2008/07/04

Controversial piece in the Inky

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Satullo causes a fuss. A while back, Satullo had written a pretty annoying, pat-on-the-head type of piece where he congratulated the left for "actually" having some sensible ideas (He presented mostly warmed-over right-wing ideas), so his July 1st column, in my view, brought him "up to zero."

As of midday July 4th, that latest column garnered 480 comments and the Inquirer published a "Readers Respond" section (Only five comments so far, also at noon on the 4th).

Two points to respond to:

Anthony P. Schiavo says

But is it more honorable to allow tens, even hundreds of thousands of Americans to die rather than to twist the arm of a terrorist who knows how to stop it?

This has long since been known as an entirely theoretical point. As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it before hearing testimony on coercive interrogation techniques:

Too often those who would have us use torture or other harsh interrogation techniques say it cannot be ruled out because in the post 9/11 world, you may need to get information quickly from a suspect to save lives, or even to prevent another catastrophic attack. But as today's witnesses will make clear, this is just not so. Experienced interrogators, like 27-year veteran FBI Special Agent Jack Cloonan will tell us that this "ticking bomb" scenario is a red herring. A committed terrorist will use those situations to his advantage either to provide interrogators false information or simply to act in defiance, hoping to become a martyr. The ticking time bomb scenario is not taken seriously by experienced interrogators, and cannot and should not be used to justify illegal acts or torture.

John D. Froelich says:

It has been accepted as doctrine that aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding, stress positioning and sleep deprivation are examples of torture. But those techniques are routinely applied to our special forces during training so they are prepared for what might happen in the field. I have never read of a claim by a member of our elite military that he was subjected to torture.

I was once examined in a way that was, shall we say, left me in "a world of pain." The examination left me physically shaken for the rest of the day. It had no psychological effect on me, no nightmares, etc. Why not? Very simple. I knew that the doctor had no intention of hurting me. Hurting me was simply not the point. Hurting me was simply the unfortunate by-product of a procedure that needed to be performed. Hence, the examination was entirely different from a procedure where the person doing the procedure appears to enjoy the fact that the person suffering from the procedure is in pain.

The perceived motivation of the person inflicting the pain is extremely important to whether the pain is perceived as torture or not. I would presume, by the way, that the normal attitude on the part of the interrogators who are demanding information is one of "So, our evil al Qaeda captive feels pain, does he? Hey well, tough #$@%!" Obviously military members being trained are going to trust their "interrogators" not to take their pain any further than absolutely necessary, thereby making their experience something other than torture.

One of the common complaints I have heard from people who are frustrated that Americans are "squeamish" about torture is that "Al Qaeda does it too!" whereupon they launch into hair-raising descriptions of the tortures that these evil people inflict. But consider the words of the Plymouth Colony Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649):

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

America wasn't founded to be just another state. It wasn't a destination simply because riches could be had there. It was founded because it was meant for grander things. Of course there were evil people about at that time. My father pointed out that typical behavior by soldiers was far worse in ages past. To enter a city and to slaughter all of the inhabitants was a pretty standard operating procedure. To read of the Sack of Rome (Chapter 10 of Rome: the Biography of a City) is to understand just how horrifying it was to be a non-combatant back in the old days of the early 1500s:

...the Pope tried to come to terms with the commanders of the advancing armies, now well over 20,000 strong...They rounded upon their leaders, shouting that they would not go back until they had had their way with Rome...they continued under the nervous direction of the Duke of Bourbon who was as much the servant as the master of the undisciplined, heterogeneous force he commanded. These forces, half-starved, their ragged uniforms soaked by torrents of rain and the swirling waters of the mountain streams through which they stumbled, holding hands in gangs of thirty, drew ever nearer to Rome, excited by thoughts of plunder.

The number of Romans who died after the raiders entered was never determined. The raiders arrived thoroughly soaked and hungry and miserable and took their anger out on the city, leaving it devastated and depopulated. The barbarity of drilling holes in people's heads with hand power drills while they're still alive (Something al Qaeda likes to do) sure is awful, but that sort of barbarism is hardly unprecedented.

Barbarity is nothing new, but we can be proud of America for having decided to be something better. As the blogger emptywheel puts it:

Two hundred-some years ago, a bunch of guys fought hard to make this country special. It's our fight now, to make our country back into the leader and beacon of hope it ought to be.

There's no need to descend to al Qaeda's level.

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