Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ross Douthat on Torture

Upon reading Douthat's reflections on his own support of "torture lite" my first instinct is to say something snarky like "At least Douthat has the good grace to sound a little embarassed by his support of torture." But that's neither fair nor useful. Douthat's is making a legitimate effort to understand his own reasoning in supporting torture (which he now disavows) and he should be respected for that. So, taking him at his word, here are some pertinent excerpts:

As was often the case with the Bush Administration, I didn't envision many of the stupidities involved (reverse-engineering interrogation from training exercises designed to prepare for ChiCom brainwashing? really?); or the way that the debates over torture would intersect with controversies over executive power, the design of military tribunals, and so forth; or the precise scale and scope that any "torture-lite" program would take on. But I certainly remember how I felt about interrogation in the aftermath of 9/11: I felt that we were all suddenly in a ticking-bomb scenario, that the gloves have to come off, and that all kinds of things needed to be on the table. When Dick Cheney said that we have to work on "the dark side" in the post-9/11 environment, I thought that he was only stating the obvious. When Cofer Black, the CIA man who's depicted, perhaps unfairly, as a blundering fool in Mayer's account, appeared in accounts of Bush's late-2001 cabinet meetings as the guy who said of Al Qaeda, "when we're through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs," my instinctive reaction was hell yeah.

Some of the most passionate torture opponents have stated that they never, ever imagined that the Bush Administration would even consider authorizing the sort of interrogation techniques described above, to say nothing of more extreme measures like waterboarding. I was not so innocent, or perhaps I should I say I was more so: If you had listed, in the aftermath of 9/11, most of the things that have been done to prisoners by representatives of the U.S. government, I would have said that of course I expected the Bush Administration to authorize "stress positions," or "slapping, shoving and shaking," or the use of heat and cold to elicit information. After all, there was a war on! I just had no idea - until the pictures came out of Abu Ghraib, and really until I started reading detailed accounts of how detainees were being treated - what these methods could mean in practice, and especially as practiced on a global scale. A term like "stress positions" sounds like one thing when it's sitting, bloodless, on a page; it sounds like something else when somebody dies from it.

Now obviously what I've said with regard to the financial crisis is also true in this arena: With great power comes the responsibility to exercise better judgment than, say, my twenty-three year old, pro-torture-lite self. But with great power comes a lot of pressures as well, starting with great fear: The fear that through inaction you'll be responsible for the deaths of thousands or even millions of the Americans whose lived you were personally charged to protect. This fear ran wild the post-9/11 Bush Administration, with often-appalling consequences, but it wasn't an irrational fear - not then, and now. It doesn't excuse what was done by our government, and in our name, in prisons and detention cells around the world. But anyone who felt the way I felt after 9/11 has to reckon with the fact that what was done in our name was, in some sense, done for us - not with our knowledge, exactly, but arguably with our blessing. I didn't get what I wanted from this administration, but I think you could say with some justification that I got what I asked for.

What Douthat is essentially admitting is that he didn't see the consequences of even "torture lite" policies; how acts that sound like a particularly rough bit of hazing actually end up killing people. How a little bit of "smacky face" turns into bodies packed in ice in body bags. That he didn't quite foresee the deaths of innocents at the hands of American interrogators. That he trusted the Bush administration to run an interrogation program with some measure of restraint. What prompts the instinct towards a snarky response is that people like my co-bloggers and I (and probably you, if you're reading our blog) clearly saw that all of this was possible, railed against it when we first learned of the Bush administration's torture policies, and were roundly ridiculed and derided as being "soft" on terror, or for undermining American security, or for being soft-hearted wusses, etc., etc. 

Of course, liberals such as ourselves were not opposed to the idea because we are wusses who can't stand the thought of a poor little terrorist being bent backwards over his bunk for eight hours at a time. Undoubtadly, there are people in the world who deserve such treatment, and anyone who can bring himself to plan an operation that kills thousands of people, many in a horribly cruel manner, or plant a bomb that rips children in half, probaby falls among those ranks. But what is so infernally maddenning about the conservative mindset when it comes to torture, is that for them that's exactly where the analysis starts and stops. To the conservative proponent of torture, if you are proclaimed a terrorist by the Bush administration, well then you certainly are one. And if you are a terrorist, you are a terrorist mastermind who must necessarily understand in great detail all operational planning of Al Qaeda, including missions that will kill Americans.  And since people will naturally do anything to avoid severe discomfort or pain, you will certainly talk in great detail about what you know, giving interrogators valuable intelligence and saving lives. And because you are terrorist scum and undeserving of civilized treatment, and since fear of pain will give us the answers we want, there's no need to bother with wishy-washy interrogation techniques that constrain or civilian police forces. 

Now of course there's a logical fallacy in each one of these assumptions, all of which have certainly been discussed at length on this blog and countless others during this debate over torture. But there's a single fallacy that undergirds this entire construct of fallacies, and it is one that Douthat alludes to. Because members of the Bush administration were motivated by good intentions, they can be excused for having displayed a certain amount of recklessness and carelessness in instituting torture. Douthat, despite the sincerity of his analysis, has trouble with this point, when he says that it was a rational fear of further attacks that led the Bush administration to push for interrogation techniques that are indistinguishable from torture. No doubt there was fear of further attacks, especially in the months that followed 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. But was it fear that led the Bush administration to make no effort to distinguish between true terrorists and innocents caught up in sweep of Afghanistan that followed the invasion, many handed over as a result of bounties provided to other Afghans for turning them in? Was it fear that led them against law and reason to claim that the protections of the Geneva conventions did not apply to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, or to write in all seriousness that torture only exists when the pain it causes arises to organ failure preceding death? Was it fear that led them to ignore that rational arguments against torture provided by experts in the field of interrogation, who argued that cooperative techniques were more effective than torture of any variety? Was it fear that led them to stonewall investigations into the deaths of detainees? Was it fear of terrorism that led them to hide the torture they committed?

But to me, there's one image in particular that gives away the game.

Images of detainees who are hooded, shackled, rendered deaf and dumb to the world by blacked-out goggles and earmuffs, are iconic now, almost to the degree of the images of abuses at Abu Ghraib. As I explained in the post I wrote about that image above, the purpose of this treatment was not merely to encourage docility and psychological dependence (though it had that effect on Padilla, and certainly other detainees.) It was also an effort to wage psychological war on the detainees, to demonstrate the U.S. government's utter power over them. Intended or not, this image serves to remind us that the power theBush administration claimed was the power to take an American citizen off of the street, consign him to the hands of the military and not civilian authority, detain him indefinitely with no hope of either freedom or even a trial, and reduce him to a state of psychological imbalance (or at Gauntanamo, Bagram or Abu Ghraib, death.) Crucially, this image demonstrates that power not only to our enemies, but to us, American citizens, who by an accident of fate could find ourselves in Padilla's circumstances. 

What other nations in our history have claimed such authority? Only tyrannies and dictatorships, where it is never uncommon for citizens to disappear from the streets only to rot in jail, be found in a mas grave, or never be seen again. And not coincidentally, these are nations were torture reigns supreme. Not because it is effective at gaining intelligence, not because the leaders of these nations fear for the safety of their subjects (they only fear their for their own power and safety) but because it is an effective tool of terror that can be used against their subjects, who can be made to disappear at will. 

This of course is what people like us foresaw. Torture of any kind, least of all the kind motivated by the sort of fear that encouraged irrationality and recklessness by members of this administration, will inevitably be abused because it gives a power to men and women that can only be utilized in secret in a nation like ours because it is so shameful. That torture met an administration that claimed the power conduct nearly any act in the name of national security only made the situation worse, as the Bush administration neither desired nor claimed any legal authority to conduct such torture under anything but the flimsiest of legal rationales. But this makes the comparison to dictatorships only more apt; the Argenitinian juntas also claimed that they exercised their power to torture and kill their own citizens in the name of "national security."

I've never thought such a conclusion required any great insight or intelilgence on anyone's part, which is why posts like Douthat's are somewhat frustrating. And I certainly will never understand why it took so long for people like Douthat to at least come close to a conclusion that seemed glaringly obvious to the rest of us from the outset.

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