2005/01/13

Further thoughts on torture's usefulness

How to Interrogate Terrorists
First off, let's look at what's obviously a PR problem.

Nevertheless, Bush-administration critics seized on the [Abu Ghraib] scandal as proof that prisoner “torture” had become routine. A master narrative—call it the “torture narrative”—sprang up: the government’s 2002 decision to deny Geneva-convention status to al-Qaida fighters

It's quite impossible for a competing narrative to spring up if the official narrative is believable and widely known. If the government offers the public a credible explanation that accounts for all of the known facts, I find it quite difficult to believe that a competing narrative can spring up.
Of course, the Whitewater case from the Clinton years is an instance where a false narrative, a collection of unsubstantiated accusations, ultimately proved completely groundless. The distinction in this case is that the Whitewater accusations were driven by the Republican Party and a whole network of radio talk show hosts, the Washington Times, sympathetic newscasters and other media sources. Today, the Republican Party also counts Fox News as a close media ally. The Democrats and other liberals in today's media have Air America, the Internet (With political commentary dominated by blogs) and well...that's pretty much it. The rest of the media consists of news sources that are dedicated to serving as delivery vehicles for advertisements, much the same way that a cigarette serves as a delivery vehicle for tobacco smoke. Their objective is not to push a particular political agenda, but to provide reasonably credible (or at least credible-sounding) news that entice people to check out the advertisements while they're catching up on the latest developments.

No matter. The Pentagon’s reaction to the scandal was swift and sweeping. It stripped interrogators not just of stress options but of traditional techniques long regarded as uncontroversial as well. Red tape now entangles the interrogation process, and detainees know that their adversaries’ hands are tied.

Sounds very comforting, but how are we to verify this? Do we have sources among the Iraqi people that can vouch for these developments? Obviously Iyad Allawi will vouch for the Americans as he was appointed by Americans, but how about an authority Iraqis might trust? Has the Ayatollah Sistani or Moqtada al-Sadr appointed anyone to check on how detainees are being treated?
Had the military undertaken the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo openly, letting the American People in on their plans, their assurances today that the abuses have ended might be credible. Again, this is an obvious PR problem. If the Bush Administration were seriously interested in providing credible assurances, we would not still be hearing about "ghost" detainees, the CIA would have opened its files and would make its personnel available for interviews, etc.
Now, why would detainees need to be questioned? The article says:

The interrogation debate first broke out on the frigid plains of Afghanistan. Marines and other special forces would dump planeloads of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners into a ramshackle detention facility outside the Kandahar airport; waiting interrogators were then supposed to extract information to be fed immediately back into the battlefield—whether a particular mountain pass was booby-trapped, say, or where an arms cache lay.

Thinking back to my readings on the American Civil War, I don't remember anyone depending on prisoner interrogations to determine what lay ahead. Reconnaissance was carried out by fast-moving cavalry or lightly-armed infantry. In World War II, the light tanks and jeeps did that. In Vietnam, someone "took point" and walked well ahead of the main unit so that the point man would hit the booby-trap first and thereby warn those who were following behind. Getting recon info by interrogating prisoners strikes me as a "nice thing to have" as opposed to a "critical necessity".

The article complains that the detainees from Afghanistan and later Iraq were "not playing by the army rule book." They were trained to resist interrogation and knew that the Americans were limited in how roughly they could treat their detainees. My problem with using force in response to that is that information voluntarily given is by far the best and most reliable and most comprehensive you're ever going to get. I'm told that conservative bloggers like to bring up cases like, say, "suppose there was a bomb inside a safe, you knew the bomb was about to go off, you knew that you had a prisoner who knew the combination to the safe, wouldn't you torture the prisoner for the information so that the bomb wouldn't take out half the city block?" People have noticed, however, that these cases are always hypothetical. None of the people who ask this sort of question ever bring up a real case. That's because there's never been a real case to use as an example of how torture has to be allowed. So the questions then become: "Why do we need to torture these people?" "Do these people have worthwhile information that they're hiding from us?" "If we torture them, will the loss to America in terms of moral stature be gainfully balanced by the information we obtain?" The article presents no evidence that such questions were ever asked, let alone answered.

Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and intelligence officials in Washington kept pressing for information, however.

It's not clear from this statement what, exactly, these officials were looking for. Yes, you need information in order to fight a guerrilla or Fourth Generation conflict, but such information is best gained by seeing to it that the civilian population is well-disposed towards the occupation. This favorable disposition is best obtained through ordinary politics, being honest and upfront with the civilians (as opposed to the people actually carrying guns and setting mines), providing public works programs, providing basic law & order, fixing up infrastructure like power plants, roads, railways, water supplies, etc.

President Bush had declared in February 2002 that al-Qaida members fell wholly outside the [Geneva] [C]onventions and that Taliban prisoners would not receive prisoner-of-war status—without which they, too, would not be covered by the Geneva rules.

For any nation to arbitrarily and unilaterally declare where the law does and does not apply means that the law is a dead letter. You might as well have a group of teenagers declare a section of their school to be a smoking zone, where they can light up whenever they please. You might as well have a group of people decide that the local bank has too much money and that they don't have enough. Where does the President get the authority to discard the Geneva Conventions? As was pointed out by LiberalOasis, he doesn't. The questioning of Alberto Gonzales makes it clear that he and Bush think Bush has the power to discard the Geneva Conventions like a used tissue paper.

The author says that treating enemy soldiers with humanity and decency depends on reciprocity. Do unto others as they do unto you. As "Terrorists flout every civilized norm animating the conventions.", there of course can be no thought of reciprocating by treating captured enemies with any semblance of humanity. The theory on this in economic terms is known as the "race to the bottom".
My Irish history professor back in college described this race in the following way: "Someone might bid to work a certain parcel of land and promise to deliver 20 bushels of potatoes for the privilege. Say the parcel is enough to produce 100 bushels in all and the person needs 20 to survive and sells the rest. Well, the land is getting scarce and there's plenty of competition. So when that person loses the land for whatever reason and someone else bids for the land, the next person faces those who will pay 25 bushels for the privilege. Eventually, people are offering 80 bushels for the privilege of working the land and now they have to start cutting into their own subsistence to compete. When the number of bushels nationwide got down to about 10 per person, in other words, when everyone was on a starvation diet, that's when rebellions began to break out."
For the United States to demand reciprocity, for it to take the view that "we'll only treat them as well as they treat us" is to put the whole world on a race to the bottom, where the way we all treat captured enemies will just continue to slide downwards.

The original reference to this story read that this article was the best torture-defense article that the blogger had seen. Color me deeply unimpressed.

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