Friday, May 29, 2009

The Torture Mentality, Part 4

It's impossible to keep up with the ever-creative arguments of torture apologists, but I'm trying. For the moment, let me step back from the cornucopia of metastasizing specific torture apologies and focus for a moment more on the larger picture.

Have you ever wondered how Dick Cheney can be a credible voice on torture? Can you imagine Cheney (or the architect of any program of at best dubious legality) saying, "Well, our intentions were certainly good, but nothing worthwhile came out of it. Definitely was worth a try though." Is there any way on earth Dick Cheney would ever say that? Of course not, and therefore, how can anyone take him seriously as the chief advocate for the illegal program he himself designed? We might equally expect George Bush to say, "Boy, the war in Iraq has really been a completely unnecessary catastrophe. Oops."

When a car salesman working on commission tells us we're going to love driving this car, we know to be skeptical because his opinion is not disinterested. Why does this sort of common sense evaporate when the salesman is a politician, and with far more on the line than the car salesman?

Why is it that the people who argue for torture have no experience with interrogations, while the most experienced are against it? Read this new article from Time magazine. Between them, Matthew Alexander and Ali Soufan have interrogated or supervised the interrogations of hundreds of war on terror prisoners. Both say torture doesn't work and that in fact it has cost thousands of American lives. Why are apologists so quick to dismiss as irrelevant the the experience of men like these in favor of their own evidence-free opinions?

You might have seen recently that rightwing talkshow host Eric "Mancow" Muller volunteered to be waterboarded so he could demonstrate graphically that waterboarding isn't torture. Here's his conclusion, unsurprising to anyone but himself. And bear in mind, this result was achieved in six seconds in the safest, most controlled, most friendly circumstances possible.

So: why not a torture Turing Test? If Liz Cheney can continue to maintain that Waterboarding Isn't Torture even while being waterboarded, she would be infinitely more persuasive. I wonder why Cheney the elder and Cheney the younger, and so many other apologists with so much on the line, refuse to make this extremely persuasive point? After all, they say waterboarding causes no permanent harm. It's just a dunk in the water, a no brainer, no big deal at all. So why not submit to an easy dunk and demonstrate powerfully and persuasively and once and for all for everyone to see that waterboarding isn't torture? Like Mancow did.

Given how strongly motivated some people are to believe in spite of glaring evidence to the contrary that We Do Not Torture, it might not help to repeat this. But still: waterboarding is hardly the only torture technique that was permitted or engaged in under the Bush/Cheney program. The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate, binds the US not just to not torture, but also not to engage in cruel, inhuman, or other degrading treatment. It specifically prohibits all exceptions.

But you never hear about the law from torture apogists. Instead, they want to make it all about theory: "What would you do if you had to torture someone to save a city? To save a loved one? Can you absolutely say that under all circumstances torture never, ever justified?"

Imagine you're a cop. You come across a dead body with a bullet hole in the forehead, and there's a guy standing over the corpse holding a smoking gun. You want to arrest the guy with the gun, and your partner says, "Hang on a minute there, pard. Can you honestly say that killing is never, ever justified?" This is exactly what torture apologists are doing in the face of actual laws and actual facts demonstrating that those laws were violated.

Really, I get so tired of the ridiculous and irrelevant question, "But wouldn't you torture someone if you thought it could save a loved one?" This is simply an argument for setting policy according to what we would do if we were out of minds with fear, rage, and desperation. How can any rational person believe that policy so devised would be in our interests? What are our rational minds for, if we're so eager to surrender them in advance?

The real question here is: if someone chained your stripped and hooded wife or daughter to the ceiling so she couldn't sleep for a week and the skin on her legs were nearly split with edema, and repeatedly smashed her into the wall, and left her lying in her own urine and excrement, and then waterboarded her again and again and again and again, would you dismiss it all as no worse than a bunch of fraternity pranks, just some "enhanced interrogation procedures?" Or would you recognize it as torture?

It amazes me, the awesome powers we've come to attribute to terrorist losers and misfits. Not only can they dissolve the concrete walls of America's most fortress-like supermax prisons, they're also impervious to the most sophisticated interrogation techniques. You'd think that people who had signed up for a cause as looney as worldwide jihad, who were such true believers that they were willing to blow themselves up along with thousands of innocents in the service of the cause to which someone recruited them, must by definition be reasonably amenable to psychological manipulation. They can be talked into blowing themselves up, but not into giving up information? When did we come to have so little confidence in ourselves that we started to view these cretins as more clever than we are?

I get a lot of mail from people arguing that we should torture terrorists (never terror suspects; after all, if the government says someone is a terrorist, he's a terrorist, because the government has never been wrong about such a thing ever). They're evil, they deserve it, blah blah blah. Even if "they deserved it" could magically render torture legal or otherwise desirable, shouldn't we take a step back and carefully examine our real motivations here? If we really, really want to torture these evildoers because they deserve it, is it possible we'll also want to retroactively invent other, more rational-seeming, respectable reasons to justify the underlying bestial desire? When you really, really want to do something, you start to look for reasons. If you can't find real ones, you might start to invent them. Rational people are aware of this dynamic and take steps to guard against it. Really motivated people don't want to be aware of the dynamic and don't want to guard against it -- they just want to do what they want to do.

It's fascinating to watch the people who argue that torture doesn't matter because people who want to kill us are going to want to kill us anyway. After all, The Terrorists tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, before we started torturing, that kind of thing. And yet these same people also say Obama must never, ever release the new photos of prisoner abuse, lest they inflame anger against us.

Although maybe these photos would cause some inflammation. Some of them are said to depict prisoners being raped.

Okay, here are a few more specific pro-torture arguments. I'm numbering them to make it easier to reference them when I get repetitive pro-torture email.

1. "I'd take your criticism of the US more seriously if you'd also criticize al Qaeda. All we do is rough tactics; they cut people's heads off. Doesn't that bother you?"

This is a really weird argument in so many ways -- call it the Fairness Doctrine for Terrorist Criticism -- but it's out there so let's address it.

First, I wonder, does it only apply to terrorists and torture? Or does the equal time theory apply to other governments and other issues, too? "Before criticizing the US government for its approach to health care, you must provide equal time for criticism of the UK approach."

Look, I'm a US citizen, so naturally I tend to focus on the actions of my government. What my government does affects me, and because we're a democracy, there's at least a theoretical chance my criticism will have some effect. By contrast, somehow I don't think US citizens criticizing al Qaeda behavior is likely to reach the appropriate al Qaeda ombudsman. It might also be that Americans are more critical of their own government than we are of al Qaeda because we hold our government to a slightly higher standard. Are we mistaken in doing so?

Another reason Americans might not spend a lot of time criticizing al Qaeda is because there's no vocal contingent of Americans applauding al Qaeda's barbarism. By contrast, there's a large and vocal segment of the US population applauding torture, and their applause requires a response. So tell you what: when Fox news starts apologizing for and excusing al Qaeda's mass murder, you can count on me to publicly manifest my outrage.

2. "The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects." via Clive Crook.

There's so much wrong with this statement it's embarrassing just to read it. An ordinary criminal trial for terrorists will cause the destruction of several medium-sized US cities? What is the connection between one and the other? Which terrorists? Which cities? Seriously, if we try terrorists in civilian courts, we will lose cities?

If Crook rephrases, I'll have another crack. As it is, it's very hard to know what he's talking about.

3. "We're faced with a ruthless foe, so we have to be at least equally ruthless."

I think I saw this one as a deep thought on Talking Points Memo: If torture so great, why have all the countries that used it -- Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union -- been defeated by the US?

And then there was Jesse Ventua on The View: If waterboarding etc isn't torture, why do we not use it more broadly -- on domestic criminal suspects, for example?

4. Here's one you hear a lot. "How can it be torture when we do it to our own people in military training?"

I don't know. How can it be rape when married couples do the same thing all the time at home? How can it be slavery when people do the same thing for wages?

And by the way, it's *not* just what we did to our own people. Dozens of prisoners were tortured to death (that is, murdered). As far as I know, the military doesn't torture soldiers to death as part of their training. Nor, for that matter, does it chain them to the ceiling for a week etc. before waterboarding them 183 times.

5. "You can't call it torture because some people say it's not."

I hereby apologize to anyone I might have misled by referring to the "Holocaust." Or for using without qualification the phrase, "Man walks on the moon." Or for suggesting that "Shakespeare" wrote all those plays and sonnets.

6. Here's a good one from Lindsey Graham: torture has been around for five hundred years because it works.

Hmmm... works at what? For extracting the false confessions torturers want to hear, it's been brilliant, no doubt.

Personally, I think torture has been around for a long time because people like doing it. What's Senator Graham's explanation for, say, oral sex? That's been around for a long time, too.

7. "Bush and Cheney kept the country safe. At least you can say that."

Nope. Not even close. Anyway, even if this outrageous whopper were true, the same is true of Bill Clinton, who kept the country safe from the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

Personally, I think my books are what's kept the country safe. I sold the first one in late September, 2001, and have been writing about one a year ever since. Surely this can't be a coincidence.

Kept the country safe? The real bill for what they've done has yet to be presented.

I guarantee I'm going to get comments to this post from apologists who will simply repeat the usual torture hypotheticals while continuing their embarrassing, damning silence on the law and the facts of its violation. If you're one of the people who's going to take that route, could you just acknowledge this paragraph as evidence suggesting you at least glanced at the post before responding to it? Thanks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How it Looks to the Terrorists

Transcript of an intercepted conversation between two terrorists in a cave somewhere along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border:

Did you hear Dick Cheney's speech to the American Enterprise Institute last week?

I did. It was funny how Cheney said we think it shows weakness when the Americans argue.

I know. The truth is, I'm a little jealous of the way they get to argue.

I would never say this to my wife, but I think the way they argue is a sign of strength. It takes a lot of confidence to argue like that. I once tried to argue a little with Osama, and he told me if I did it again, he would cut my head off.

I know, I know, Osama doesn't like disagreement. But we have to remember, he's our leader and he knows what's best for us.

That's true. Not everyone has a leader as wise as ours. We're lucky to be able to follow him without question.

What was funny was, who cares about the arguing? And even if we did care, Cheney was arguing, too! It was funny to hear him say, "We must stop doing what I'm doing!"

Yes, that was good. It was like, "We must not be as weak as I'm being!"

In fact, it's the way they're surrendering the freedoms they claim to cherish that's so weak. One big attack and immediately they're torturing, kidnapping, wiretapping without warrants, imprisoning people without charging them... it was so easy! I thought it would be harder, but Osama was right -- America is a paper tiger.

Allahu Akhbar.

I have to admit, I was a little worried when they elected Obama. He seemed to understand that among the country's key strengths were its values.

Empty values, though.

Of course empty values. Equality, freedom, individuality, the rule of law... who wants all that when you can have submission to God, instead?

Allahu akhbar.

But still, a lot of people in the world find those values -- call them the American brand -- attractive. That's what I mean when I say American values were making America strong. Throughout history, the values attracted a lot of people to America's cause. Think of the American brand compared to the communist brand. The Soviet Union never had a chance.

Yes, I suppose that's true.

And it's a problem for us, too. Many people are so deluded that they would prefer equality, freedom, individuality, and the rule of law to submission to God. As though there could be any law but God's law!


Yes. But now that America is torturing, spying on it citizens without warrants, imprisoning without charge, and all the rest, the people who were attracted to America's values are recoiling. They are saying, America, the great hypocrite! And the ease with which the soft Americans have surrendered their "cherished" values shows America's enemies how weak she really is.

Then thanks be to Allah that Obama has reversed all those campaign promises.

Yes. For a while, we were afraid America was going to restore its brand and attract new followers again. But Obama is making sure not to do that. If he has his way, Americans will soon surrender more of their "values," including even this thing called "the right to a trial by jury."

You mean the US government will be able to imprison people without trial?


US citizens?




Wow. That is a huge victory for us.

Yes. And it came much more easily than we were expecting. Imagine how weak and frightened they must appear to anyone who might once have been attracted to their cause of "freedom!"

Allahu akbar.

I have to say, I don't understand their political system. The Democrats are afraid of the Republicans, and the Republicans are afraid of everything -- except the Democrats.

That is strange.

Yes. But it works for us. You know, when Bush and Cheney left office, Osama was very sad. But all the talk shows and speeches Cheney has been doing since then have given Osama a good idea.


I really shouldn't tell you, it's a secret...

I won't say anything.

All right. What Cheney and his allies are doing is trying to convince Americans that if there's another terrorist attack, it happened because Americans didn't give up enough of their values. Because they stopped torturing, for example.

You mean...

That's right. If we can attack them again, there's a better chance than ever, thanks to the work of Cheney, that Americans will quickly surrender even more of their values. That will make them even weaker, and us stronger.

They might torture more?

If we are lucky. Their torture of the brothers is the best recruitment tool we've ever had. It has won us many committed new followers.

They're so easy to manipulate, aren't they? We must take advantage of this opportunity Cheney is giving us.

Exactly. Who would have thought Dick Cheney would go on shaping the battlefield for us, that he would find new ways even after leaving office to encourage us to attack by increasing the benefits of an attack?

Allah works in mysterious ways.

He certainly does.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Our Warden-in-Chief

Mostly I agree with Glenn Greenwald that only a politician's actions matter, and speculation about his or her motives is pointless. But when a politician reverses himself repeatedly on core campaign promises and rhetoric immediately after taking office, as Obama has done, it's hard not to wonder what's driving him. It's not just that my day job is writing novels, meaning character motivation is a particular obsession of mine. It's also that in understanding what could cause Obama to make such a liar of himself regarding transparency, the rule of law, and civil liberties, we might learn something not just about the man, but about the system in which he operates.

The list of Obama's reversals is long, but in brief: amnesty for telecom companies that violated eavesdropping laws; abuse of the state secrets privilege; not releasing photos of torture at US-run prisons; continuing the Bush administration's plans to establish "military commissions" with lower levels of due process. Most outrageously of all, Obama now proposes that the government should be able to imprison people indefinitely without trial.

Pause for a moment and consider: the US government. In America. Imprisoning Americans. Who might or might not have committed a crime. Forever. Without trial.

Obama wants to call this "preventive detention." Pretty-sounding, isn't it? Detention is such a friendly word. It's what I used to get in high school when I didn't turn in my homework (here's more on the political abuses of "detainee" and "detention"). Rachel Maddow was being far more accurate when she used the language of Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Minority Report: "Pre-Crime."

Now, some people see "Trial by Jury as the only anchor yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution." But what kind of of extreme-left, tree-hugging, blame-America-first, granola-eating, America-hating, socialist, ACLU card-carrying librul retard would believe something like that?

Well, Thomas Jefferson, actually. Obama's a pretty smart guy. But does he know better than Jefferson?

So now we come to why. Why would a guy who campaigned on promises of open government, the rule of law, and the importance of civil liberties and all that, a guy who actually taught Constitutional Law, suddenly position himself to become Warden-in-Chief?

I think it comes down to fear.

Americans have become so fearful of being Attacked by the Terrorists that the fear is increasingly distorting our politics. President Bush claimed his most important responsibility was to keep the American people safe -- despite the lack of any such provision in the Constitution. Dick Cheney distorts his oath of office to invent a responsibility to protect America rather than to defend the Constitution. Obama apes Bush in claiming to wake in the morning and fall asleep at night worrying about how to keep us all safe. Wouldn't it be great if these guys would read their job descriptions, as provided for in the Constitution, and try to govern accordingly?

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So Americans are afraid. The fear is fed by demagogues, mostly on the right, who either share the fear or cynically exploit it. As the fear worsens, the level of safety the populace expects and demands from the government increases to unreasonable levels. But because perfect safety is impossible in life, politicians know that, like other forms of crime, terrorist incidents are inevitable. Faced with the impossible demands of the citizenry, what's a politician to do?

Well, basically you do every batshit crazy, extremist thing you can think of: torture (sold for consumer comfort as "enhanced interrogation techniques"); secret prisons ("detention facilities"); preventive wars ("self-defense against mushroom-cloud smoking guns"); warrantless eavesdropping (the "Protect America Act of 2007"); secret laws ("Our Playbook"); show trials and kangaroo courts ("military commissions"); pre-crime prisons ("preventive detention"). Then, when the inevitable happens, the politician can say to the angry, frightened public, "Look what I did to protect you. No one could possibly have done more."

If Americans have become insane with fear, even otherwise responsible politicians might conceive of their job as just managing the insanity.

And that's my take on Obama. I could be wrong, of course; he could be a power-mad tyrant wannabe who -- muwahuwahuwa -- fooled everyone with all that talk of not sacrificing our values for safety, and certainly the powers he's claiming for himself would support that theory. But my essentially unsupportable sense, for what it's worth, is that he's someone with the education, experience, and temperament to know better, who's doing what he's doing merely to protect his political flanks.

What's the difference between a demogogue and a cynic, then? Or between a cynic and a coward?

In the end, perhaps not much.

But what's an honest politician to do? The people are so fearful, the Dick and Liz Cheney Be Very Afraid Show is playing 24/7, when the next attack happens the right will scream it was Obama's fault, he did this, he could have protected you but he didn't...

Yes, what to do. A difficult question.

Oh, wait a minute. A politician could, you know, lead.

Nah, that's crazy. What was I thinking. You're right, cash in the Constitution to protect yourself politically. What the hell, everyone's doing it, why shouldn't you.

But if Obama did actually want to lead, he could try something like this:

"My fellow Americans, there's no such thing as complete safety in this world. And that's always been okay for Americans. We're risk takers and we love liberty -- a combination perfectly summed up in Patrick Henry's 'Give me liberty or give me death.' There was a man who knew there were things in life more precious than safety.

"Actually, there is such a thing as perfect safety in the world. I've heard they have it in North Korea. Of course, the population there isn't safe from the government, but they are safe from pretty much everything else except malnutrition, and that might not be so bad. At least they're not being attacked by Terrorists.

"But is that what we want for ourselves, to cash in the freedom we cherish to make ourselves as safe as North Korea? Generations of Americans have fought and died to protect the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution. Are we really prepared to barter away the freedom they bequeathed us with their blood?

"No, we won't break faith with those previous generations of brave Americans. We won't allow the government to spy on us without warrants, or to govern under secret laws, or to imprison people without trial, or to torture. And if any of that puts us at some additional risk, that's fine. We're Americans. We embrace risk and we love freedom, and we'll be damned if we'll allow a bunch of medieval cave-dwellers to call our tune."

Obama could actually say all this, you know. But it wouldn't be convincing. After all, it would be awkward for the president to try to inspire us to steadfastness against terrorists while he's simultaneously caving in to fear-mongering from Liz Cheney.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Incoherent Truth Suppression

As op-eds go, this one in the NYT praising President Obama for reversing himself and deciding to block the publication of additional torture photos is particularly vapid and incoherent.

You have to read the whole thing to appreciate just how nonsensical and self-contradictory it really is, but here's the author's argument, boiled down:

1. The release of the Abu Ghraib photos in 2004 was good because the photos showed the Bush administration was lying when it said it didn't order torture.

2. But the Bush administration was able to wriggle free by portraying the soldiers who took the photos as rogues and prosecuting them.


3. Obama was right not to release additional AG-style photos taken at other prisons because new photos would enflame anti-American feeling while not telling us anything we don't already know.


By proving the AG techniques were employed at other US prisons throughout the world, the new photos would tell us *exactly* what we need to know, exactly what the Bush administration managed to obscure by painting the AG guards as a few bad apples: that these techniques didn't spring up at random in isolation, but rather were the result of centralized orders. The author, Philip Gourevitch, himself decries the Bush administration's ability to obscure this central truth of Abu Ghraib -- that what happened there wasn't an aberration -- and yet he salutes Obama for covering up the very evidence that would prove the "bad apples" narrative was a lie.

As for enflaming things, how would the new photos be inflammatory if they don't show anything new? Maybe there would be a little enflaming, but surely not nearly so much enflaming as with the AG photos in 2004? Gourevitch himself argues that the AG photos enflamed in vain. Now we have a chance to finish the job of demonstrating where the AG abuses really came from, at far lower cost of inflammation. But Gourevitch shies from the opportunity.

Gourevitch goes on to argue that:

"Crime-scene photographs, for all their power to reveal, can also serve as a distraction, even a deterrent, from precise understanding of the events they depict. Photographs cannot show us a chain of command, or Washington decision making. Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories, and evidence is mute; it demands investigation and interpretation."

If photos are so distracting and deterring, why was it good to release the AG photos? And really, "photographs cannot tell stories?" Is he serious? How does someone come to write something so self-evidently silly?

Regardless, why does Gourevitch set up his argument as though words and images are an either/or proposition, when obviously ideally we would have both? This is all especially confusing because we already do have words, born of "investigation and interpretation," proving that AG was not an aberration. Here, let me quote a few of them, from the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody:

"The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of “a few bad apples” acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. This report is a product of the Committee’s inquiry into how those unfortunate results came about."

So we already have the words, and they've accomplished little about fixing appropriate responsibility for torture, as Gourveitch himself laments. It's the photos we need, but Gourevitch claims that (this time, as opposed to last time) the photos would be distracting, deterring, mute, unable to tell a story. Bizarre.

Gourevitch says "Mr. Obama is not suppressing information when he opposes the release of more photographs." It's difficult to imagine that he would say the same thing were Mr. Obama Mr. Bush.

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

Still trying to keep up with the messages I receive from torture apologists. Recently I received one from a gentleman named James R. Hostert on my Amazon blog. Mr. Hostert's opinions in favor of torture are depressingly common and therefore worth addressing in spite of his equally common refusal or inability to support any of these opinions with facts. In addition to the absence of evidence for any of these pro-torture assertions, note as ever the refusal to address the glaringly obvious point that *torture is illegal.*

Mr. Hostert's points in quotes below; my thoughts interpolated.

"Well, Barry, I don't think we'll ever see eye to eye on this."

James, that's the first accurate thing you've said in this thread.

"I don't understand how you can oppose torture to save lives."

Perhaps you don't understand my point because you're misconstruing it.

First, torture doesn't save lives. Torture costs lives, and indeed has cost thousands of American lives. I'm not asking you to accept my opinion on this point as a substitute for facts (note that your own opinions might be more persuasive to others if you would bolster them with evidence). Matthew Alexander, an Air Force interrogator in Iraq, himself claims that:

"What I saw in Iraq still rattles me -- both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work... I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It's no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me -- unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans."

And Alexander isn't the only one:

"Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" cited "pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.""

And here's a Washington Post article from March this year. Headline: "Detainee's Harsh Treatment Foiled No Plots."

Are you starting to understand now? Why don't you do me and anyone else who's reading this a favor: read the articles linked above, and rebut Alexander's, Mora's, and the Washington Post authors' points based on your own experience with torture and interrogation. I'm not asking you to repeat your opinions. I'm asking you for a refutation based on facts (this is Question #1).

While you're at it, please answer this question: is saving lives the only, or even the highest value?" (Question #2) Was Patrick Henry wrong when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death?" (Question #3)

"Obviously, we don't begin by torturing someone."

Not that it matters whether we torture someone in the morning or later in the day, but in fact, like all the other unsupported opinions you've been offering up here, this one is wrong as a matter of fact. Torture was ordered and was used not just during interrogations, but to "soften up" prisoners before interrogations. Such softening up is the whole point of sleep deprivation, stress positions, manacling prisoners to the ceiling for days at a time, etc.

"We attempt to get the required information by other means."

Again, not that it matters, but so what if we also use other means? Are you saying torture is legal as long as we ask nicely first? (Question #4)

"However, I believe that if it comes down to it, torture is a viable tool to get information that can save lives."

Why do you keep repeating what you believe without offering any evidence at all for that belief? Do you expect to persuade people by repeating your opinions and without any evidence to bolster those opinions? (Question #5)

Here's a quote from General David Petraeus from May 2007:

"What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight… is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings."

Please explain why Petraeus is wrong. (Question #6)

"So, you're telling me that you wouldn't allow a "bad guy" to be tortured to save your wife/child? Really? You'd actually allow them to die. I find THAT depressing."

Not as depressing as I find our failure to teach basic civics in high school, I'm sure.

Anyway, probably in extremis I'd resort to extremes. But James, wouldn't it be more productive -- and polite -- to answer the questions I've already asked you, before repeating ones I've already answered? (Question #7)

I have to say, it is continually fascinating to encounter people who are confident in their opinions despite a complete absence of any supporting evidence and in the presence of so much contradictory evidence. May I ask: since you are formulating and repeating these opinions without any regard at all to facts, what do you think is actually motivating you? (Question #8)

If you want me to respond to you again, please first do me the courtesy of answering each of the questions above. For your convenience, I've numbered them for you -- #1 - #8.


Monday, May 18, 2009

The Torture Mentality, Part 2

Last week, I posted a set of pro-torture talking points sent to me by a persistent torture apologist, along with my responses. The talking points were extensive, by not comprehensive. There are plenty more to enumerate, but today I'd like to talk about the one favorite technique and the most frequent recourse of all torture apologists: the resort to theory over reality. The details of the apologies will vary (it wasn't torture, it saved lives, you would have done it too, it was only in the panicky aftermath of 9/11, it's kept us safe ever since, etc., etc.), but the one point apologists will always return to is The Ticking Bomb Theory of torture.

Why all this theory? Because the reality is so damning. Apologists hope that if they can get you to focus on a fantasy ("if you had to torture someone to save a city, would you do it?"), you'll overlook that the Bush administration tortured terror suspects not just in the panicky aftermath of 9/11, but for years afterward, and did so in significant part not to defuse ticking bombs, but rather to establish a nonexistent link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Don't believe the three reports linked above that Bush and Cheney ordered torture not just to save others' lives, but to cover their own political asses? There's more. Yesterday, anonymous "senior intelligence officials" got Walter Pincus of the Washington Post to publish their self-serving claim that although the CIA had indeed questioned Abu Zubaidah and Kalid Sheik Mohammed about an Iraq/AQ connection, such questions were never asked while Zubaidah and KSM were actually being waterboarded. Liz Cheney, currently on tour to defend her father, cited these anonymous claims as proof that the then Vice President didn't use torture to create a nonexistent cause for war.

(BTW, ask yourself this. What is the Washington Post's value-add when it types up anonymous government assertions like these? Why doesn't the CIA just post them on its own website? Answer: if you were to read the same claim on the CIA's website, you'd immediately discount its value because you would recognize it as self-serving. When instead you read the claim as dutifully transmitted by a stenographer with the Washington Post, it seems more substantive because it's being presented, in theory, by the disinterested Fourth Estate. The government uses a complicit mainstream media to sanitize its propaganda much as drug dealers use corrupt banks to launder drug money.)

The CIA waterboarded Zubaydah and KSM 83 times and 183 times each. How likely do you think it is that over the course of 266 waterboarding sessions, the CIA never brought up its questions about an Iraq/al Qaeda connection? Who are you going to believe, anonymous intelligence officials and Liz Cheney, or your own lyin' common sense? And even if you believe the superficially self-serving story of these anonymous intelligence officials, which way does their story cut? Torture is effective at producing false confessions not just because of pain, but because of the *fear* of pain. So someone who's being waterboarded six times a day for a solid month, as KSM was, will spew out anything he can imagine to get the torture to stop not just while he's actually being waterboarded, but also in between sessions, when he's trying to forestall the next trip to the drowning rack.

So don't go for the head fake: what matters here isn't the anonymous officials' claim that Zubaydah and KSM weren't asked about an Iraq/AQ connection while they were actually being waterboarded. What matters is that the anonymous officials have admitted that Zubaydah and KSM were being asked about an Iraq/AQ connection at all. Anything we got from these two is tainted, whether it was produced during torture sessions or in between them.

(And by the way, there's another head fake in there: the implication that if Zubaydah and KSM weren't waterboarded while being asked about Iraq and AQ, they weren't tortured while being asked. Waterboarding is far from the only torture technique permitted in secret Justice Department memos. So the anonymous officials irrelevant claim that Zubaydah and KSM weren't simultaneously waterboarded while being asked about Iraq and AQ doesn't even mean the two weren't tortured in other ways while being asked).

So get ready for the next talking point in the apologists' arsenal: "Okay, sure, they were also asked about Iraq and al Qaeda, but since we were torturing them anyway, why not throw in a few other questions, too?"

Torture. It really does take on a life of its own.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Torture Mentality

As I pointed out recently, it's difficult to keep up with the denial, obfuscation, and sheer, tendentious illogic of torture apologists. Even now, despite Bush-era DOJ memos acknowledging that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month, Liz Cheney is still clinging to the Jack Bauer fantasy that KSM had to be tortured (actually, she denies it was torture) because the administration "knew there was a threat of imminent attack." And Dick Cheney claims he had to torture because his oath of office required him "to protect and defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic." Actually, Article 2, Section 1 of Constitution requires the following oath: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." See if you can spot the difference to which Dick Cheney is willfully blind.

I was planning on creating a list of the justifications torture apologists trot out most reliably, but as it turns out, I don't have to. Recently I received several messages from a persistent apologist that serve as a nice summary of the sort of bullshit the right and the MSM peddle as a matter of course. Each numbered point below is a verbatim quote from my apologist correspondent; my thoughts interpolated. For a few equally absurd but dangerous arguments my correspondent overlooked, here's Dan Froomkin on the emerging "You can't prosecute politicians because the whole country is guilty" argument.

Now, obviously the gentleman who's advancing these arguments is not going to change his mind. It's fair to ask, therefore, what's the point of responding. The answer, I think, is this. On any given subject, there will be a core group so wedded to a belief that the belief will be impervious to all contrary evidence. But not everyone has his head buried this deeply in the sand, and there will always be some people (many people, I optimistically maintain) who can be persuaded by facts and reason. As I said in the comment section to a previous post on gay equality:

"Persuading any given individual is only part of the purpose of a discussion like this one. In fact, there's a much more important function: by subjecting dogmatic, fearful, irrational opinions to the light of reason, we expose them for what they are. And over time, views that were once respectable become untenable, and then increasingly disreputable, until finally even the few people who still cling to them are too embarrassed to utter them in polite society. This is the very history of the fight against racism, bigotry, and intolerance. We can all feel proud to have contributed to this chapter of that history -- after all, even those of us whose contribution has been unintentional are playing an important part."

And now, the torture apologists' apologies.

1. "We have 'tortured' only a few."

Both the scare quotes and the assertion of "only a few" are demonstrably untrue. Unless, perhaps, you're arguing that nothing we've done except waterboarding is torture, a position that would also be at odds with clear settled law. Moreover, we are bound by law not just to not torture, but also to not inflict cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

In any event, the argument is irrelevant. Try, "we only raped a few. We only murdered a few." If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "we only tortured a few" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

2. "Waterboarding is administered under highly controlled circumstances."

I imagine the Gestapo made the same claim. And waterboarding is certainly not the only, and arguably not the worst of what the Bush administration authorized. And after 183 times in a month, how much does it matter whether it was highly controlled or not?

In any event, irrelevant. If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture is okay as long as it's done under highly controlled circumstances" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

3. "And only to those who richly deserve it."

You're basing this on what, exactly? It's belied by the Red Cross and numerous other independent investigations. Also, irrelevant. If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture is okay as long as it's done to people I retroactively think deserved it" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

4. "I believe we have obtained some valuable intel from them."

You never include any evidence for your beliefs, so it's hard to give them much credit. Here's some evidence to the contrary. In any event, irrelevant. If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture is okay as long as it obtains some valuable intel" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

5. "By the way, the furor over 'torture' is a farce in my opinion. All of a sudden everyone is a Constitutional lawyer because they hated Bush. They won't apply the same scrutiny to Obama I assure you."

Who's they? There' evidence that Pelosi will burn over this, too, and that's fine by me. Likewise if Obama ever authorizes what Bush did. My sense is that people who can't see this as a legal matter -- which it obviously is -- and insist it must be partisan are projecting their own hyper-partisan worldview.

And even though I'm sure some people are motivated by partisanship, so what? If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture will be excused if some people who seek to prosecute it are motivated by partisanship" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

6. "The average American would waterboard and then some if it would save someone they love from someone who wants to kill them."

Possibly, and possibly the average American would be glad to eviscerate and crucify someone they believe murdered or raped a loved one. Despite the understandable urge, we don't allow this. Think about why not, and apply the principles you extract to your analogous argument in favor of torture.

In any event, irrelevant. If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture will be excused if in extremis some people might resort to it" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

7. "Politicizing criminality could also be called protecting America. One could argue the efficacy of what Bush and Cheney did to protect us but I find it difficult to entertain the notion that the result was not in our best interests."

Let me try to make it a little less difficult for you:

"Torture has undermined the United States' reputation for respecting and following the law and thus has crippled its political influence. By torturing, the United States has wounded itself and helped its enemies in what is in the end an inherently political war—a war, that is, in which the critical target to be conquered is the allegiances and attitudes of young Muslims. And by torturing prisoners, many of whom were implicated in committing great crimes against Americans, the United States has made it impossible to render justice on those criminals, instead sentencing them—and the country itself—to an endless limbo of injustice. That limbo stands as a kind of worldwide advertisement for the costs of the US reversion to torture."


"Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" cited "pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and

What couldn't be justified, especially retrospectively, as having been done to protect America? In any event, irrelevant. If I'm missing something in the relevant law -- a "torture will be excused some of the people who engaged in it say they did so to protect America" safe harbor exception -- please let me know.

8. "The word "torture" elicits a lot of emotion. I draw a distinction between what we have done and many examples throughout history. We did not line up captives and feed them to dogs or rape them."

Anything short of rape and feeding captives to dogs isn't torture? Wow. Do I even need to repeat my safe harbor question here?

9. "Moral equivalency is the domain of the left. Rape is a crime and I feel safe saying that we would never rape a captive as a means to an end so to compare it to what we have done is hardly relevant."

There's a certain truth to the first statement. Because no matter what our side does, no matter how exactly a match it is to precisely the policy and behavior of sadists and totalitarians throughout history, it's not equivalent because... well, because that was them, and this is us.

Anyway, why shouldn't all the non-existent get-out-of-jail free excuses you're eager to provide torturers generally apply specifically to rapists, as well? We did it to protect America. It resulted in valuable info. We only raped a few. Etc. What's the difference?

10. "We held a man [KSM] who boasted about being the mastermind behind 9/11."

Fascinating use of the word "boast." We waterboarded KSM 183 times in a month. Why do you reflexively believe he was "boasting?" Is it not possible he was spewing out anything he could possibly imagine to get the torture to stop? Where's that flinty conservative skepticism?

11. "We poured water on his face while he was hooked up to a heart monitor. We made records of our actions and applied rules to ensure he was not permanently harmed."

It's fascinating to watch a torture apologist's verbal contortions as he tries to pretty the picture of what Americans have done. And the mention of the heart monitor is nice, too, intended to show how caring we are while we gently pour the water (room temperature water, no doubt, and ph-balanced, too) on the man's face. It couldn't be that the torturer's determination to keep the torture victim alive is about maintaining the victim's life so that he can continue to be tortured?

We applied rules to ensure he was not permanently harmed. Bravo! Then rape really must be okay, too, no? If done carefully, with doctors supervising, under carefully prescribed rules, the victim -- wait, that's the wrong word, after all, these people "richly deserved it," call them subjects, that's nice and dry, or detainees, or why not guests -- the subject will not be permanently harmed by the rape.

Indeed. We raped to protect America. Rape resulted in valuable info. We only raped a few. Doctors supervised the rape. There was no permanent harm to the people we raped. According to your own principles, the government would be derelict if it *failed* to rape.

12. Eventually a plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge was was exposed and more. War is not pretty and waterboarding is certainly unkind but I would gladly see that happen before I would see that bridge in the Hudson."

The Brooklyn Bridge is over the East River, and the plot (which in any event seemed more an aspiration than a plot) was uncovered through police work and without torture. This is unfortunate from your standpoint, as it suggests we can prevent terrorism without torturing. You'll have to find another example. Given the utter lack of research you brought to bear on this one, I suspect you'll be able to come up with something easily enough.

13. "War involves shooting other people. Isn't that also a violation of their rights?"

In fact, it's not. See particularly the Hague Conventions. Even if it were, are you saying that because we shoot people on the battlefield, we can do anything we want to them if we first take them prisoner? But you've already acknowledged (incoherently, given your other arguments) that rape is wrong. But isn't it better to rape them than to shoot them, a kind of lesser evil? Especially if we rape them to protect America, under a doctor's supervision, etc.

14. "Let's see how people feel the day after the next attack. I believe the polls will shift rather dramatically."

We could call this the "if some people support it when they're out of their minds with fear and rage, it's not illegal" defense. And to be even barely coherent, this "argument" has to assume that torture makes us safe. Again, all available evidence suggests the contrary. And given the danger of another irrational and dangerous departure from the Constitution, shouldn't we do all we can now to inculcate respect for the rule of law, rather than proactively providing excuses for abandoning it?

There are so many aspects of the apologists' arguments that fascinate me. Most of all is the ongoing refusal to engage on the question of what the law clearly prohibits. Also the utter absence of any facts to support assertions.

If America doesn't stand for the rule of law, what are we? I used to think of myself as a conservative (before the term ceased to mean anything coherent). Part of the reason I identified myself thusly was because I'm a law and order guy and not very sympathetic to attempts to get me to see things from the poor criminal's perspective, how he was temporarily insane when he committed his crimes, or only meant well, or whatever. Well, I still feel that way. It's just that I'm able to apply that world view impartially. Others, it seems, refuse to. For them, America doesn't live under the rule of law. In fact, for them, the law isn't a rule at all; at best it's just an optional, annoying suggestion.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Gay Cooties vs Terrorist Mojo

Many Americans are willing -- even proud -- to break the law, to abandon our fundamental moral underpinnings, and to engage in practices pioneered by the Spanish Inquisition and refined by Stalin's secret police and the Gestapo, all in the name of keeping the nation Safe From The Terrorists. But we haven't lost all perspective. Some prices just aren't worth paying, not even for Safety. The price, of, say, allowing openly gay linguists fluent in Arabic to serve in the military. Better a city incinerated by a suitcase nuke than that.

I wish I were making this up, but:

"Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and officer in the Army National Guard who is fluent in Arabic and who returned recently from Iraq, received notice today that the military is about to fire him. Why? Because he came out of the closet as a gay man on national television."

Two possible conclusions:

1. Some people hate gays more than they love life itself. More, even, than they value the lives of their own children.

2. Torture isn't really about safety. It's about something else. Because surely if we're willing to torture to be safe, we could manage to rub shoulders with a gay or two, as well?

One thing that's interesting in all this is the supernatural powers rightists ascribe to the things they're afraid of. We can't imprison bearded terrorists in US prisons because they might break out and wreak havoc upon the land! We have to discriminate against gays -- apparently literally at all costs -- because gayness is so potently communicable!

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Gay cooties: even stronger than Terrorist Mojo. On the fear scale that obsesses the right, that's really saying something.