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.


David Farnell said...

I gotta say, Barry, as a teacher of essay writing, it's a pure joy to see such a beautifully constructed argument. OK if I print this entry out and use it as an example for my advanced English essay-writing students?

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks, Azz, I'm flattered that you'd ask. Please feel free.

Natalie Hatch said...

I think you'll find that apathy throughout your country will just relegate this to the back burners. However in the Arab world it will incite and inflame more hostility towards America. You can't be the good guys if you're acting worse than the 'baddies'.

Robin said...

For me, some of the most compelling evidence against torture is the testimony of military intelligence specialists who are a) career military leaders with experience dating as far back as the Vietnam War, and b) interrogators and military interrogation instructors, and who say, among other things, that torture does not work and does not make our country or our soldiers safer : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A2302-2005Jan11.html.

Sal said...

Your commentary is spot on and thank you for it.

Did you notice this? (Something I posted on Facebook today.)

Prisoner who tied Iraq to Al-Qaeda found dead in Libyan jail: http://www.bradblog.com/?p=7133 (via current.com)

My comment: Suicide? ... pardon my suspicious mind.

Brad followed up with http://www.bradblog.com/?p=7135

MSM with http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/05/12/libya.al.qaeda.prisoner/

Anonymous said...

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

Check out the innocent people who have been tortured at General Anthony Taguba's site: http://brokenlives.info

Also check out the film that will put BUSH BEHIND BARS!!!


Spy Scribbler said...

I wonder if we started adding "human beings" to our sentences, then would it help? Instead of "We have tortured only a few," how about "we have tortured only a few human beings." There's a lot of talk about torture, but we don't often say the torture of human beings. Maybe 5% of the time? Even in an anti-torture blog post. :-)

Eh. Probably not. I'm sure there are plenty who would say, "They're terrorists, not human beings!"

It's just we keep talking about torture as if we're considering a chess move. We're not feeling the pain or the fear. I worry we're not humanizing it. And even when we do get a name, it's a name like Khalid and not Johnny.

PBI said...


Even among your uniformly high-quality posts, this one stands out.

Excellent, excellent stuff!

Sensen No Sen

Anonymous said...

If "the terrorists" can make Americans resort to torture and other suspensions of civil liberties for any reason, they have already destroyed America.

Allowing, condoning, and supporting torture means you've helped the terrorists win.

"I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees" expresses not just the value of freedom, but the value of VALUES.

Those who would torture would rather live on their knees.

I won't be terrified by anyone - especially not my own countrymen. And I will never, under any circumstances, find torture acceptable.

Anonymous said...


Your views deserve a wider audience, I'm afraid most who follow your blog already agree with you (as do I). Why not cut and paste this post and send it to the Wall St. Journal? Your background with the CIA and as a spy novelist, in a strange only-in-America sort of way, bestows a special legitimacy.

I think you have made the case against torture more persuasively than any of the legal pundits who appear there. Keep up the fight.


PBI said...


I agree with Anonymous #2's thoughts - you have a bully pulpit that could extend well beyond your blog.

While I realize that putting yourself in the thick of things might be a second full time job and also draw a level of personal scrutiny no one would welcome, I hope you'll consider it!

Sensen No Sen

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts and links, everyone. Ned and Paul, thanks for the kind words. Of course I'd like my arguments to reach the widest audience possible. To this end I'm syndicated on CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development) and repost on Amazon, FaceBook, MySpace, Twitter, and my website discussion board. I do occasionally send something to one of the big newspapers, but so far, no love. But I'll keep plugging away...

Joshua James said...

Can you send this to Huffpost? I think it'd make a fine contribution to what's written there.

Anonymous said...

Barry, you can't get published in the media because you actually do research and you can construct a sentence and an argument. I can't say I get too choked up about a terrorist getting roughed up a little or lot deep down. But it does go against everything we are supposed to stand for in this country. Its a pity that instead of putting our energy and efforts toward fixing the economic mess we've become (thanks to the entire federal governemnt past and present), we are forced to engage ourselves in figuring out where we went wrong and explaining to people who should know better why it's wrong. I don't know about anyone else but I am not too proud to say I'd tell you anything I thouhgt you wanted to hear if they so much as threatened me with waterboarding. Sorry, I know it isn't macho but I have a real fear of drowning.

David Terrenoire said...

Excellent work, Barry, as usual.

Liz Cheney resorted to the SERE argument, as well, one your correspondent surprisingly missed. That goes, "If we did it to our own people, how could it be torture?" The answer, of course, is that when it's done to you in training, you know the person doing it does not intend harm.

Sleep deprivation when in Ranger school is a far different thing than sleep deprivation in prison.

Will Belegon said...

I wanted to leave this long, well-thought out comment. But everything I need to say is in four words.

Torture is wrong. Period.

That has become my answer to people that want to "debate" these actions. I'm just so tired of avoiding the hoops they want me to jump through.

James Goetz said...

Hi Barry,

There are also some moderate approaches to the torture apology. For example, in early 2003, Pelosi decided that it was more important to gain political control of the House instead of opposing judicially backed Executive Privileges to torture. And now Obama warns Pelosi that this is a bad time to for Pelosi to start criticizing the torture that no longer exists because it'll make the Democrats look bad.



Anonymous said...

Mr. Eisler:

I disagree with you much of the time. That being said, I follow your blog because your arguments are thorough, well constructed and generally devoid of hyperbole. I also think you're a good storyteller.

I still don't know what to think about the waterboarding issue, but my gut instincts are telling me that lies are being told by both sides here.

"It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."
- - - Mark Twain, "Pudd'nhead Wilson.

Best Regards,
The Lone Haranguer

Dale said...

"I know that this program (of enhanced interrogation) has saved lives. I know we've disrupted plots. I know this program alone is worth more than the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency put together have been able to tell us." - George Tenet, the CIA director under Presidents Clinton and Bush

Barry Eisler said...

"Sir, you look fabulous in that suit."
- Salesman, working on commission, who will receive 15% if you buy the suit he's trying to sell you.

"Waterboarding is not torture."
- Liz Cheny, whose father ordered waterboarding and will go to prison if the law is enforced.


Dale, what is the key similarity in your example and the two I offered in response? What does the that similarity tell you about how we ought to evaluate a claim based on its source?

Elise Logan said...

To me it's a moot point whether it saved lives. Well, nearly moot. The key question is not whether it saved lives. The key question is whether we, as human beings, are willing to torture other human beings. This is not a question of utility, because the utility argument essentially breaks down to "Torture is okay." Sure, you can add caveats like "It's okay if it's useful," but the baseline is that torture is acceptable. And that is the key point.

Do you or do you not believe that torture is acceptable? No quibbling, no equivocation, just yes or no. To say "yes, but..." just obfuscates the key point that torture is, indeed being condoned.

To me, it's like the old joke about a man asking a married woman if she'll sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, then he says, how about for $100. Insulted, she responds that she is not a whore. He responds that she has already demonstrated she is, now they are merely negotiating terms.