Saturday, November 29, 2008

The True Price of the "Dark Side"

In the course of researching my next novel, I just binged on three excellent documentaries: "Standard Operating Procedure," which examines the events at Abu Ghraib through photos, video, and interviews with many of the soldiers convicted of torturing prisoners there; Best Documentary Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," which examines America's move to what Vice President Cheney called "the dark side" through the imprisonment, torture, and murder at Bagram Airbase of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver; and "Torturing Democracy," which examines the Bush administration's embrace of "alternative interrogation techniques" and the effect of that embrace on our democracy (available on the TD website either by DVD or as a free download).

Several things came to mind while I watched these documentaries.

First, what will be the continuing impact of these photos and videos--of Arab men being shackled, beaten, set upon by dogs, stripped, forced to masturbate, forced to mime homosexual acts--on jihadist recruitment? I'm not talking only about how many new suicide bombers these photos and videos will create; I'm talking also about the size and depth of the pool of sympathizers without whose support or at least acquiescence the bombers would be unable to function effectively. Whatever good might be accomplished by our overall efforts at counterterror, it's hard to imagine it'll outweigh the effect of what came out of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere.

Second, I was struck by how, in almost every photo and video of abuse, humiliation, and torture, the prisoners were hooded. It's well understood that covering a person's face is a highly effective way of denying his humanity (prisoners ascending the gallows or facing death by firing squad are hooded not as a mercy to the condemned, but as enablement to the executioner). Whatever "softening up" or security benefits the government believes might be accrued through hooding, the costs of the practice, in terms of increasing the likelihood of prisoner abuse, must be far greater.

Third, a thought experiment. If instead of American soldiers and Arab detainees, the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib were of American POWs and, say, Iranian guards, what would be the American reaction? Note the linguistic choices in the previous sentence, which would be automatic: Arabs are denied the dignity of being designated Prisoners of War. They're not even prisoners. They're merely "detainees" (I'm half-surprised we haven't started calling them "guests"). The Americans holding them are "soldiers"; were the shoe on the other foot, the enemy captors would doubtless receive the less exalted term, "guards." Would there be any debate about whether the practices revealed in the photos were "outrages upon human dignity," as prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and US law? Would we describe the practices as "abuse?" Or would they obviously, and rightly, be called "torture?" If Americans were taken against their will and spirited away by Iranian government forces, would we call the practice "rendering," or would we recognize it as "kidnapping?" Would we call the places to which Americans were secreted and where they were held without acknowledgment to their families or even to the Red Cross "detention centers?" Or would we call such a system a gulag?

Fourth, I marveled at the logical fallacy at the heart of our decision to "take the gloves off" and employ practices pioneered by the Spanish Inquisition (where waterboarding was known as the "tortura del agua," and sleep deprivation as the "tormentum insomnia"), and followed by the KGB, Communist Chinese, and North Koreans. All these illustrious forebears of ours employed the practices in question to elicit false *confessions,* yet we decided to employ them to elicit accurate *intelligence.* These are completely different goals, and I'm amazed that advocates of an embrace of such techniques could miss a point so fundamental. Call it your tax dollars at work.

It's common for rightists to justify America's embrace of the "dark side" by claiming that President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe *up until now.* Whether the correlation between "the dark side" and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, "has kept us safe up until this point" has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time." It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he's financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he's afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they're all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can't help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe "the dark side" offers benefits, and you're willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side's true price.


Unknown said...

Thank you for saying this Barry, and saying it so very well.

Words fail me in the face of this.

Sonja Sommers-Milbourn said...

Excellent commentary, Barry...particularly when it comes to 'America in denial' (Hiroshima in America, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell)and our ability to deny our humanity when it comes to inflicting terror on others. Your point about the hooding of 'detainees' (POWs)was well taken. Have you read Jane Meyer's 'Dark Side'?

Fran said...

I agree with Tom. Do you think the change in administration will make a difference as to how this "bill", to use your metaphor, will come due?

JD Rhoades said...

Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, and "extraordinary rendition" have nothing to do with gathering intelligence or stopping terrorists. They are expressions of rage, pure and simple. A lot of Americans want Arabs--any Arabs--or any dark-skinned people if Arabs aren't available, degraded and humiliated as revenge for the humiliation of 9/11. That's why right wingers cling so bitterly and tenaciously to the idea that these abuses aren't torture and that what happened at Abu Ghraib "wasn't that bad." You're trying to deny them their "revenge". They're like children who've been slapped, so they go torment the cat and they'll get angry if you deny them their emotional release.

Anonymous said...

I believe Abu Ghraib was very bad, obviously. But i do not think that something like this can or should brand us as a nation. Is it not alright to take prisoners? I don't think many people defend Abu Ghraib. If they do, its foolish.

But FDR sent Japanese-Americans to prison camps, regardless of evidence against them. And i believe we recovered from that alright, as well as the nuclear bomb. Compared to these events, i'm not so sure that Abu Ghraib is nearly as bad.

David Farnell said...

I'm sorry Ben, but that kind of complacency is exactly what leads us back to making the same mistakes over and over. It took us decades to finally own up to and apologize for the illegal WW2 internments, and I assume we promised never to do it again--and then we did it again just a few years later.

And worse! Not only did we ignore habeus corpus, we used torture, and when we started getting caught at that, we started outsourcing it with "extraordinary renditions." That makes this far worse than the Japanese-American internments. We violated our own Constitution as well as international laws that we had championed.

Notice I keep saying "we." That's because we not only let Bush take office when he hadn't won the first time, we reelected the bum when we knew how bad he was. Sure, I voted against him both times, but as an American, I have to shoulder some of the blame along with the rest of us.

The only way to lay that blame to rest is to investigate, prosecute, indict, and imprison the people who have committed these crimes, especially the ones at the top. I know it's not politically feasible, but it's the right thing to do, and the only way we can regain our honor as a nation.

Following that, we need to treat Abu Ghraib and all the rest of it the same way the Germans treat the Holocaust: as a national shame that should be taught in every school. We can't wait a century, like we have with things like slavery and Native-American genocide, to give us a "safe distance" from the topic, so we can blame it all on ignorant ancestors and say "Well, *I* would never do something like that." Because what Abu Ghraib shows is that we are collectively willing to elect people who do indeed do things like that--and that means we helped them do it.

Anonymous said...

Well, i don't know about the whole bush first term thing. He didn't win the popular vote, true, but he won the most electoral votes, and thats what matters.

I certainly agree that Abu Ghraib is terrible. My main questions are who knew about it within our government, and how much worse do the terrorists treat their prisoners? Obviously, we don't want to start treating prisoners in the way that they do. But i believe the terrorists regularly behead their prisoners and do some awful things. Yet it seems like there is never outrage about that over here. Sometimes i think our public is more outraged at the Bush administration than they are at the Terrorists in Iraq who are murdering hundreds of innocent citizens.

David Terrenoire said...

There was a recent article (I'm sorry but I can't locate it) about military interrogators discovering that being friendly elicited more reliable intelligence than torture.

That we have to relearn this lesson is a tragedy. In the Marine Corps, there is a classic paper on interrogation written by Sherwood Moran, a Marine intel officer during WWII in the Pacific.

In his report, Moran says that he found by forming a relationship with the POW, getting them medical attention and treating them as fellow humans deserving of respect, he was able to get solid intelligence where other officers who used threats and brutality got nothing but silence.

So, by using harsh techniques, we get nothing solid. And in return we brutalize our own forces, recruit more people to the enemy's cause, and sacrifice our ideals and standing in the world.


For more proof that humane interrogations work, read The Ploy by Mark Bowden in the Atlantic of May 2007. In the article, Bowden reports on Task Force 145 who cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s inner circle, and did it without torture.

Anonymous said...

Hope those links work for you - I just did a simple google search - wasn't so difficult to find. I suppose I would have preferred these innocent civilians and US soldiers to have been humiliated with a sack over their heads rather than to be killed in the matter that they were.

I do agree with you that these terrorists should not have to endure torture at the hands of Americans. They should have been promptly shot on the spot.

David Terrenoire said...

I found the article. It was in last Sunday's Post and, in the light of some of the more bloodthirsty comments, bears reading.

You can find it here:

David Farnell said...

Good article, David. Actually, in Requiem for an Assassin, Barry gets deeply into the question of whether and how torture works. Under very specific circumstances, it does work--depends a lot on who the victim is and what you want to get out of him. But those were not the kind of circumstances we had at Abu Ghraib, where the prisoners were, in the vast majority of cases, not terrorists or even criminals--they were people who had annoyed somebody who then dimed them to the US troops, or in many cases they were just people randomly grabbed by Iraqi police in order to satisfy a US quota. Then they were tortured in a very amatuerish way to get information that the prisoners didn't even have.

Ben and Anonymous, sure, the terrorists use worse tactics than we did. But that's kind of like saying, "Well I raped her, but at least I didn't KILL her! I'm not a barbarian!" Just because we're not as evil as they are, doesn't mean we're not evil.

"They should have been promptly shot on the spot," Anonymous? Sure--and which of these prisoners is a terrorist? Shooting prisoners without a trial is called murder. It might give you a nice macho rush at the moment, but you ought to ask my Vietnam-vet father sometime about how it will affect you for the rest of your life.

The point is, with all that torture, we harmed the security of the USA far more than we helped it. Abu Ghraib, like the invasion of Iraq itself, was a gift to Osama bin Laden. Trying to pretend it wasn't so bad is a cop-out.

Anonymous said...

Isn’t it odd that our presidents take an oath to protect and preserve the Constitution and then don’t.

Acts as described by Barry bring us down to our enemies level and takes away any complaints we might make on similar treatment of our troops as prisoners.

We are suppose to stand for something. Unfortunately our morals go down when our need for central heating go up.

P.S. JD Rhoades, I am a right winger...

Anonymous said...

Had an interesting intelpedia chat with a buddy of mine reference some of this info – he is a USA Interrogator and has done more than a few tours to GITMO:

CTA-TNW [1:55 PM]:
INT-SD[1:55 PM]:
whats up?
CTA-TNW [1:56 PM]:
like your opinion on something
CTA-TNW [1:56 PM]:
read this:
INT-SD[1:56 PM]:
i'm honored....
CTA-TNW [1:56 PM]:
I figured it was right up your alley
CTA-TNW [2:03 PM]:
uuhhh, my bullshit meter is just ringing.....
CTA-TNW [2:05 PM]:
"I thought you would torture me, and when you didn't, I decided that everything I was told about Americans was wrong. That's why I decided to cooperate." - BS
INT-SD[2:08 PM]:
Another "author"
CTA-TNW [2:08 PM]:
when are we gonna be rid of these guys??
INT-SD[2:09 PM]:
We'll never get rid of these guys. There are wimpy little liberals everywhere. but there are some huge problems with what he says.
CTA-TNW [2:10 PM]:
such as?
INT-SD[2:10 PM]:
first. he is correct that torture is not effective as a technique, especially in a strategic environment
INT-SD[2:10 PM]:
this is exactly why he is a LIAR!!!!
INT-SD[2:11 PM]:
Point 1. He says they were using techniques from GTMO.
INT-SD[2:12 PM]:
He was in Iraq in 2006, a year after I left GTMO. We didn't follow that philosophy in GTMO and had not engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques since 2003
CTA-TNW [2:12 PM]:
enhanced interrogation techniques?
INT-SD[2:13 PM]:
dogs barking, loud music, long sessions, angry interrogator, etc
INT-SD[2:14 PM]:
it was at gtmo where we learned that shit doesn't work for islamic terrorists
INT-SD[2:14 PM]:
we learned to do long term relationship building that he is talking about. be a friend,
INT-SD[2:15 PM]:
problem is...... if he was on the Special operations team he's talking about, he was not given the luxury of strategic interrogation facilities.
INT-SD[2:15 PM]:
the spec ops guys did TACTICAL interrogations IN the FIELD with DELTA guys
CTA-TNW [2:16 PM]:
so - how did he build the 'relationships' that take time to build?
INT-SD[2:16 PM]:
exaclty. two, he's an officer. OFFICERS (with the exception of Army Warrants) were not on these teams
INT-SD[2:17 PM]:
each team was specifically screened and personally selected at Ft. Bragg
CTA-TNW [2:17 PM]:
so - he be lying
INT-SD[2:18 PM]:
furthermore. they are absolutely sworn to secrecy. dude, even the guys we had at gtmo who went tdy to work those teams were absolutely SILENT on what they did
INT-SD[2:18 PM]:
even to me....
INT-SD[2:18 PM]:
my best friends were silent about this stuff
CTA-TNW [2:18 PM]:
so - - this guy is in violation of his non-disclosure agreement??
INT-SD[2:18 PM]:
i was supposed to go, but they kept me back b/c i was a team leader - and I WAS ENLISTED
CTA-TNW [2:19 PM]:
are all team leaders enlisted?
INT-SD[2:19 PM]:
he's no differenct than Eric Saar who wrote a book on gtmo
INT-SD[2:21 PM]:
they're either senior enlisted or warrant officers. I somehow doubt they would let an Air Force officer lead any team. the teams are embedded with operators (hunters). They're along for the ride and they do what they're told in the field or they would endanger the team.
CTA-TNW [2:21 PM]:
just went to his web page
INT-SD[2:21 PM]:
oh my, he has a web page
CTA-TNW [2:22 PM]:
INT-SD[2:22 PM]:
okay, so now look at all the wonderful things he says he did/was
INT-SD[2:23 PM]:
a pilot, counter intel agent, interrogator, criminal investigator, officer, met with general casey, built relationships....
INT-SD[2:23 PM]:
300 interrogations??? dude, those guys did 100 interrogations a week!!!
INT-SD[2:24 PM]:
one right after another in a very hot environment. there was no time for tea.
CTA-TNW [2:24 PM]:
did you know Saar>?
INT-SD[2:26 PM]:
also, btw, the iraq theater is under GENEVA CONVENTIONS. An officer, of all people, is OBLIGATED to report violations of the LAW of WAR. Failure to do so would/could/should result in a friggin' court martial.
INT-SD[2:27 PM]:
That little fag was there before me. But guys on my team who came back as civilians did know him. He lied about knowing Arabic, so he was not able to be an interpreter.
CTA-TNW [2:27 PM]:
he can't speak arabic??
INT-SD[2:28 PM]:
One of those same civilians WAS part of the group that hunted down Zarqawi.
CTA-TNW [2:28 PM]:
INT-SD[2:30 PM]:
Only the true patriot warriors were allowed on those teams,dude. Someone like this wouldn't have made it past the interview process at Bragg. I know, b/c it happened to one of my room-mates. He spent his TDY at Abu-G and later Camp Bucca.
INT-SD[2:30 PM]:
Saar was a fraud!
CTA-TNW [2:30 PM]:
and so is this Air Force guy, too - huh?
INT-SD[2:32 PM]:
My point is this. In a tactical interrogation setting. The standard Field Manual techniques work and they were used, including the Fear Up (I'm gonna rip off your head and sh1t down your neck)
INT-SD[2:33 PM]:
torture? waterboarding? no.... but i will say this.
INT-SD[2:34 PM]:
mental coercive techniques were used.
INT-SD[2:35 PM]:
and they only work until they get to the facility, b/c then the other detainees quickly tell them that they will not be harmed physically or otherwise.
INT-SD[2:35 PM]:
but like he says, Obama is going ot fix it all....
INT-SD[2:36 PM]:
i get so mad about this stuff
CTA-TNW [2:36 PM]:
well, at least we didn't hitch 'em to the back of trucks and drag them around... or cut off their heads.. or....
INT-SD[2:36 PM]:
or slit their throats
INT-SD[2:36 PM]:
or saw their heads off
CTA-TNW [2:36 PM]:
I don't blame you for being pissed. people with agendas are the only ones ever heard
CTA-TNW [2:37 PM]:
and it just won't go away....


So I want you to take everything you know, or think you know - and start running it through a bullshit filter. Just because some 'former military type' or former spook gets a bug up his ass doesn't make everything they say true.

David Farnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I just read that Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic Senator from California, wants to keep the option of using 'coercive interrogation', or something to that extent. In case of an emergency. Just a tad hypocritical?

Ron Robertson said...

In view of the comments by Sylvester Reyes (as well as the above-mentioned Dianne Feinstein), it would be good if these would-be (maybe de facto) enablers of torture and torture-friendly policies could be made to answer these questions publicly.

It's too bad so many of our "leaders" can so blithely make these decisions. I truly don't know how they live with themselves or what it is they tell themselves to do so.

--Ron Robertson (also in the bay area)

Travis said...

Okay, this is a whole big mess of an issue. I think a couple of things should be clarified in regards to torture discussions.

Number one: The question of whether torture is effective and the question of whether torture is morally justified (either in the abstract 'ever' or the concrete, specific here and now) are two seperate questions. Yes ther is a relationship between the two issues but they are not identical questions and treating them as if they are causes problems in the debate.

Next,and this really relates to the next, more recent post. The idea that there was some massive conspiracy from the top levels to harrass/torture/mistreat low value prisoners is ridiculous. I'm not going to cite any studies or documentaries on that. I'm going to cite having been in one of the facilities; having gone to Law School with 2 different JAGS that oversaw detention facilities; and the outrage expressed by a SNCO who had supervised the MPs for an entire region when someone insinuated (joking- but the SNCO was not amused)that his guys would/did do the same thing. So I've had 4 direct experiences with the detainee issue and in all 4 I have a high degree of confidence that there was no systematic abuse.

Finally, ConventionIII of the Geneva Conventions, Part 1 Art. 4 enumerates the people to be considered POWs. Al-Queda, the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents do not qualify. The claim that the use of 'detainees' rather then POWs is a linguistic falsehood is incorrect. It would likewise be incorrect if applied to the hypothetical US soldier and Iranian guard. They would still be detainees.

These are all factual issues, not opinions or moral judgement but until facts can be accuratly expressed the moral outrage against torture/prisoner abuse can not be accurately expressed.

Anonymous said...

Barry, Great work, love the blog. But I couldn't help noticing that you said: "In the course of researching my next novel..." Does this mean that there is another John Rain novel in the works? Just curious. Thanks for the great work.