Monday, November 14, 2005

ANOTHER "SOMETIMES TORTURE IS NECESSARY" OP-ED in the WSJ Opinion Journal -- this time by Mark Bowden, a reporter for The Atlantic Monthly. Bowden's somewhat muddled argument can be paraphrased like this:

"I don't know what all the fuss is about this McCain anti-torture amendment. Americans have always tortured enemy prisoners, even though torture has always been prohibited. So there's no harm in passing McCain's amendment; it won't change anything anyway, which is a good thing, because when there's a ticking time bomb, torture may be necessary. But it's a bad idea to pass a law forbidding torture, because that will encourage people to use torture just for the fun of it, and then they'd be breaking the law and would have to be punished, which would mean that the people who use torture to save lives would also have to be punished, and that would be bad. Anyway, what I mean is, people are going to torture with or without a law, but if we pass a law, that will tie the hands of the people who actually should be using torture."

Like I said, muddled.

Here is Andrew Sullivan's response to Bowden:

He's right, of course. Except in one respect. What has happened under Bush is not the predictable, occasional mistreatment of detainees that may well occur in every war. What has happened is that, for the first time, the commander-in-chief, instead of creating clear boundaries against abuse and mistreatment and insisting on complete compliance, gave the military confusing instructions, signed memos that would sanction abuse and outright torture, and then acted as if the metastasized pattern of abuse was somehow a function of a few "bad apples" at the bottom of the chain of command. You cannot understand Abu Ghraib without reading the Yoo memo that justified it or the policies at Gitmo that were transferred to Abu Ghraib by Genera Miller. It would comfort some to believe that the massive evidence of abuse we now have was and is merely a function of the kind of abuse inevitable in any conflict. No reasonable assessment of the evidence, however, could come to that conclusion. This president re-made the rules that made torture not just an emergency measure or an occasional failure - but a policy. Where torture was once tolerated, at worst, in some of our allies in the past, it has now come to be endorsed by the commander-in-chief of the United States as a policy inflicted by men and women in the uniform of the U.S.

I personally find Bowden's arguments sloppy and illogical.

He writes:

We like problems to have easy solutions in America, just as we like stories to have neat, happy endings.

The truth is that coercion itself is the quick fix -- or the illusion of the quick fix, given the notorious unreliability of information gained through torture. Persuasion always takes less time if you use a little encouragement, like beating to a pulp or submerging in water until almost drowned. It's a longer and more difficult process to convince a suspect to cooperate by building a relationship based on trust and positive reinforcement. But so much less satisfying than inflicting unbearable pain to extract information by "breaking" a person: Even if the information you get turns out to be useless, at least you look like you're doing something.

The White House's objection to Sen. McCain's provision has little to do with Abu Ghraib or widespread prisoner abuse; it concerns the smaller piece of the torture debate, the "ticking bomb" scenario. The administration wants to protect the flexibility of the CIA, and of military special ops interrogators, to coerce intelligence from rare captives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, chief engineer of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and operations chief for al Qaeda.

So which ticking time bomb has been defused through torture?

If there were "always another way" to get vital, potentially life-saving intelligence...,or if coercion always yielded bad information, cruelty would be completely unnecessary and virtue would cost nothing. We could treat all captured terrorists as honored guests without sacrificing a thing. But in certain singular instances coercion is necessary and appropriate.

Virtue is not virtue if it costs nothing. That's the point. If there were no perceived "necessity" or advantage to be gained by being cruel, then the decision not to be cruel would be meaningless. It wouldn't even BE a decision. If there is no struggle to choose morality over immorality, then it's not a choice at all, and it's certainly not a moral choice.

But let's agree, for the sake of argument, that torture is sometimes the only way to get information that will stop a "ticking time bomb," and that in such situations, torture is "necessary and appropriate."

How far do we take that? Do we rape or murder a suspect's wife, or his children, in front of him if other forms of torture are ineffective? Do we execute all of his family members, one by one, in front of him, if nothing else will get him to talk? And if not, why not? Where is the line drawn, and how is it drawn?

The point the White House is missing here is that even with important captives like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, official authorization for severe interrogation is not necessary. Just as there is no way to draw a clear line between coercion and torture, there is no way to define, a priori, circumstances that justify harsh treatment. Any attempt to codify it unleashes the sadists and leads to widespread abuse. Interrogators who choose coercive methods would, and should, be breaking the rules.

That does not mean that they should always be taken to task. Prosecution and punishment remains an executive decision, and just as there are legal justifications for murder, there are times when coercion is demonstrably the right thing to do.

Except that when a murder is committed, we don't take the murderer's word for it that he had a legal justification. We try him in a court, with a judge and a jury, under rules of evidence, and explicit definitions in law of what constitutes a legal justification for murder. The suspect is innocent until proved guilty, but if the prosecuting attorney convinces a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the murder was not committed in self-defense, or under other legally justifiable circumstances, the defendant is convicted and goes to prison (or is executed, if we're talking about the United States).

It's precisely that kind of accountability from which Dick Cheney and George W. Bush want the United States government to be exempt.

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