Tortured Logic

I’m convinced that at some point in the future this era of American politics, lasting from the 9-11 attacks to the election of President Obama, will be one of shame for America.  I’m not talking so much about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Despite problems now in Afghanistan, few people defended the evil Taliban regime and perhaps our biggest error was not to stay and spend the time and money necessary to reconstruct Afghan civil society.  Kabul was a bustling place back in 1978 before the Soviet invasion, the country had problems, but nothing like the current ones.  Done right, we might now have been looking at a military and political success story, perhaps with much of the Taliban and even Bin Laden behind bars.

Iraq was clearly a major error.  In policy terms, it made it impossible to truly do what was necessary to keep Afghanistan from falling apart, and it became a quagmire that swallowed up the Bush Administration and Republican dominance of US politics.   If you didn’t have the Iraq war, you wouldn’t have President Obama.   It has made it harder to deal with the economic crisis, harmed America’s position in the world, stretched US military capacities and showed the limits of US power.  The idea that success in Iraq would put pressure on Iran and Syria yielded the opposite result: failures in Iraq emboldenend Iran and Syria.

Yet for all the problems associated with Iraq, if it wasn’t for the use of torture and the indefinite detention of/abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and at foreign CIA ‘detention centers’ across the globe, the amount of shame would not be as great.  There was at least a rationale behind the invasion of Iraq and a belief, no matter how naive, that somehow this would ‘spread democracy.’  Most of the deaths there have not been at our hands, even if they are the result of US actions igniting a civil war and ethnic violence.  That, at the very least, implies shared blame (and a lot of it going to al qaeda, who did all it could to ignite the violence).

What the US did to suspected terrorists and prisoners by allowing torture (under the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ perhaps the most vile euphenism since ‘ethnic cleansing’) and anything the top levels of the Bush Administration thought appropriate, is the source of the greatest shame.   This sounds harsh, but we may find comparisons to totalitarian regimes or even Nazi Germany hard to avoid (indeed, such comparisons are made consistently in overseas media).

Are these comparisons valid?   On the one hand, no.   Comparisons to Nazi Germany, for instance, are so steeped in emotion due to the holocaust that even if one can find legitimate points to compare, it will end up being clouded by the enormity of Germany’s crimes.   And, though the public went along with it, guided by the usual mix of nationalism (it’s not hard to find blogs where posters and commentators seem to love the testosterone rush of condoning such techniques and championing them) and naivete (our government is trustworthy, so we should trust them), the real perpetrators were a small group of lawyers and bureaucrats who defined their powers as being able to even suspend the US Constitution and everything the country stands for if they thought it appropriate.

Ron Suskind, quoting Dick Cheney, calls this the “one percent doctrine:” if there is 1% a chance the country could be at risk, then anything goes to work against it, even torture.   This is, at it’s most crass and basic form, a sacrifice of principle to fear.  It is literally a sacrifice of the principles upon which this country was founded.

But, one might argue, after 9-11 there was a kind of paranoia in the country, people feared another strike any day, and panic reigned.  Well, that’s the goal of terrorism.  We should expect our government not to give into panic.  We should expect our leaders to recognize that first of all, compared to the dangers of all out nuclear war which we lived with daily in much of the 20th century, this threat was relatively small and managable.    Or, if you want a less sympathetic read, they should not have used 9-11 to amass unprecedented power and control.   There clearly should have been a firm voice saying “the last thing we can let the terrorists do is force us to give up our core principles.”

Instead, the terrorists won.  The US engaged in vile acts, with photos to prove it, that now can be thrown in our face any time we act self-righteous about our values and human rights.   We have been shown to be hypocritical in terms of what we claim we stand for on the world stage, while being weakened in ill advised conflicts.  Osama Bin Laden and the attacks of 9-11 did little to harm the US in a meaningful way.  Our response, however, has done dramatic harm (including the cheap credit released to keep the stock and housing markets up, helping create a severe economic crisis).

We can’t undo the past.  Prosecutions in cases like this would be very difficult for a variety of reasons.  But we can let the light show on what was done, and how.  We can show who wrote the memos approving the acts, and what the rationale was.  We can be truthful and open, and vow “never again.”   We also can learn from this: it becomes easy in times of fear and uncertainty to give in to the baser instincts and sacrifice principle for political expediency.  And perhaps in the grand scheme of things, there are cases so extreme that such must be done.  But nothing can justify the actions undertaken the last eight years that embraced systematic and approved torture.  We must be open, and cast aside those who say this should be ‘one of life’s mysteries,’ as if we shouldn’t question our leaders if they violate core values.    To be open, honeset and to admit error is strength, not weakness.  The strong apologize, the fearful think apologies show weakness.   We should be strong enough to live according to our principles.

Advertisements
  1. #1 by Josh on April 27, 2009 - 02:25

    Hi Scott,

    To be honest, I’m a little uneducated on American torture strategies. What techniques did the U.S. actually use on suspected terrorists? Also, did the U.S. break any international laws, and if so, which ones?

    I’d like to know your opinion on when torture should be used. You cited Cheney’s “one percent doctrine.” Do you believe torture should be used if there is very high percentage that the country could be at risk?

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on April 27, 2009 - 03:27

    Well said Scott! I completely agree.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on April 27, 2009 - 03:37

    Waterboarding is of course the most cited type of torture used, but there are also others like throwing someone against a wall (with a brace to make whiplash less likely), sleep deprivation, and other psychological methods. (For a good summary: http://civilliberty.about.com/od/waronterror/p/torturelite.htm; more on specific cases now: http://www.aclu.org/safefree/torture/torturefoia.html)

    My own view is that torture should never be used, though I recognize that sometimes it’s hard to draw the line between reasonable pressure and torture. For one, often people give wrong information — info gotten from such techniques isn’t really reliable. Secoond, I believe somethings are simply wrong. I put in my post that there may be sometimes when it’s necessary — I meant that to acknowledge that there are good arguments that in extreme situations it might be appropriate. I personally don’t think any exist. The Vulcan mind-meld, on the other hand…

  4. #4 by Mike Lovell on April 27, 2009 - 15:29

    I’m personally a little cornfused on the torture issue. First off, i don’t find waterboarding to be torture, but good firm pressuring. Mainly because it is non-lethal and is a matter of course training issue for certain echelons of the military. As for some of the otehr things, its a mixed bag in my mind.

    On the subject of our forces being stretched thin, I agree Iraq did this, as well as promises made a long time ago to station troops all over the place, and then Clinton’s dismantling of our armed forces as I see it.

  5. #5 by Josh on April 27, 2009 - 19:48

    If the U.S. broke international conventions or laws, that would make the argument against torture even stronger. However, I hear so many who tell me America didn’t break any laws while many claim laws were broken.
    It’s all sort of confusing.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on April 28, 2009 - 03:17

    Fair enough — one can debate where torture begins and harsh interrogation ends. I guess the test would be what we would accept being done to our soldiers by the other side if our people were captured in a war.

    Josh, as for international conventions and law, the whole thing is murky because international law is vague and unenforceable. Perhaps the best thing to do is at least have open discussions and debates about this — and that at least seems to be happening.

  7. #7 by helenl on April 28, 2009 - 14:16

    Hi Scott,

    I think your analysis begins in the middle of things (like we weren’t all born into a world already in motion). The US began from a war. Remember the Revolution. Well, not remember, but we do have history books.

    The US began as a result of violence and grew on the backs of slaves. Admitting to the horrors of the Bush administration is fine. But it’s not the whole story. We need to look at the environment in which Bush was reared; the political, social and familial environment.

    9/11 was a wake-up call. But lots of us are still asleep. The US is as guilty of her crimes as Germany. Only they are different crimes. We have to see the bad with the good, and there is much good, if we want to go forward.

    Stopping the torture is a starting point. Now let’s finish talking about our own weaknesses and correcting them. At least Obama is trying.

  8. #8 by helenl on April 28, 2009 - 15:01

    BTW, I will mail your book today.

  9. #9 by Jeff Lees on April 28, 2009 - 16:22

    I too have trouble seeing water boarding as torture. I do believe thought that it is very harsh and should only be allowed in extreme circumstances. But I question its effectiveness. If you need to water board someone over 200 times, is it really an effective tool?

    What bothers me more than the actual acts of torture is the fact that our government lied to us. At first it was we don’t water board, then it was we water boarded only twice, and that was with explicit permission from the President and the Attorney General. Then we find out that those 2 times is actually over 200. They outright lied to us when they told us they only used it twice. Why that is acceptable for our government to do, I don’t know.

    And I also am tired of the hypocrisy coming from congress. They are denouncing these tactics, but we come to find out that congress was informed of these tactics back in 2002.

    So for me, what I see is a lying and secretive government, using terrorism as an excuse to institutionalize torture. I give huge praise to Obama for releasing those memos. I want to know what my government is doing, and not lied to.

  10. #10 by Jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 10:36

    Mike: First off, i don’t find waterboarding to be torture, but good firm pressuring. Mainly because it is non-lethal and is a matter of course training issue for certain echelons of the military.

    So you’re OK with having US soldiers waterboarded – put under “good firm pressure” – to make them confess to whatever t heir captors feel like? That is why it’s a “matter of course training issue” – because it’s recognized – or was, once, goodness knows if political pressure now allows it! – that US soldiers may be tortured when captured, and may volunteer for training to teach them how to endure torture. One torture technique that US soldiers have been trained to endure is… waterboarding.

    But you’re taking the position that when a person is in the power of another country, it is perfectly acceptable for the government of that country to put them under “good firm pressure” to make them confess to – whatever?

  11. #11 by Jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 10:40

    Jeff, same question for you as for Mike – if you don’t see waterboarding as torture, does that mean you support its use against American prisoners if their captors want to make them confess to anything their captors want?

    That is the point of waterboarding, you know: you can keep doing it to your prisoner until your prisoner has said anything you want him to say. Instead of thinking “It’s okay if they only do it to really bad people” start thinking “Who is going to decide who are the “really bad people”?

  12. #12 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 14:42

    “So you’re OK with having US soldiers waterboarded – put under “good firm pressure” – to make them confess to whatever t heir captors feel like?”

    Well, to be honest, considering our prisoners will often face much harsher techniques, I assume (I know, I know, assuming makes an… out of me)waterboarding might be used anyways. One thing I can almost guarantee without a moments time to think is that just because we may ban interrogation techniques of whatever level, our enemies won’t. So I support the training of it on our soldiers, and I have no qualms about using it as a tool in our arsenal about our enemies. Sure beats the hell out of chopping people’s heads off.

    Now, the subject of a prisoners innocence, whether ours or theirs, while connected is still a different level on which the debate of what techniques are used and on whom. That is a very cloudy issue, with which I don’t think either side’s argument over the matter is solid in every single case. I do support military tribunals and whatnot for all the prisoners, to let them decide the issue of guilt vs innocence.

  13. #13 by jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 17:10

    Mike: One thing I can almost guarantee without a moments time to think is that just because we may ban interrogation techniques of whatever level, our enemies won’t.

    Certainly they have no reason to ban such techniques when they know the US uses them. As I said in the othe thread; the US is a nation that kidnaps children and threatens their lives in order to get their father to surrender: then tortures the man to death.

    If you approve that being done by the US to the US’s enemies, you are then in no position to disapprove of American children being kidnapped in order to force their father to surrender, then having the surrendered man tortured to make him talk.

    I do support military tribunals and whatnot for all the prisoners, to let them decide the issue of guilt vs innocence.

    Well, that puts you one step above the Bush administration, which banned such tribunals for any prisoners.

  14. #14 by Mike Lovell on May 1, 2009 - 17:31

    “Certainly they have no reason to ban such techniques when they know the US uses them.”

    This answer kind of flies in the face of your quote of me.

    Do I consider kidnapping children to bait the father into surrender leading to his death? No, I never said that. I think we were more on the subject of waterboarding being debated as torture or not, rather than kidnapping, baiting and killing. But to be clear I don’t support the kidnapping of children to bait the General into turning himself in, although tactically it is an effective tool, regardless of its morality. On the American side, I think (or more presumably know) we have the kind of technology and capability of finding that general without resorting to the kidnapping. From a father’s perspective, I understand his turning himself in to save his kids.

  15. #15 by jesurgislac on May 1, 2009 - 21:04

    But Mike, the US uses these techniques. I accept you don’t approve of kidnapping children, but that’s whatu your country does. I understand you don’t approve of torturing captured soldiers till they die, but that’s what your country does.

    On the thread that started this conversation, Renaissance Guy and American Elephant were both pouring obloquy on Obama for being so “moral” that he wanted to put a stop to such practices. You weren’t arguing with them there.

    I’m not arguing about whether waterboarding is torture: obviously it’s torture. It’s used to put people through severe suffering in order to get them to confess. And in any system where prisoners can be tortured, you will end up with surrendered soldiers dying under torture because they won’t talk.

  16. #16 by jesurgislac on May 2, 2009 - 13:48

    Though I have to take back the part about your not approving of kidnapping children, since on that other thread you’ve said you think it’s a legitimate tactic.

  17. #17 by Mike Lovell on May 2, 2009 - 15:09

    “Though I have to take back the part about your not approving of kidnapping children, since on that other thread you’ve said you think it’s a legitimate tactic.”

    Legitimate: no, Effective: yes. Not supporting prosecution of the act of kidnapping in a war, is not the same as supporting kidnapping itself. The world, unfortunately isn’t black and white, there are more grey areas than absolutes.

    “You weren’t arguing with them there.”

    I merely put some thoughts out there. You were the only one challenging and interacting with me, therefore I addressed you. Which by the way, I enjoy. And thank you for using the word Obloquy…I actually had to use my dictionary, as I had never heard that word used before! 😉

    “I’m not arguing about whether waterboarding is torture: obviously it’s torture.”

    Again, we’ll have to agree to disagree on this aspect. Consider the fact that if I withhold a trip to the park or the use of certain toys from my children after something has happened, as a form of punishment, or to get the confessions necessary to find out what has happened, my kids can be determined as having suffered severely, if only on an emotional level…which would technically fall under the definitions of torture brought forth in these multiple blogs and posts so far. Should I be charged with torture, or even child abuse?

  18. #18 by Jesurgislac on May 3, 2009 - 08:28

    Not supporting prosecution of the act of kidnapping in a war, is not the same as supporting kidnapping itself.

    But you are in a war, Mike. The US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, there have been very few periods over the last fifty or sixty years when the US was not at war, with some country or other. So, if you’re okay with your children being kidnapped providing it’s done as an act of war against the United States, and you feel that the people who did it ought not to be extradicted or prosecuted, is this inhumanity towards your children, or just your certainty that it’s not likely any of the people from the countries the US has attacked will ever be able to do to your children what American soldiers have done to theirs?

    Consider the fact that if I [strap my children to a board, and cover their faces with a cloth, and pour water on their face] as a form of punishment, or to get the confessions necessary to find out what has happened, my kids can be determined as having suffered severely, if only on an emotional level…which would technically fall under the definitions of torture brought forth in these multiple blogs and posts so far.

    Fixed that for you. We’re talking about waterboarding, remember?

    Should I be charged with torture, or even child abuse?

    When you waterboard your children, yes.

  19. #19 by Mike Lovell on May 3, 2009 - 14:58

    “But you are in a war, Mike. The US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    First, key word which should be in bold print here is “IN” Iraq and Afghanistan. Combat theaters. So no, prosecutorial action of such an act is almost useless. The kidnapping occurred. So, either the kids get rescued, or I go in and sacrifice myself for them, a duty I see as mine as a father. If you think any terrorist fears a court (considering they have no problem blowing themselves up, or getting into a direct firefight with a vastly superior military force that almost guarantees their death), you put way too much faith in their psychology as being ‘normal’.

    As for waterboarding my children…IF I were to do such a thing at this time, yes it would be child abuse. Now, when they get older, if they volunteer for the training, then that’s their business. The example I gave, falls into your definition of torture that puts duress on a ‘victim’ in order to coerce information, the definition of torture can be stretched to such a large extent that it could include almost everything parents use as punishment that is currently accepted as civil. You just need the right bleeding heart lawyer to make that definition ring true.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: