Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Torture and Morality


Typical of his way of thinking, which is to say... poorly, Richard Cohen today argues that we can't prosecute Bush Administration officials for torture because we're all guilty.
"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." So goes an aphorism that needs to be applied to the current debate over whether those who authorized and used torture should be prosecuted. In the very different country called Sept. 11, 2001, the answer would be a resounding no.

Back then, a Post poll gave George W. Bush an approval rating of 92 percent, which meant that almost no one thought he was on the wrong course.
This shouldn't have to be explained, but then... it's Richard. No, the high approval rating for a President immediately after a moment of national crisis does not translate into equivalent approval for his policies, let alone each and every one of his policies. Nor could it. How smart do you have to be to recognize that Bush hadn't even stated his policies on torture on 9/11. He hadn't declared an intention to invade Iraq. It was Bush's bad policy choices (and their consequences) that caused his popularity to plummet.

What Cohen really means here is that after 9/11 he got climbed onto a "Bush can do no wrong to avenge this" bandwagon, and he saw nothing wrong with the use of torture to achieve Bush's objectives, stated and unstated. That's fine - he can put himself on the dock next to G.W. for his stupid, credulous, thoughtless acceptance of everything Bush did as being right. But please - leave the rest of us out of it.
At the same time, questions about the viability of torture were very much in the air. Alan Dershowitz was suggesting the creation of torture warrants -- permission from a court to, in effect, break some bones.

Dershowitz, mind you, was not in favor of torture but argued that if torture was going to be done, it was best that it be done legally.
Actually, I think the better argument is that Dershowitz is very much in favor of torture, but chooses to dance around the subject rather than approaching it honestly.
In a similar vein, the thoughtful Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter mulled the legality, the morality and the efficacy of torture. In the end, Alter ruled it out -- although not sodium pentothal (truth serum) or offshoring terrorism suspects "to our less squeamish allies." In fact, the government was already sending suspects abroad to be interrogated.
So... an intellectually dishonest law school professor favored torture and a Newsweek columnist ended up endorsing extraordinary rendition... and this proves what, exactly? That when confronted with extraordinary circumstances, people like Dershowitz increase the volume of their calls for us to abandon our values, and people like Alter wonder if they're right? (While sheep like Cohen go, "Baaaaaah"?)
Around the same time, historian Jay Winik wrote about the usefulness of torture, how Philippine agents in 1995 got a certain Abdul Hakim Murad to reveal a plot to blow up 11 American airliners over the Pacific and send yet another plane, this one loaded with nerve gas, into CIA headquarters in Langley. After being beaten nearly to death, Murad was finally broken by the hollow threat to turn him over to Israel's Mossad.
The moral of this story being what? That the Mossad would have finished beating Murad to death, as opposed to beating him almost to death, and that fear caused him to reveal additional information? That the Bush Administration was correct to insist that nobody could possibly have conceived of a plan to crash airplanes into buildings? That if you torture somebody until they reveal a horrible terrorist plot, no matter how ludicrous, you will eventually get them to "confess" such a plot? Really... other than as an idea in Murad's mind, this notion of crashing a plane loaded with nerve gas into the CIA headquarters is supported by... what? There was a ton of documentary and physical evidence that Murad was planning to hijack and blow up airlines. Was there any to support this special new plot, or that any other person even knew of this supposed plot, learned of through the tactics Cohen approves?
According to journalists Marites Vitug and Glenda Gloria, authors of the book Under the Crescent Moon, agents hit him with a chair and long piece of wood when Murad did not talk. They forced water into his mouth, and crushed out lit cigarettes on his genitals. Murad's ribs were completely cracked. Agents were surprised that he survived.
To be clear, is Cohen in the Dershowitz, "Get a warrant before putting out your cigarettes on a prisoner's genitals" camp, or is he in the Alter "Send the prisoner to a foreign nation where somebody else's steel toed boots can get dirty while kicking in his rib cage" camp? If we're going to pretend Murad was a "ticking time bomb", what actionable evidence was obtained through his torture that prevented the fanciful "CIA nerve gas attack" from being carried out? And if we're not pretending that he was a "ticking time bomb", such that his torture did not provide us any information or evidence useful in preventing a future attack, let alone an imminent attack on Langley, what's Cohen's point?

Cohen continues with his insipid analysis:
The Philippine example was widely mentioned at the time, even by those who opposed the use of torture. The conventional wisdom that torture never works - so counterintuitive as to be an absurdity - was not yet doctrine.
No, Richard. The argument isn't that "torture never works". The argument is that evidence obtained through torture is not reliable. For example, I take Cohen prisoner, and he denies his association with al-Qaeda. After a few rounds of torture, he finally admits his affiliation. So now I ask him to identify his contacts. He denies having any contacts, or claims not to know their names. A few rounds of torture later, I have names. But none of that information is reliable.

Frankly, as a torturer, I probably don't care. If I let Richard Cohen live, return him to the streets hobbled, covered with cigarette burns, he serves first as a message of my ruthlessness - this is what I do do people who challenge state power. If Cohen's lucky it ends there. If not, he's treated as an informant - he wouldn't have been released, after all, had he not talked. Maybe I even put out the word that he talked, and my agents watch to see who takes revenge - that's actionable intelligence. Or I can whisper to the next person I pick up, "If you give me the information I want, right now, I can let you go and nobody will ever have to know you were in custody. (Or you can end up like Cohen.)" That could be true. It's more likely a lie, but it may scare some information out of the guy before the torture sessions begin.

Whatever information I get, I can act on it. I can pick up the friends Cohen named and start round two with them. Their confessions, with or without torture, will either confirm or refute Cohen's. It doesn't matter. Then round three, round four.... After I torture enough people, I'll have enough confirming information to have a pretty good idea of whether Cohen gave me real names. If he didn't and he's still alive, whether he's in custody or has to be picked up yet again, I can torture Cohen to find out why he lied. By that time I may think that Cohen was wrongly accused in the first place but, no matter. He lied during an official investigation, and that's a crime in and of itself. Besides, we're back to sending a message - and what message would an apology send?

Torture is very intimidating to dissidents - perhaps Cohen is too obtuse to have noticed that particular use of torture by oppressive regimes, but I'm sure they'll confirm that it "works". Also, if you're intent on getting information at any cost and are willing to act on the information you obtain no matter how dubious it may be, torture gets you lots of information you can act upon, usually faster and in much greater volume than would interrogation. Who's arguing that would be ineffective? The debate is over the measure you use for "effectiveness", and... silly things like American values and morality.
At the same time, we have to be respectful of those who were in that Sept. 11 frame of mind, who thought they were saving lives - and maybe were - and who, in any case, were doing what the nation and its leaders wanted. It is imperative that our intelligence agents not have to fear that a sincere effort will result in their being hauled before some congressional committee or a grand jury. We want the finest people in these jobs - not time-stampers who take no chances.
When we had the finest people in those jobs, we didn't need or use torture. When we had immoral, stupid, sociopathic people in those jobs, we got Abu Ghraib. There's a term that I've heard used for people who claim, "I was only following orders," when their on-the-job atrocities are challenged. Do you know that term, Richard?
The best suggestion for how to proceed comes from David Cole of Georgetown Law School. Writing in the Jan. 15 New York Review of Books, he proposed that either the president or Congress appoint a blue-ribbon commission, arm it with subpoena power, and turn it loose to find out what went wrong, what (if anything) went right and to report not only to Congress but to us.
"If anything"? Richard doesn't see any tension between his implication that nothing went right under Bush, and his blind endorsement of everything Bush did post-9/11?
We were the ones, remember, who just wanted to be kept safe.
It's quite reasonable for the citizens of a nation to ask that their government protect them from foreign enemies. That's part of the government's job. It's quite another for the government, or hacks like Richard Cohen, to read into that, "At all costs." Unlike Cohen, some of us were never ready to surrender our core values. But then, perhaps Cohen never had any.

1 comment:

  1. I expect that Cohen would be horrified by torture, for example, of a U.S. soldier or New York Times reporter, or of somebody captured by a "terrorist" group. I expect that, like Dershowitz, his attitudes toward the Islamic world are framed quite differently than his attitudes toward other conflicts, such that it's easy for him to see these particular victims of torture as being undeserving of protection, or the war on fundamentalist Islam being of such import (and the enemy being of such a character) that those on the other side don't deserve the same rights as the rest of us.

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