens (except for Adam Gadahn, I suppose) and so do not have any Constitutional Rights. And we have all seen the videos of what they do to American citizens and soldiers captured in Iraq. You want to give terrorists due process like we do common criminals (i.e. murders and rapists)? I don’t think there is anything common about flying planes into buildings, blowing up subways, blowing up buses, or killing innocent men women and children. They [the terrorists] are not on the same playing field as common criminals and it surprises me that you would equate them.

Anonymous said...


A very interesting and informative blog. As a registered voter, I really try to stay on top of all that is going on in the world.

I consider myself fairly intelligent, so I am disheartened to say that sometimes it is information overload and trying to sort through the who said what when is like a full time job.

It is so easy to say what should have been done in any situation, after the fact. The important thing is what is being said before.

I feel we need to see the gray areas and not just the two options that seem to be thrown around so much. It's like being a parent, you have to look at each situation individually or your house is utter chaos.


Anonymous said...

I believe this former rationality of the right that you so long for has always been more about empty image than fact. As is the idea that the left is defined by groups like PETA.

The rest of your argument, I found fascinating.


AtriaBooks said...

Barry: I'm afraid that its the same over analysis, nit picking and semantics that you display above that leads to our interrogators getting handcuffed and neutered and leads to valuable information turning into attorney-client privilege.

Anonymous said...

I decided to answer your unsupportive article on the Vince Flynn message board-Koufax

Anonymous said...

Barry -

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It seems to me if the current administration and all its minions would apply any of the logic you use in it, our country would not be in the mess it is. Thank you for your thought-provoking words.

PBI said...


Nice post, and a solid shot at cutting through the false dichotomies, hysterical fear-mongering and basic anti-Americanism from those advocating torture. I think the time-machine passage is particularly illustrative of the torture advocates' over-reliance on the hypothetical to justify the unjustifable.

I continue to find it both striking and unutterably tragic that we are debating when and what kind of torture is appropriate, when only recently the idea that the U.S. tortures would be complete anathema to any red-blooded American. If this is the end result of 9/11, then Osama bin Laden was more successful than he ever dreamed; he must be laughing himself to sleep at night as he watches this country throw away it's moral foundation in the effort to score political points and provide horribly misguided reassurance to the most craven and panicked among us. If we can't stand up to the threats we face without abandonning who we are as a nation - or who we're supposed to be - as we've seen with repeated violations of the Constitution, the suspension of habeas corpus and the like, we deserve everything that surely follows.

The invasion of Iraq is only the most obvious evidence that we have forsaken principle and reason for emotion and cowardly acts of expedience. It isn't surprising to me that the same people who backed the wrong war in the wrong country for the wrong reasons are still backing the wrong tactics, but I'll be plenty happy when they've all been driven back into their holes. Maybe then they can satisfy the need to torture others among themselves without cheapening the rest of us.

Sensen No Sen

James said...


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 don't think that Vince is so much arguing that modern torture is more humane (although I suppose it is) than medieval torture, but that it is employed in a way better suited to get results. I think.


Osama bin Laden was more successful than he ever dreamed; he must be laughing himself to sleep at night as he watches this country throw away it's moral foundation

I've heard this said quite a few times over the years, but I'm not sure I've ever believed it. As is often pointed out by commentators, these terrorists aren't in favor of a liberal democracy, but a sort of religious fascism. Would they really consider the U.S. government expanding its powers to the point it has a huge moral victory?

PBI said...


While it is not the restored-caliphate endgame for al Qaeda, interim victory for Osama and Company is definitely within the abandonment of our "decadent" devotion to individual rights, democracy and the separation of church and state. While al Qaeda's version of religious totalitarianism is different from the creeping fascism of 21st century America, in the end, it adds up to that organization's having had an enormous impact on the way we live our lives. To my mind, that's a major plus for any person or group that measures success through the results of asymmetric warfare and depends on said results for recruitment.

Also - and apologies for throwing in my two cents on the portion of your comment directed to Barry - even if your reading of Vince's position is accurate, it is still a wholly unsupportable position. Waterboarding is a centuries-old form of torture that is no more humane today than it ever was, and torture in general does not produce reliable results. See here for more on the topic of torture, its humanity, and its effectiveness.

Sensen No Sen

Janet said...

Cogently reasoned. That is a combination of words I get to use too rarely when it comes to any kind of political discussion.

JA Konrath said...

Why do intelligent people present their arguments in such a deliberately distorted fashion?

Because rationalizing opinions needs just enough logic to corroborate emotions.

We're a nation, and a species, who value faith more than proof. Faith is emotional.

Do smart people deliberately distort their arguments, or do they look for a combination of fact and emotion to justify what they truly believe?

How much of what we do is to defend our beliefs vs. question them?

Hmmm... Giuliani is endorsed by Pat Robertson

Tsk tsk tsk. Bad debating technique. Did you deliberately argue in a distorted fashion, because of the emotional connotation? ;)

We both know that Robertson's endorsment of Guiliani speaks about Robertson, not Giuliani, who will happily take the campaign donations and votes Robertson can drum up.

Anonymous said...


I am confused about why you chose the title "Vince Flynn, Left-Winger?" for this post, and your occasional jibes at the left within the body of the post. Do you have any examples of specific "left-wing" arguments that exhibit the negative values and "fallacies" you ascribe to Flynn and his argument? Also, could you clarify just what you mean by "left-wing"?

Your post contrasts conservative "cynicism" and liberal "naivete"; conservative "cold accounting" and liberal "emotion"; the power of argument versus a "left-wing mantra" of "If it feels good, do it." [As an aside, your choice of "mantra" is fairly telling here. I'm guessing that many members of India's BJP have and use mantras -- does this make them left-wing?] All this conspires to lead me to believe that your definition of "liberal" and "left-wing" [Also: could you explain what you intend by conflating these terms?] in this post tends to reach no further into history than an "I'm Not Fonda Hanoi Jane" bumper-sticker.

Which segments of liberal and left-wing political tendencies embody your depictions of them as naive, emotional, irrational and overly-optimistic? US Representative Bella Abzug? Senator Paul Wellstone? Journalist I.F. Stone? Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? Activists Saul Alinsky, Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, Medgar Evers, Angela Davis, Gus Hall, Eugene V. Debs or Lucy Parsons?

In attempting to expose the appeals to emotion, false dichotomies and other fallacies in Flynn's arguments, it seems that you have slipped into unsupported [and, I would argue, largely unsupportable] ad hominem digressions.

Anonymous said...

We read in this string the commentary of those who've neither tortured nor undergone torture. If I'm wrong about that, please correct me.

Theories... sentiments... morality... principles... macho bluster...

Here's the testimony of Colonel Stuart Herrington, the US Army's senior-most interrogator [now retired]:

Here's the testimony of Tony Lagouranis, an enlisted Army interrogator who was "hands-on" during the War in Iraq.:

There are torturers who enjoyed their work. They rarely publish any of their sentiments, and I suppose we all might be glad of that.

I'm a retired US Army intelligence officer. Here's what my experiences taught me: if you haven't ever tortured anybody; if you haven't ordered others to torture and then supervised their work personally; if you haven't met, photographed, and interviewed victims of torture; if you haven't represented the victims of torture in court or before a military tribunal; if you haven't worked with victims of torture trying to put back together their lives; if you haven't ever been tortured; if you don't *know* that torture follows the torturers home and lives with them for the rest of their lives... then you have just about nothing to offer any good soul trying to sort out right from wrong on this issue.


D said...

Preet Bharara's new book Doing Justice has an excellent section on how nonviolent interrogations historically are much more effective than corporeal ones.