Sunday, April 26, 2009

Post No. 110: Who Cares If It's Torture?


© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

On most news issues, we don’t have an opinion.

At least, not immediately. We like to think stuff through.

In the case of this “torture” or “enhanced interrogation” debate, we definitely do not have an opinion.

Yet.

We don’t have enough concrete, credible evidence to competently form an opinion.

More importantly, we do not have first hand information.

Plus, it’s become difficult to decipher the “truth” from the media outlets.

At this point, affixing a label, to the purported conduct, may actually be little more than an academic exercise.

However, we do have some “observations.”

Many of our citizens feel that the methods employed were appropriate.

There is also a substantial segment which feels that they were not, at least for a civilized society.

Some apparently feel that the tactics worked, fulfilled a valuable function, and thus were “necessary,” whereas others disagree.

Yet, despite all of the dissection, few have really focused on the crux of the matter: Whether we are willing to embrace a “by any means necessary” philosophy to address a perceived threat.

This obviously is one amorphous, value-laden, context-driven, ball of Play Doh, moving like a Slinky down the Capitol steps.

There is nothing more unsettling to humans than the thought that we are capable of going to a place we consider unthinkable, although perhaps necessary. (Practice and frequency change all of that.)

It’s mentally akin to shooting a human for the 1st time, whether an intruder, or enemy soldier.

The reality is that at some point on the continuum, we’d all be willing to commit the ultimate act, or darn close to it, if we thought it “necessary,” and that the interests protected were significant enough.

Part of the problem is that it doesn’t matter whether something is actually a threat, but rather whether people think it is a threat, and reasonable people will differ on that.

All three Institute Fellows, the Optimizer, the Laughingman, and the Logistician, served in the armed forces during the Vietnam Conflict Era. Each learned to use weapons which kill, if necessary.

And efficiently.

We appreciate the concept of evil, and the concept of the “enemy.’

And yet, we’d all probably be far less likely to use torture, however defined, than 98% of you who have never served.

On the other hand, if we decided that it was necessary, we’d be at the front of the line, in the first 2%, to do it, efficiently, like Arnold, and move the freak on, with little yapping….

The History Channel and PBS recently aired programs documenting the inhuman treatment of Allied POWs in the South Pacific by the Japanese during WWII. Subsequently, we saw a discussion of the psychology of revenge.

Once it was clear that the Americans had won, and began to take Japanese POWs, our forces did some pretty despicable things. A U.S. journalist captured some of this on film. It was suppressed for years, and only recently disclosed.

We didn’t want the world to know that Americans could “go there.”

We need occasional reminding that fear can bring out the absolute freak in us.

And anger is frequently intertwined with fear.

Today, we witnessed the baptism of a young infant. Observing the congregation, we noted the serenity associated with that event.

All of us take on that glazed look when dealing with infants. We’re reminded of an era of innocence, when worries are nonexistent, and someone else has the responsibility of caring for us.

It’s a space to which many yearn to return - unrealistically.

Jack Nicholson reminded us, in “A Few Good Men,” that some force ensures that those of us on the home front, including that infant, sleep in peace and comfort through the night. (Funny that film should have taken place at Guantanamo.)

When we perceive a threat (especially one difficult to define and frame) is about to invade our zone of serenity, our willingness to “go there” becomes less objectionable.

We’re all located in different cars on the train that is the continuum as we approach that point.

That being said, perhaps we can do without labeling it torture or some other euphemism.

Perhaps no prosecutions, bloodletting, or rolling of heads.

We well understand the PR issues, and this desire to convey that America is the Mt. Everest of “high moral ground.”

However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.

It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.

The reality is that at the end of the day, all of us care.

29 comments:

  1. The concept that "the ends justify the means" is not a concept that presents one with choices along the continuum of the moral spectrum. Every choice defined by the concept "the ends justify the means" is a choice along a spectrum of immorality. The degree of hypocrisy and disingenuousness being displayed by large numbers of Americans on the issue of torture is sickening.
    Is waterboarding torture? Yes, it is--as so defined by legal precedent. Americans have tried and convicted captured enemies for employing it. Case closed. There is no room here for legitimate debate.
    The operational rationale being employed boils down to: If you do it to me, it's torture; if I do it to you it's a licit "enhanced interrogation technique." Such hypocrisy is enough to make any decent person cringe with shame.

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  2. Interesting position Rodak, and thanks for weighing in again. Out of curiosity, consistent with your position, are you saying that you, in the case of a German Nazi about to murder members of your family, would not use deadly force to prevent their murder?

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  3. Apples and oranges. Self-defense in an immediately life-threatening situation does not equate to torturing a helpless individual toward the end of possibly forestalling an attack that might hypothetically occur sometime in the future.
    If I need to travel thousands of miles, to the enemy's homeland, to kill an "enemy" who has not attacked my homeland (Vietnam, Iraq, etc.), then I cannot claim self-defense; I am an aggressor. Most Americans seem to positively relish the role of global bully; I am not among them.

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  4. no opinion, as you did say, not enough facts to form one...
    this is the military, when at war men shot men to kill, this is evil but the means does provide the ends...
    war is hell I don't think the general public should have this openly broadcast to bring things to light...
    I will mind my own and not become an enemy.

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  5. It bothers me that we and our allies are the only ones in this war even trying to abide by some rules of conduct. Yet, if we didn't try, I would be bothered even more. We have yet to behead a prisoner. That's a good thing.

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  6. We'll re-ask some questions which we posed during the presidential campaign last year:

    Which would YOU rather be, given the choice between, a noble loser and an unscrupulous winner?

    Which one would you ADMIRE more, a noble loser or an unscrupulous winner?

    How long do you think that those factions trying to abide by some rules of conduct, even if not with consistency and perfection, continue to do so, if others do not?

    Would those trying to abide by a set of rules ultimately be "justified" in scrapping the rules if they deemed it "necessary?"

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  7. Interesting question:

    Which would YOU rather be, given the choice between, a noble loser and an unscrupulous winner?In a war, it is a fight for survival. The choice is clear.

    The second question:

    Which one would you ADMIRE more, a noble loser or an unscrupulous winner?...is superfluous. It does not matter who I admire. If I opposed the unscrupulous winner, I have survival to consider. If I had supported the unscrupulous winner, I am safe and happy. You make your choice before there is a winner or loser, don't you?

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  8. The only danger we face of "losing" here is the danger of turning into our enemy.

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  9. Rodak has indicated that the case is closed. How so? I would like to see the source of that conclusion. As I read the definition of torture according to the Geneva Convention it seems to me that water boarding does NOT meet their definition. What is clear is that the enemy clearly does NOT qualify for protections afforded under that Convention.

    So I must ask the question, what is the real agenda here for one party to accuse another of atrocities and seek retribution? To what end? Is this a scheme to say to the world that we were bad under the previous administration but we are good now? Is the objective to weaken our intelligence capability to become as effective as it became under Clinton?

    I agree that the hypocrisy regarding this subject is over the top. Generally, those who think it is ok to kill an unborn child seem to come down on the side that putting water up the nose of killers of innocent civilians is inhumane! There must be another agenda.

    As one who was water boarded during survival training for Vietnam – I can tell you it is unpleasant and I was willing to admit to the assassination of Jesus Christ himself. It didn’t leave any permanent physical or mental disability (though some of my friends may argue that it did!). I might further argue that it could only be an effective interrogation technique if you already have some inkling of information and want to use it to fill in details.

    My thinking is this is purely domestic politics run amuck and will only hurt us in doing what we can to protect ourselves from future man made disasters (what we used to call terrorist attacks).

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  10. Here's my simple view of torture. It may work on people who value life and have some motivation to keep living. I suspect that it is far less effective on people who are willing to die and become martyrs.

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  11. Back in March, we explored those instances where people thought that lying is acceptable. You might want to check out Post No. 95 to check out the discussion. http://theviewfromoutsidemytinywindow.blogspot.com/2009/03/post-no-95-27-situations-where-people.html

    Out of curiosity, would our government be justified in lying about its use of torture?

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  12. Individuals in a war situation are different than the state holding custody of prisoners. Official policy that sanctions torture differs from extreme acts committed by individuals in life threatening situations. We cannot justify torture if as a nation we expect to be treated in a civilized way by others. It's a basic transaction. Lawyers hired by the president distorted concepts of law and justice to provide cover for acts of terror committed by the state in the name of security. Uncovering the truth about who did what and when will help everyone understand the stakes and prepare to deal with the next time we face these choices. Ignorance breeds repetition of errors.

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  13. Mr. Cheney's whining not withstanding there has to be a better way to go about bringing our philosophy to others way of thinking...or we will all be swimming in the same sewer for ever after....

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  14. if we perceive a threat, the worst possible thing we can do is torture. torture is an extremely unreliable way for producing good intelligence.

    if we want to intimidate, sure, torture is great. but if we're really scared, torture is the wrong approach.

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  15. coop- waterboarding is illegal.

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  16. Anonymous, you bring up the important issue of "reliability." How does one measure reliability in what is perceived to be a "war-time" environment?

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  17. clouseau- by listening to the best interrogators we've had, and looking at the history of bad intelligence from torture.

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  18. Inspector Clouseau wrote: "How does one measure reliability?"

    Anonymous replied: "By listening to the best interrogators we've had, and looking at the history of bad intelligence from torture."

    If it so so easy to measure, and the issue is so cut and dry, why are we having a major debate about it, and in particular, why did the past Administration defend their practices so strongly?

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  19. "why are we having a major debate about it, and in particular, why did the past Administration defend their practices so strongly?"

    because they're afraid of prosecution, and need to justify it somehow.

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  20. I appreciate the points you bring to the table, even if I fundamentally disagree.

    Why dispense with the term "torture"? We should be allowed to call an act what it is -- look to the definition:

    1 a: anguish of body or mind : agony b: something that causes agony or pain
    2: the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure
    3: distortion or overrefinement of a meaning or an argument
    (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/torture)

    Also, note the Geneva Conventions --

    "The Third Geneva Convention states that prisoners of war must always be "humanely treated" (Article 13) and prohibits "physical and mental torture, [and] any other form of coercion" (Article 18).

    The Fourth Geneva Convention states that civilian prisoners must be protected from "cruel treatment and torture" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" (Article 3)."

    (http://civilliberty.about.com/od/tortureandrendition/tp/Waterboarding-and-Torture.htm)

    Many prisoners at Guantanamo were not enemy combatants, and were held there wrongly. The United States offered cash rewards for combatants handed over to the military, and as a result many innocent people were falsely kidnapped and handed over to the military so that a reward could be collected. What of these civilians? What of their treatment? (Even if they were not waterboarded in particular, many were treated in ways that could be defined as 'torture' --

    Yes, there is a point we could probably all be pushed to in which we would torture another human being. People may wish to placate themselves by dispensing with the name 'torture', but unless they are willing to face the possible repercussions of their acts, they should refrain from partaking of such acts in the first place. If someone is so sensitive as to recoil at being labeled a 'torturer' and lobby for a more polite term, then perhaps they should not be torturing in the first place. If you believe that your act is permissible under the circumstances, then live under the impression that you are a martyr of public opinion and that you did what was necessary. If that is your view, then the torture was 'necessary', but it is still torture. You can't alter the definition to fit your conscience.

    My argument with the Guantanamo Bay tortured detainees is both the fact of torture itself, but -- more importantly -- the needlessness of it. The FBI has said it was receiving good intelligence BEFORE the CIA began torturing detainees. The CIA object to this, as does former VP Cheney. However, looking at this, of course the CIA and Cheney would defend their actions and call foul. It is their only course, barring admission of unnecessary torture. Besides, torture is also a means to shaky confessions. Interviews with the detainees has borne out this point as well, where the detainees admitted they gave false intelligence so as to stop the torture, because when they told the truth, the CIA was convinced they were lying and continued the 'enhanced interrogation'.

    Also, an argument as to whether or not we could be pushed to torture is not much of an argument, in my view. I agree, any human, under certain circumstances, COULD be pushed to that point. That does not make it permissible.

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  21. Gaudini:

    Thanks for paying us a visit and providing your comment.

    Several things:

    1. Lots of folks apparently misunderstood our analysis, we did a poor job of articulating our analysis, or perhaps a little of both.

    2. We have NO OPINION as to whether torture was inflicted. That is primarily because we have not been presented with enough credible evidence FROM EITHER SIDE.

    3. We further have NO OPINION as to whether torture was inflicted because we have not been presented with any FIRST HAND INFORMATION from either side.

    4. Our main point was that reasonable people can differ as to the alleged conduct, and particularly as to whether the perceived threat justifies a particular course of responsive conduct.

    5. Additionally, although we appreciate the need for a uniform, objective, and perhaps quantifiable standard by which to measure the alleged conduct, it is not likely to happen in these United States, and it will definitely vary across cultural lines. Consequently, another approach to resolve the issue might be in order to avoid semantic debates.

    Arguing about "what we call it" does not advance anyone's interests. Figuring out "what it is" appears to be more important. It seems to us that the conduct is or is not "unconscionable" to members of a civilized society. However, if we're not personally there to witness or feel it, it makes such an evaluation a tad difficult.

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  22. Ahh I see now! My apologies for not fully understanding -- I admit I should have read it through a few times before responding (and I should have read the comments as well, but again to my own fault I did not). I do agree, then, with your premises on a philosophical level (which I suppose would make me somewhat hypocritical in agreeing philosophically but then also retaining the opinions I do on the subject). I also agree that defining the conduct in question is difficult and varies, which is why I tried to lay the groundwork of a definition (from past experiences I've found that discussion is often difficult when each participant is based in differing definitions, but as I see now, this conversation is about the elusiveness of the definition itself, and thus my efforts were misguided).

    Anyway, I acknowledge that my opinions are, indeed, based on an "If...then" assumption -- and should that assumption be proven unfounded in the future, I will readily admit the fallibility of my opinion. But I suppose my opinions on (what I would personally define as) 'torture' are not quite relevant to the conversation at hand.

    So, I'll say that I do agree philosophically with the (well-thought-out) points you've just outlined for me in your comment above, and I appreciate the outline you provided for me after I (through my own fault) misunderstood your analysis.

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  23. Guadini:

    Thanks for the follow up. It's "all good," in that you got us thinking further about this issue. We take some degree of pride, perhaps to the frustration of many, that our thoughts are constantly evolving and subject to change.

    You've definitely contributed to our "tweaking" of our limited position. Let's re-visit this again several months done the road.

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  24. For me, this comes down to something very simple. Terrorists don't play by ANY rules. If we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by rules that do not take this into account, we will lose. I don't count psyOps (or waterboarding, for that matter) as torture. I also believe the list of what we can - and can't - do should be a secret. Telegraphing that info weakens our ability to gain useful info. Color me not "pro-torture," but "anti-terrorist."

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  25. Captain Digital said:

    "For me, this comes down to something very simple. Terrorists don't play by ANY rules. If we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by rules that do not take this into account, we will lose.... Color me not 'pro-torture,' but 'anti-terrorist.'"

    Captain, as a general proposition we try to avoid inserting our biases into the analysis of any issue. As a further general proposition, we believe in following the law, and taking the higher ground. We also generally prefer a noble loser to an unscrupulous winner.

    Those things having been said, what you articulated in so few words is admittedly a logical, reasonable position which could be taken by many concerning this issue. It is, without question, a legitimate position, even if some may disagree with it.

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  26. For me, this comes down to something very simple. Terrorists don't play by ANY rules. If we allow ourselves to be hamstrung by rules that do not take this into account, we will lose. I don't count psyOps (or waterboarding, for that matter) as torture. I also believe the list of what we can - and can't - do should be a secret. Telegraphing that info weakens our ability to gain useful info. Color me not "pro-torture," but "anti-terrorist."

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  27. Ahh I see now! My apologies for not fully understanding -- I admit I should have read it through a few times before responding (and I should have read the comments as well, but again to my own fault I did not). I do agree, then, with your premises on a philosophical level (which I suppose would make me somewhat hypocritical in agreeing philosophically but then also retaining the opinions I do on the subject). I also agree that defining the conduct in question is difficult and varies, which is why I tried to lay the groundwork of a definition (from past experiences I've found that discussion is often difficult when each participant is based in differing definitions, but as I see now, this conversation is about the elusiveness of the definition itself, and thus my efforts were misguided).

    Anyway, I acknowledge that my opinions are, indeed, based on an "If...then" assumption -- and should that assumption be proven unfounded in the future, I will readily admit the fallibility of my opinion. But I suppose my opinions on (what I would personally define as) 'torture' are not quite relevant to the conversation at hand.

    So, I'll say that I do agree philosophically with the (well-thought-out) points you've just outlined for me in your comment above, and I appreciate the outline you provided for me after I (through my own fault) misunderstood your analysis.

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