Friday, November 18, 2005


I wish that some of the people who are defending the administration's stand on torture or who have narrowed the definition of "torture" to laughable limits could be made to sit through an hour of videotapes from South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Water Boarding, beatings, hanging people from their limbs, putting guns to their heads and pretending to shoot -- these and many more awful, unacceptable behaviors are, by any reasonable standard, forms of torture. We would never want American POW's to go through them. We could not imagine our girlfriends or wives or brothers or fathers having to endure such atrocities. And yet there is a shocking number of people making ends justify the means type arguments to justify the most loathsome behavior, behavior unbecoming a great nation.

It is annoying, to say the least, to be lectured to about the gravity of terrorism by those folks who argue for lenience with regard to America's current torture laxity. But beyond that, it is a bit dumbfounding -- what does the one have to do with the other? Yes, you make a sterling point -- terrorism is bad. Does torturing alleged terrorists and enemy combatants (remember, 90% or so of the Abu Graib prisoners ultimately left with no charges and in most cases with little sustainable evidence against them) somehow prevent terrorism? From almost all accounts -- look at South Africa during Apartheid, or Chile during Pinochet's reign, or consider John McCain's experience of finally relenting to torture and giving the names of the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers -- torture does not work. Indeed, the South African Security Forces or Pinochet's thugs had little interest in torture as a road to anything other than as a form of extrajudicial punishment and sadistic entertainment. If our best trump card in the war against terrorism, or whatever we are calling it now, is that we are better than they are, it probably is an unwise policy to engage in actions that descend to their level. In an administration that argued that an intercepted memo talking about flying hijacked planes into skyscrapers was not actionable intelligence, to say the least it seems that whatever we might gain from nearly drowning supposed enemy combatants is neither actionable nor worth the cost in our reputation, our relationships with our allies, or our attempts to win hearts and minds. So never mind that our actions are morally repugnant and beneath us -- apparently Vice President Cheney does not care about such things. Instead focus on the fact that torture will not help us win this war. Then again, competence is not exactly high on the list of the administration's priorities these days either.


montana urban legend said...

Don't you think there is a legitimate concern that if all combattants are granted the treatment standards of the Geneva conventions, regardless of their sincere disinterest in being a signatory, that it devalues the incentive for signing in the first place? If non-state actors want to play military games with the big boys, perhaps it might be worth it to not lower the bar on why they would want to do so according to the same rules, i.e. the laws of war, etc., by only applying them if they do.

Plus there is the issue of how exactly to deter a suicidal mass murderer. I remember left-wing pundit Al Franken saying of a potential crop-dusting wannabe that "you know that he's willing to die for his perverse cause. My question is: Is he willing to take
a red-hot poker up the butt for it?"

Indeed. Is he?

None of this implies that I don't think that the administration has egregiously abused their authority in indiscriminately applying torture to the point of becoming standardless, especially w/regards to cases where Geneva or U.S. citizenship should apply and especially in Iraq.

However, I also don't think the current anti-torture arguments have ever adequetly addressed these little things, and have instead preferred a course of invoking American superiority (viz. "are we not better than our enemies?"). I don't see how asserting your inherent superiority over someone else is any better an argument for treating him well than it is an argument for treating him with disgust, with brutal physical contempt, or even with a complete and utter sense of disregard whatsoever. And if one wants to argue equality of rights but superiority of "niceness" I'm not convinced of how this will make al Qaeda want to be like us in their methods. Which is what I thought we were fighting for/against. But perhaps I'm missing something?

dcat said...

MUL --
Sorry, but I do not think standards of decency stop at the door of the nation state. besides, by that argument, you believe that members of the ANC deserves torture -- no nation state, after all, and besides, according to the National party, they were TERRORISTS! After all, John Vorster said so! The point is, you do need universal standards of conduct because at the end of the day, what we are dealing with is behavior that independent of its goal, is abominable. Just as terrorism is always wrong, so too is tortutr. Furthermore -- we are toprtuting independent of the guilt of an alleged enemy combatant (shockingly, just because Cheney says it is so does not make it soand it might make it the opposite) and more importantly if we care about winning this conflict,. independent of its efficacy. So to hell with the human rights aspect -- some solidres find raping men with bottles fun! -- but rather let's scrap it because it does not help us win, and in pushing support for the enemy, it may help us lose.

montana urban legend said...

I don't recall stating that standards of "decency" -- whatever that vague term means, but if it means anything -- even applying to nation states. I referred to treaties. And if there were a way to let al Qaeda and other non-nation states sign treaties, by all means, let them do so.

But I somehow doubt they will or would.

Perhaps once they do I will have better faith in the "universality" of such conduct being always wrong no matter what, no questions asked. But until then, I'll take care to distinguish Dick Cheney's or the National party's accusations of being a terrorist from the fact that one can construct a tangible, actionable and regulatable definition of it, non-proof of guilt or innocence from damn good evidence of a lack of interest in adherence to some of the most important aspects of a familiar, if not quite yet universal social contract, or whether or not someone finds torture fun from a descent into unlimited military, political and moral chaos. I am just looking for the strongest arguments of whatever view regardless of who makes them or how they are made. Given that, there shouldn't be any reason for being sorry. And this has nothing to do with the efficacy argument, since the best evidence indicates that there is not increased effectiveness in gaining information, etc., from torture. So you have me on that one. But that does not mean that those who practice torture come closer to losing their cause. Some of the longest-lived regimes on the planet continue to practice widespread torture to this day, and it doesn't hurt their ability to accomplish their goals or project power one bit.

Nellie the Ellie (C.Pettit) said...

what MUL hits on is the most abect failure of the international system...the insistence on the outdated and irrational religion of nationalism and the nation-state as the end all and be all. It allows self interested ideologues to promote only their state interests, thereby destroying the fundamental fabric of the international community...that it is acommunity of mankind and universalism, not a collection of natio-states. Thankfully, that is why we have customary law and the international judiciary that so many like to ignore because they actually deal in internationalism and not ideology.

International humanitarian law applies to individuals, non-state actors, and state actors. The Geneva Conventions apply to any actors who "take a significant part in hostilities." The war crims and crimes against humanity of al-Qaeda (as well as any state) can be referred to the ICC (gee what a surprise that self interested rogue states won't sign on...but actually can be forced to comply regardless, but that is another story and why the bilateral agreements the US is extorting are basically meaningless in a legal sense) and captured leaders can be tried in impartial and non-ideological courts (an impossibility in the US...even if we were to use our "legal" (READ: political and ideological rule system) system.

Legally...all combatants already have the same standards applicable to them. This may come as a surprise to the ignorant citizens of the US who have no clue regarding law, rights, and international governance...another reason they should educate themselves...or simply shut their mouths and allow those of us who actually know what we are talking about deal in such matters.

And if the shoe fits here....


Cram said...

I think you make some excellent points and I am sympathetic with your argument. Indeed, Allan Dershowtiz has come up with the idea of “torture warrants” that would allow it in certain instances with the consent of a judge (similar to a search warrant). It is a compelling argument, made far better by him than by me.

However, I tend to come down on the side of Derek. The argument that many make, what you refer to as “invoking American superiority” argument, is I think strong enough to stand on its own. If Americans truly believe that the rights enjoyed under our Constitution and through our treaty obligations are genuine “rights” and not just arbitrary allowances by our government, it seems hypocritical in the worst to deny some of the most important to our enemies, even if there is no chance of those rights being reciprocated and even if abandoning them would still allow us to call ourselves better than our enemies.

The strongest argument in favor of torture is the so-called “ticking-time bomb” scenario, which John McCain confronts with the following argument:

“In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don't believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis. It is far better to embrace a standard that might be violated in extraordinary circumstances than to lower our standards to accommodate a remote contingency, confusing personnel in the field and sending precisely the wrong message abroad about America's purposes and practices.”

Of course, I must point out that had it not been for the egregious abuses of power committed by our troops in several well-publicized episodes, this discussion would not be necessary and we would allow the experts in the field and their superiors to make the “right” decisions. Sadly, it seems clear that this administration and its chain of command are incapable of behaving themselves without statutory limitations, making this debate necessary.

montana urban legend said...


Tom posted something good on this at Bigtent. Unless you are opposed to a cruise missle aimed at Saddam, UBL or any actively plotting and warring untried lower henchman on the terrorist feeding chart, it is difficult to argue successfully as to why physical acts of extremely less lethal finality are worse.

And although a presumption of preponderantly inclusive, inherent, natural rights for all makes a good rhetorical flourish for the movement to convergent, workable political networks and a better life for all and in the aggregate - goals which I support - I don't think it does justice to that concept to forego the need for a written social contract through which to promulgate it. Sure, unenumerated rights is a great default presumption, given a constitution and bill of rights to state as much. But presuming a constitution and bill of rights to weenies who have no stake in, no mention in, and have implied a destructive interest in that social contract doesn't seem to follow to me. The one with which they wish to replace it would dispense "justice" no less - yea, likely even far more brutal - than even that. And I'm not convinced as to why I should see that as my problem. Perhaps I would if I were the one deciding which standard - harsher or more tolerant - is the more legitimate. But in this case I'm not.

Cram said...

I am not opposed to assassination by itself, although I would oppose it if arrest and trial were an available alternative. Certainly, that was not the case when we went after Saddam shortly before the start of the war. Torture however, is not analogous to me since it does not carry the same necessity except in the most extreme circumstances. Furthermore, while I cannot speak from experience, there are plenty of instances where torture is indeed worse than the finality of death.

You say that “presuming a constitution and bill of rights to weenies who have no stake in, no mention in, and have implied a destructive interest in that social contract doesn't seem to follow to me.”

Fair enough, though I would respectfully disagree. The Constitution was written by men who had just experienced the horrors of war, war which included violent mobs which committed terrorist acts against torries and suspected loyalists, British brutality against revolutionary supporters, etc. Yet those men decided that bill of rights was worth having, and included within its protection were every vile and despicable criminal in the nation, every murderer, child molester, or terrorist, every anarchist or traitor. In short, the “other” to whom we are referring should have no bearing on how the law is applied, in my view. Torture, aside from being in direct violation of international law as well as the spirit of our own Constitution, is morally unacceptable to me, regardless of how undeserving the enemy is. I would not favor it for Nazis or Confederates, and I do not favor it for terrorists. The fact that they would not show me the same courtesy were our positions reversed changes nothing for me.

Another argument against torture of course, is that while it is clear our current enemies feel no pressure to reciprocate, it is not clear that a future enemy would feel the same way. As McCain writes, “we should have concern for those Americans captured by more traditional enemies, if not in this war then in the next. Until about 1970, North Vietnam ignored its obligations not to mistreat the Americans they held prisoner, claiming that we were engaged in an unlawful war against them and thus not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. But when their abuses became widely known and incited unfavorable international attention, they substantially decreased their mistreatment” of POW’s.

In short, our conduct during wartime does not only carry with it a moral burden but also the practical utility of practicing what we preach to others.

montana urban legend said...

In case it wasn't clear, here's some further context to the last sentence of the preceding post.

But presuming a constitution and bill of rights to weenies who have no stake in, no mention in, and have implied a destructive interest in that social contract doesn't seem to follow to me. The one with which they wish to replace it would dispense "justice" no less - yea, likely even far more brutal - than even that. And I'm not convinced as to why I should see that as my problem. Perhaps I would if I were the one deciding which standard - harsher or more tolerant - is the more legitimate. But in this case I'm not. It's the jerk-off with the bomb strapped to his back and his co-conspirators that appointed themselves to the position to decide that one.

dcat said...

MUL --
Look, torture is evil. Just because someone is a member of a group that is not a signatory to a treaty does not change that fact. There are certain things that are always unacceptable. Torture is one of them. It is not a matter of "playing military games with the big boys," as if being one of the "big boys" automatically confers legitimacy or virtue. And for some -- again, I'll use the ANC example -- we are not talking about playing games. We are talking about seeking fundamental human freedomsa and self evident rights.
And I do not see how your missile at Osama or Saddam analogy is at all apt. It certainly is not relevant. In that scenario saddam would be the head of a state with which you are at war; Osama would be the head of a group with which you are at war. neither has been captured. i am at a loss as to how this ties in to people you have captured and who thus pose no threat. You aim the missile at saddam. You don't rape prisoners with bottles or pretend to smear menses on Muslims. Why is this so baffling; why are you in such haste to defend torture? How does it help America? How does it help our cause? the answer, of course, is that it doesn't, but like moviegoers looking for the most violent possible comeuppance for the bad guys, we get to wish ain and suffering upon our enemy -- whether we have found them guilty of anything or not -- because it makes us feel good. Nice standard. And good to see that our enemies are already using this to justify their own torture.

dcat said...

MUL --
My last comment posted just after your latest one and is thus not a response to it.
i also do not see how our Constitrution has anything to do with the discussion. Torture is evil and always wrong. pewriod. Furthermore, your example of bomb carrying weenies is a nice straw man that has nothing to do with what is actually happening on the ground -- we are torturing poeople who in almost every case have not been caught in the actual act of engaging in terrorism. And we are doing so without regard to their guilt or innocence. It's nice to know that you oppose people who engage in suicide bombing. But I'll say that my credentials on these issues are fairly clear, so save your lectures for someone else. To oppose torture is not somehow to support terrorism. Indeed, to oppose it might well be to have a smarter view as to what it takes to combat terror. making more enemies is not the way to go, and giving the enemy usable propoganda is just going to lead to more dead Americans, Israelis, Palestinians, and others. No one wins through torture -- and if you disagree with this why have you not yet addressed my fundamental concern -- that torture does not work. So if you really docare about stopping bad guys, why would you countenance torture to do so? If we cannot win without sinking to that level, then we do not deserve to win.
Again -- our main source of virtue against our enemies is that we are better than them. We close that gap when we torture, because we are then not demonstrably better. We are then engaging in and ends justify the means discussion. And if the ends can justify the means then one can draw no other conclusion than that sometimes terrorism is ok. And I will never concede to this. terrorism is never acceptable. But neither is torture.

montana urban legend said...

I'd certainly save my "lectures" for someone willing to actually read them, such as Cram or Nellie, were it possible to do so in a such a format.

The issue is certainly more complicated than some are letting on. And I am in no haste to defend torture, certainly in no more haste than a typical Democratic politician is to defend abortion.

Your points, however right, good, honorable, what have you, have still not addressed a fundamental question. What is the value of a written social contract in securing rights if recognizing those rights are proclaimed mandatory (only by those who do maintain such contracts, mind you) regardless? I say this because both torture and terrorism seem to flourish where such things are absent. In no other way are they equivalent.

I did not once ever argue that we should engage in torture. These are thought experiments.

Now, it is easy to sidestep this issue by appealing to intangibles such as virtue - which never needs defending because the mere act of invoking it proves a higher calling and therefore provides its own self-justification.

The inherent universality of conceptions of right and wrong apparently also needs no specific rationale.

And, desisting from torture may very well be the right thing, and the smart thing, to do. But if someone's choice is to give expression to legitimate discontent by warring against a country that won't do it (the U.S.), as opposed to one that will (Saudi Arabia), it seems that that's just one excuse for regimes around the world to continue denying them rights generally. I sincerely take issue with the notion that U.S. public relations is the most important rationale for choosing, on a strategic level, who becomes the next target. No matter how much dislike the U.S. might garner for torturing, populist-supported retaliation is nowhere near their primary consideration, as witnessed with recent attacks in Jordan.

So there's more to be said for the contention that we very well may lose by torturing.

Terrorism targets the demonstrably innocent. In targeting the merely suspected, torture is not much better, but the two are clearly different, with one obviously more wrong.

And yet, historians in many rights-loving countries can still not resolve whether bombing Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which targetted innocents to extract concessions from their governments, were wrong.

With torture, you have addressed - although not exhaustively - the efficacy argument. But the labelling of evil on face value is not an argument. And it has not been shown how we may lose. I very well may not agree with torture in any of the circumstances identified. But if terrorism includes threats as well as actions, would you also indiscriminately rule out the threat of force, or of any kind of retribution against a suspect? And if one needs to calculate efficacy in making their argument or in formulating their answer to these things, that sounds more like a utilitarian approach than a blanket identification of right and wrong with a denunciation of the latter.

Just some fun thoughts to enjoy before the Thanksgiving feast.

dcat said...

Mul --
I am going to ssume that you are on some sort of turkey high rather than be pissed that you implied that I am somehow less reasonable or open to disagreement than Nellie. If you honestly think that is the case, you might want to keep in mind whose platform you are stating the very opinions of which you claim I am so intolerant. I think we've done a pretty good job over here of promoting open discussion and if you can find a post on the main page of mine that has been unreasonable, please do tell. As I said earlier -- I simply do not ned to be reminded of the gravity of the war on terror. I've seen the effects of terrorism first hand in DC, Israel, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe . . .

Meanwhile, as to why we should provide constitutional protections (is that what I am asking for? No matter. . .) for everyone irrespective of their background? How about trhe terms "inalienable rights," "we hold these truths to be self-evident," "universal rights" and all that. In other words, we do not have the right to pick and choose who gets universal or inalienable rights. They are rights that everyone has irrespective of their nation state status or even their politics. I'm not certain where you see inalienable rights as being contingent on someone like Cheney's will. I did not reaslize he had the ability to trump that with which folks such as Jefferson thought we had been endowed by our creator.

Now as for that abortion-torture analogy . . . again, I'll assume it's the turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving.


montana urban legend said...

I'll concede that I did grapple with that one line, but ultimately the turkey won out.

Happy T.G.

dcat said...

Mmmmmmm . . . turkey. I am comatized even as I write this. Could not possibly eat any -- hey, is that leftover mashed potatoes and gravy? . . .