It's Time To Take a Stand

Having a blog necessarily means writing out loud; it means having a public record of your thoughts, your deeds, your positions. If your goal is not to drive up traffic, but to be a source of reasoned opinion and a site for distributing information, it can be easier to just sit out the tough choices and wait for the consensus to roll in. Better to just play it cool than to make difficult, line-in-the-sand decisions. But that is not a luxury that one can always afford.

Correctly or incorrectly, John F. Kennedy attributed to Dante the now famous phrase: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality."

This is such a time.


Apologists and outright defenders of the tortuous interrogation tactics and unconventional detention policies implemented by the Bush administration have been stepping forward. Their arguments are not new. The evidence that supports their claims is either classified or nonexistent. They rarely call it by its name -- torture -- using euphemisms such as "coercive interrogation" or even "the skills of our Jordanian friends" instead. They maintain that we are at war, that we are at risk and that "extraordinary rendition" in combination with "enhanced" or "aggressive" interrogation practices keep us safe. They say that anyone else would have done the same. They say that it has happened before. They are saying that torture is right.


There are two important counter-arguments to the idea that torture is necessary. They are well-worn, but worth repeating. 1) Torture does not make us safer: the information we get from torture is unreliable and may actually lessen our ability to protect ourselves from terrorist attacks. In 2007, Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker:
Michael Sheehan, a former counterterrorism official at the State Department, said, “K.S.M. is the poster boy for using tough but legal tactics. He’s the reason these techniques exist. You can save lives with the kind of information he could give up.” Yet Mohammed’s confessions may also have muddled some key investigations. Perhaps under duress, he claimed involvement in thirty-one criminal plots—an improbable number, even for a high-level terrorist. ... Colonel Dwight Sullivan, the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes, called his serial confessions “a textbook example of why we shouldn’t allow coercive methods.”
2) Torture galvanizes the opposition: the "war on terror" is in large part a war in which symbolism is more important than actual combat and we cannot afford the symbolic loss of becoming a nation that condones torture.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees notes, "Treating detainees harshly... increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies." The report continues, "Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that... 'the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq – as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat – are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.'"

The Senate's report deals almost exclusively with the military treatment of detainees--it does not focus on the CIA's methods, its black sites, or its practice of torture-by-proxy known as extraordinary rendition--but it goes without saying that in terms of symbolism, allowing the CIA to torture or to remove captives to countries known to practice torture isn't substantially different than allowing the U.S. military itself to torture. It may salve some consciences to know that these activities are either relegated to the CIA or farmed out to Jordan, but it will not help our image abroad. As long as we condone torture in any form, we place ourselves and our soldiers at risk.


In the pro-torture arguments, there is a tendency to move in two directions at once. On the one hand, Cofer Black can make macho proclamations to Congress--"all you need to know is that there is a before 9/11 and there is an after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves come off"--and to the President--"when we're through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs." On the other hand, hairs get split over what is and is not torture. (Torture is illegal, so the definition matters.)

Torture is often contrasted with coercion, otherwise known as torture lite. Torture is severe pain, Mark Bowden wrote in The Atlantic in 2003:
Then there are methods that, some people argue, fall short of torture. Called "torture lite," these include sleep deprivation, exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough treatment (slapping, shoving, or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing on his fears for himself and his family. Although excruciating for the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do no lasting physical harm.
While the words are less odious, the effect is the same. Terms like "slapping, shoving or shaking" and "forcing a prisoner to stand... or to sit in uncomfortable positions" don't adequately describe the reality of this treatment. Many people who would condone those practices in theory would not be able to abide what they actually amount to, which in more than one case is murder. Military autopsies have determined that several deaths of detainees in CIA custody were homicides, including Manadel al-Jamadi. Everything that happened to al-Jamadi--stress positions, rough treatment, exposure to extreme temperatures--falls into the category of torture lite.

But even when torture lite doesn't kill, it leaves permanent damage. It ruins those it does not destroy. Perhaps, for some, any one of the above mentioned practices is defensible. But in combination, the effect is devastating. Jane Mayer:
According to Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, who has written a history of the C.I.A.’s experiments in coercing subjects, the agency learned that “if subjects are confined without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place, very deep breakdowns can be provoked.”

Agency scientists found that in just a few hours some subjects suspended in water tanks—or confined in isolated rooms wearing blacked-out goggles and earmuffs—regressed to semi-psychotic states.
The truth is that these "techniques"--and language is important, here: the word technique implies craft, discipline, expertise. These were rationally made decisions, standard operating procedures, not the sadistic impulses of a few rogue officers--these techniques were never designed to elicit information. They were designed to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to break men.
In December 2001, more than a month before the President signed his memorandum, the Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel’s Office had already solicited information on detainee “exploitation” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), an agency whose expertise was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
JPRA is the DoD agency that oversees military Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. ... The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.

Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees.
These are not the opinions of a liberal blogger, an angry leftist or an anti-American ideologue. These are the unanimously approved opinions, issued without dissent, of the thirteen Democrats and twelve Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee. You can read the rest of it here (pdf).


But there is a much more important issue at stake than just the efficacy of our methods. There is an underlying question--a core philosophical issue--at the heart of the torture debate.

What kind of a nation are we? What kind of a country do we want to be?

After an in-depth analysis and defense of coercive methods, Mark Bowden concludes his 2003 article:
The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone.
In his "Notes on Nationalism," George Orwell states that the most important characteristic of nationalism is "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests."

If we are to be this sort of a nation, if we are to be Nationalist in this sense, then Mark Bowden and
Reuel Marc Gerecht are right: it is our duty to use whatever means necessary to subjugate those who stand in our way as we maintain American security.

But America has never been Nationalist in this sense. True, their have always been Nationalists working within the American government, but they have, until recently, been prevented from becoming too powerful and punished when their overreaches came to light. The CIA was brought under Congressional control. Nixon was forced to resign. In the Bush administration, however, their was no check on Nationalism, no punishment for placing America beyond good and evil.


I was one of those upset with Congress when they refused to impeach President Bush in 2007, but I was no longer upset by the 2008 Presidential election. By then, I believed that Nancy Pelosi and others had made the right decision. Impeachment would have been too divisive, too costly in terms of political capital, and would have jeopardized the upcoming Presidential election. Because of their restraint, this November we were able to elect a person closer to my politics than any that I have ever been able to vote for.

I was also one of the people moved and uplifted by Obama's Presidential campaign. I applauded his move away from the polarizing rhetoric of recent campaigns, his insistence on post-partisanism and his quest, however rhetorical, to end to the binary classification of America into Red States and Blue States.

I am not, however, one of the people opposed to trying members of the Bush administration for war crimes. While a full-scale witch hunt would deepen the chasm that Bush and Rove have created and therefore must be avoided at all costs, holding high-level officials accountable for their actions need not be an act of political revenge or partisan politics. It can be a way to restore our credibility in the world, a way to say to ourselves and to those who look to us for guidance and leadership that we will not abide these actions. We will not stand for these atrocities. Trials would be a way to affirm that we do not place ourselves beyond good and evil, that we do not place America's interests ahead of basic, universal human rights.

A trial is not the same as a conviction. The decision to indict Rumsfeld--who, according to the Senate report, is clearly, demonstrably accountable for the abuse at Guantanamo--is not the same as simply condemning him. Arguments will be made. Evidence will be offered. The judicial branch will succeed where the executive branch has failed.

This is not about Republicans and Democrats. This is not about Neoconservatives and Realists. This is not even about Bush and Obama. It is about what kind of country we want to be. And if, as some have argued, we have faltered in the past and this is not as isolated an incident as some would lead us to believe, then it is about what kind of country we would like to become. We have a chance to right the wrongs of the Bush years, to ban coercive interrogation practices and hold accountable the officials who advocated for these techniques. Let us not lose that opportunity.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Two quick points I would like to make about your thoughtful commentary, Madison:

1) The essay of mine you quote was published in 2003, before we learned of the excesses of the Bush administration. So when I endorsed the administration's public posture, it was one that condemned all forms of torture, with a tacit acknowledgement that coercive methods may be employed interrogating some of the premier intelligence targets, like KSM. The essay did predict that if the administration attempted to authorize coercive methods in any way, which, as we later learned, it secretly had, widespread abuses were inevitable.

2) The use of coercion in those rare instance where critical intelligence might be obtained has nothing to do with nationalism. It has to do with preventing mass murder, whether in New York, London, Bali or Mumbai.

Mark Bowden