Saturday, October 27, 2007

Calling a Waterboard a Waterboard

As I've said in the past, my position on torture:

1. It is permissible in principle
(In fact, in certain "ticking time-bomb" cases, it is obligatory)

2. It is very rarely permissible in actual practice
(clean, clear, ticking time-bomb type cases rarely if ever actually occur)

Here are some of my major objections to the current administration's policies:

A. They seem not merely willing but almost downright eager to torture.

B. They falsely believe that there is something morally superior about sending people to other countries to be tortured rather than torturing them ourselves. (In fact, if anything, it's probably worse to hire someone else to do one's dirty work. )

C. They refuse to call a waterboard a waterboard and admit that what we are doing is torture.

We're obviously--and sadly--not going to make any fast progress on A or B. But we ought to insist on honesty with regard to C. If we're going to do it, we should call it what it is. Cripes, I'd almost be happier about an outright lie. All this Gonzalesian/Yooian bullshit about simulating death and organ failure is sickening. Calling it what it ain't is just another way to circumvent democracy by controlling the flow of information. If the somnambulant American public endorses the policy, that's one thing. But if they're impeded from understanding the policy by a terminological smokescreen...well, that's a different kind of problem. And one we might be able to solve just by relentlessly insisting on honesty in this matter.


The United States of America tortures some of its prisoners.

That's the fact. So there damn well better be the equivalent of a ticking time-bomb somewhere.


Blogger Joe the Blogger said...

I don't want this post to be misunderstood as a defense of the administration. I'm just honestly puzzled by torture and the moral issues it raises. There are at least two problems I have in discussing torture:

(1) when is tortue morally allowed, if ever?

(2) what constitutes torture?

Now there are some clear cases of torture, as well as some clear cases (I agree with WS here) where torture would be justified: ticking time-bomb cases. But let's put those easy ones aside.

Apart from my own views about what constitutes torture, one thing lends administration critics some cred on the question of whether the US is itself torturing people: John McCain thinks that waterboarding constitutes torture and since he is doing his fellow Republicans no favors (and himself no favors as he's in a primary) I think that provides some compelling evidence that this is not just a partisan attack on Bush.

However, I still think that the boundaries about what constitutes torture are unclear. I'd like to say that any use of painful coercion to elicit a response out of someone is torture, but then I wonder whether playing loud music all night for several nights constitutes torture. That seems like it would be extremely uncomfortable and I'd say it is even painful, but does it rise to the level of pain to be torture? What about slapping someone around? Does the threshold of pain matter at all to what constitutes torture? Is there such a thing as "low-level" torture, and would that be justified in cases that do not rise to the ticking-bomb type cases?

Torture, like a lot of concepts, is fuzzy at the edges, but we can all recognize the clear cases--I won't go into detail. The administration seems to be slyly playing on this conceptual obscurity in the notion of torture to push coercion as far as they can go. Whether they are justified in doing so depends on a lot of factors, so it's not clear to me what the answer is to the question: is the CIA justified in using practices like waterboarding? I'm inclined to think that waterboarding is torture, and a pretty serious form of it. Whether it was justified in the case of some high value terrorists is another matter.

As for the practice of rendition and sending people to the torture chambers of Egypt, Syria and Pakistan: these practices clearly seem to be beyond the pale. They could only be justified in ticking time-bomb cases.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

My guess---and it's just a guess---is that they've stopped waterboarding because of the opposition to it, but think it's useful for terror suspects to believe it's still a possibility.

There have been a number of quotes out there by various officials that leave me with that impression.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Punning Pundit said...

I seem to recall having read (within the last few years) the the Israelis did a study of torture, and found that even if you allow for "ticking time bomb" scenarios, it inevitably led to "whenever it seems like a good idea".

I feel that if we want to allow for torture at all, we should allow the punishment (for the torturer) to be directly proportional to the quality of information. If you save a city, you go to club fed for 2 years. Send our boys and girls off on a wild goose chase (this happens a lot from the info we get at Gitmo), and you get solitary for the rest of your life...

If the above is incoherent, I apologize. NyQuil is nice and all but...

8:13 PM  
Blogger John Callender said...

The "ticking-bomb scenario" presupposes, of course, that you actually have the person in hand who has the information that will allow you to defuse the ticking bomb. Much of the time, you will have someone in hand who you aren't _sure_ has information on the ticking bomb, but you think he _might_ have it. So, do you get to torture that guy?

As near as I can read the leaks about what the Bush team has done, their answer is "yeah, as long as you stay within the boundaries of what a hand-picked lawyer who falls outside the boundaries of mainstream legal opinion and whose findings are not subject to review is willing to certify as 'legal'."

And this turns out to be problematic, because what it leads to is hundreds of people who _might_ know something being subjected to low-grade torture of the sort that some of those commenting here seem way too glib about distinguishing from the nasty, quick variety. And the only reason, really, that you engage in that sort of thing is because you want to extract certain pieces of information from the target _regardless of whether the extracted information is true_, and to do so in a manner that allows you to maintain that you haven't engaged in the sort of coercive questioning that leaves evidence of physical trauma. That's why the people from whom we learned these techniques (the Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War) used it: to generate ostensibly uncoerced "confessions" from downed US airmen, so they could use them for propaganda purposes.

The US military uses "SERE" training to try to prepare airmen to undergo that sort of questioning. But at least until recently, we haven't used it to question suspected bad guys ourselves (at least, not in a wholesale manner). But the Bush team (and I'm pretty sure we're talking about Cheney, specifically, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11) changed that.

Truth isn't something the Bush team values very highly. They have, after all, spent much of the time since 2000 focused on selling the falsehood that Bush is competent to be president. They pick the policy they want, then sell it based on a twisted, cherry-picked version of the truth. And within the limited context of that agenda, low-grade torture works great. It lets them produce the information that higher-ups in the chain of command are demanding ("we have to find those al Qaeda plotters and uncover their plots!" "we have to find out who's behind the insurgency in Iraq!"). True, it also loses them much of their ability to extract what their victims actually know, as distinct from what they believe their questioners want to hear. But again, that's only problematic for someone interested in learning the actual truth, as distinct from arriving at a predetermined answer.

I'm not saying that the ticking-bomb scenario is completely mythical. But to argue that torture is sometimes acceptable because of it, and that people of the moral and ethical stature of the average politician are qualified to use it, is to display ignorance about the slipperiness of that particular slope.

I think it's the same sort of ignorance that led Winston to support the notion of war -- and again, not hypothetical war, but real war as carried out under the direction of real politicians of the average sort -- as an appropriate solution to the problem represented by circa-2002 Saddam Hussein.

It might be unfair for me to assert that, given my own ignorance about what his thinking consists of. I only know what I've read on this blog. But what I've read leads me to believe that he's being wrong now about torture in the same way he was wrong early on about the invasion of Iraq. It's not that it's at least potentially a good idea, even if this particular crop of bozos turn out to be incapable of pursuing it in a manner that leads to benefits outweighing the costs. It's that it's a demonstrably bad idea, but one that, for whatever reasons in terms of his personal background or emotional inclination or whatever, he's willing to go out of his way to find a justification for.

Yeah, Saddam did lots of evil, horrible things. The 9/11 hijackers, and the people who planned their operation and put them in position to carry it out, did evil, horrible things. There are other people out there right now who would like to do more evil, horrible things like that, and we have an obligation to use appropriate means in an effort to prevent those evils from happening.

It's natural to feel an emotional inclination to deal with those evils directly and forcefully. But as a practical matter, approaches like the US invasion of Iraq, or the Bush administration's willingness to use coercive interrogation techniques and deny legal protections to suspected terrorists, are really crappy approaches to those problems. They might solve the immediate concern (Saddam is, after all, gone, and we have, after all, extracted lots of confessions from terror suspects via coercive means), but only at a cost that turns out to be very much not worth it.

6:10 AM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

So there damn well better be the equivalent of a ticking time-bomb somewhere.

This is the Bushist rationale. They assume, not implausibly, that there must be a ticking bomb somewhere, and they thereby justify torture anywhere.

At least, WS, I'd like to see you tighten this up, since I know you're not agreeing with Duhbya on this.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Reading comprehension, anyone?

My support for the war was of an on-again-off-again variety, not based on ignorance, and gone completely months before the invasion.

Both JBC and LL:
Read again. I in no way support Bush or actual torture about. What I say is very clear, and I've said it before: torture is permissible (in fact, obligatory) under certain conditions that may never actually have been instantiated in the real world.

The last sentence was a way of saying "This isn't justified," as I think it's pretty clear that there's no ticking time-bomb anywhere.

Though I do have to say, I'm not shedding any tears over the torture of principles force me to extend the protections afforded to actual human beings to that guy as well, even if I'm not happy about it.

2:49 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

I know you're not agreeing with Duhbya on this.

Bad form to quote myself, but...

6:11 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Note to self:
Reading comprehension: very important...

6:59 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

In fairness to you, I was reacting to only one line of a much longer post that was pretty clear.

8:43 PM  
Blogger John Callender said...

Hm. So, Winston, you acknowledge originally supporting the Iraq war. You acknowledge changing your views on that. You don't say so here, but I believe you've previously explained that your change of heart came about because you became aware of facts that you hadn't previously been aware of.

Help me out in terms of reading comprehension: How is that distinguishable from your previous position having been based on ignorance?

I agree with 95% of what you're saying here. But I think the 5% that remains is important enough to point out.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, I don't really have a big stake in fighting this battle, and am actually perfectly willing to concede error here.

But I just don't think that support for the invasion in the early days had to be based on ignorance. I was one of those folks who had been stewing since Gulf War Episode I about having left Saddam in power. I knew that the administration was full of shit, but thought that any way of taking out Saddam was a good way...and that this was likely to be the only way to get these guys ever to use American power in a way that--intentionally or not--would have a genuinely humanitarian result.

One reason why I bristled at your claim is that--as I've said many times--I actually think that my ultimate reason for becoming anti-invasion is a very weird--and possibly indefensible--kind of reason. That is, I just hit my mendacity threshold and could no longer support a war based on such obvious lies.

But the orthodox position is that it's not rational to disagree with a conclusion if you think there are good reasons for it, even if someone else is accepting it for bad reasons. So this makes my decision to switch difficult to defend.

In the end, it may have been some kind of gut-level thing...but I've also thought that I switched because I thought that the price to American democracy was too high. That is, that it was important to make a stand against dishonesty and demagoguery for the good of the country (now and in the future)and,hence, the good of the world...even though I still thought that taking out Saddam would be good.

Of course it was obvious by that time that the case for WMDs was cooked (though I, like others, thought he had bio/chem weapons just because he USED to have 'em), but I didn't care much about that stuff. I just wanted the tyrant out.

And, since all that work on reconstruction had been done by the Future of Iraq Project...well, I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would just all be ignored.

So, anyway, I actually think that my reasons were at least as good as those of the average staunch, from-the-git-go war opponent.

But, as always, I could be wrong.

9:04 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

"But the orthodox position is that it's not rational to disagree with a conclusion if you think there are good reasons for it, even if someone else is accepting it for bad reasons. So this makes my decision to switch difficult to defend."

I think you're applying this rationale incorrectly to your situation. Sure, you might be pro-invasion for good reasons, and therefore, you don't disagree with the conclusion to invade. Rather, you disagree with invasion under the premises that Bush has laid out.

You just have to specify correctly what it is that you disagree with. You would indeed be behaving irrationally if you were pro-invasion and then Bush gave a crapton of bad reasons to invade and you became anti-invasion. That would be irrational. However, if you became anti-invasion-under-Bush's-reasoning, then that wouldn't make your behavior irrational. In fact, I would think that one is obliged to take that stance in order to prevent horrible reasoning from being accepted, with potentially dangerous precedents set for the future.

The ends do not necessarily justify the means, and when it is the case that they don't, you have to say something, even if the ends are those you support. Sometimes contesting the means is perfectly reasonable, and in this case, I think it is.

So, in short, I think you're applying that rationale incorrectly to your position, which is not that you think invasion shouldn't happen, but rather that it shouldn't happen because of the reasoning employed by the Bush administration. This is perfectly reasonable because, as I said, when the ends don't justify the means, you must stand up against the means so that the ends might be acheived with the proper means.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

you must stand up against the means so that the ends might be acheived with the proper means.

That assumes it's always possible. But it's not, which is why we have dilemmas.

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've posted this passage here before, but it seems particularly apt with regard to the discussion between Winston and jbc, as it summarizes, in my view, why even the BEST case for the Iraq War (the humanitarian one, which the Bushies threw in as an afterthought when the obviously bogus WMD *blew up in their face*) wasn't sufficient. It was actually written thirty years ago:

"To set prudence and justice so radically at odds, however, is to misconstrue the argument for justice. A state contemplating intervention or counter-intervention will for prudential reasons weigh the dangers to itself, but it must also, AND FOR MORAL REASONS, weigh the dangers its action will impose on the people it is designed to benefit and on all other people who may be affected. An intervention is not just if it subjects third parties to terrible risks: the subjection cancels the justice."
(emphasis his)

--- Michael Walzer, JUST AND UNJUST WARS, p. 95.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That's a great quote and a great point, Anonymous.

I hope you'll keep posting it when appropriate until it sinks in!

9:38 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Depending on which numbers you trust (ha!) the innocents killed by Bill Clinton's sanctions are comparable to those in the actual war. Add in the hundreds of thousands murdered by Saddam, and the scales tip decisively.

Yes, there are worse things than war, Virginia.

Walzer was a product of the Vietnam era, and his quote here is quite a propos---we were indeed destroying the country to save it. (Of course it could fairly be said that it was the Viet Cong who were destroying it, but in this proposition, we discount the actual bad guys.)

Of course, freedom is not part of Walzer's calculus---was the Korean War worth it? Nearly as bloody as Vietnam, but we managed a draw in that one. Today, South Koreans live in peace and prosperity, whereas in the north, over a million innocents have starved to death.

So in Walzer's moral calculus, I suppose we should have kept starving Iraqi women and children, and let Saddam coninue to butcher thousands a year with no end in sight.

It's the civilized way to go about things, as you'll recall the quite reasonable Anan Seven arguing. Clean, quiet, environmentally friendly.

(In another article, Walzer admits that Old Europe had made a joke of the sanctions regime, to his credit, altho he doesn't follow through in letting it affect his moral calculus, because apparently he doesn't believe there's anything worse than war. I disagree.)

4:15 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yes, but we weren't really talking about numbers of deaths, but, rather, about the intentions of the actors.

Clinton managed what he did despite being fought tooth-and-nail every inch of the way by the GOP.

Bush got a blank check from the Dems and still screwed up far worse.

So there's that.

Also: current number of bodies doesn't tell the whole story. Bush made the world a vastly worse place than it was before his war. We'll be feeling the repercu...

Oh, why bother? We're not really having a discussion, are we?

6:05 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Not really. You're judging the intentions of the actors, which is OK if you want to moralize. I find it an insufficient basis for inquiry, as you will never know what's in a man's heart.

But you argued the results side of the thing, too, so it seems you can have it both ways, where I can have it neither.

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Tom Van Dyke,

I'm going to assume you haven't read Walzer's books, and thus are not in a good position to comment on his moral calculus.

I'm going to make this assumption because Vietnam represented one section of one chapter in one of the books. He deals with myriad wars, including the Pelopennesian, Punic, World War I, World War II, Korea (which he approves of, incidentally), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and many others.

Vietnam in particular is a complicated case, and if the South had permitted the election which was supposed to take place in 1956, the war might never have happened. But I'm not going to re-fight the Vietnam War with you...

Walzer is a serious thinker, and as I read his writing I got the feeling that it was a genuine and thoughtful effort to deal with the difficult issues involved with war. YMMV.

As to the more salient case of Iraq, yes, there are some things worse than war, but life in Iraq prior to the war was not one of them.

And though it's difficult sometimes to unpack intentions and outcomes, there are certain facts which undermine the case that Bush's invasion was in any sense humanitarian or in any sense necessary.

There is no evidence that the Bush administration sought to narrow the sanctions to military-specific restrictions, as Elizabeth Holtzmann had argued for in vain years ago. I get the impression that the sanctions were designed to squeeze the Iraqi people into implementation of our favored policy of regime change. I can't think of another reason why no effort was ever made to change the sanctions. That regime change in another nation should be our official policy is anathema, and a point I'll deal with later.

There is also no evidence that the Bush administration sought indictment of Saddam Hussein on war crimes or crimes against humanity, thus setting the stage for a fate such as that which befell Taylor and Milosevic, both of whose deposals had a substantial international imprimatur of legitimacy. Of course, this option had the unfortunate complication of complicity in Saddam's crimes by past and present members of the US administration. It also wasn't macho and sufficiently example-setting for those with a hard-on for war.

And autonomy and sovereignty are important collective rights which should only be violated in the most extreme emergencies. If the subjects of a dictator or autocrat decide that armed resistance is justified to throw off their yoke, that is their business (c.f. Palavi, Ceaucescu, Marcos, Pinochet, Suharto, Amin - all of whom I think you'll agree were brutal rulers). There may be justification for aiding armed resistance already under way once it's been demonstrated that it represents the popular will of the people, but that was not the case in Iraq. Incidentally, Walzer deals intricately with this type of case in one of his books.

So while we can't judge the intentions of Bush solely by the outcome of his decisions, disastrous as they are, we can see that he was hell-bent on war and occupation without having tried less severe alternatives to help the Iraqi people of depose Saddam Hussein. Hell, Hussein even offered to step down for a cool $1 billion before the invasion, and Bush plowed right the hell ahead anyway. Wow, that looks like a bargain right now.

The final point is only incidental in the discussion of an altruistic impulse for humanitarian intervention, but it is important nonetheless. Governments' first responsibility is the well-being of their own citizens. And I don't think that any reasonable person could argue with the fact that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a disaster for the US and its interests (numerous deaths both Iraqi and American, trillions of dollars down a rathole, our reputation in tatters, a broken army, loss of traction in Afghanistan etc.). Being faithful to his own responsibility to consider our own welfare first does not mean we are completely cold-hearted and selfish, as was part of Walzer's point. Only reductive logic run amok could result in the conclusion that not intervening in every situation where people are oppressed = not giving a shit about those oppressed people.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

As a courtesy, I read up on Walzer. No, I haven't read his books, but neither did I just start typing away.

Yes, I agree he's a serious thinker, not a mere polemicist. However, I disagree with him.

No point in getting into Iraq, after all this time and at the bottom of a comments section. All I can say is that I can't speak for Bush's heart, but for mine. If Saddam isn't an unrepentant butcher, I don't support the invasion, all other factors being the same.

As for alternatives to war, it was Bill Clinton's sanctions that did the killing of innocents. By the time Bush arrived on the scene, Old Europe had already made a joke of them, and that doesn't even count Oil For Food.

Bush may be fairly criticized for not foreseeing that Iraq would turn out more bloody than he thought; however it's that very miscalculation that spares him from your moral condemnation. He thought it would be easy, and the prospect of more murderous sanctions and Saddam's own butchery would end.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush may be fairly criticized for not foreseeing that Iraq would turn out more bloody than he thought; however it's that very miscalculation that spares him from your moral condemnation.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush could be spared the consequentialist judgment he deserves if he could point to something, ANYTHING, concretely, that was done to provide for the well-being of Iraqis after the invasion. An invasion for which HE bears the responsibility. Not *Old Europe*, which tried to warn him away from the foolhardiness of taking on the responsibility for 25 million people which invasion and occupation entailed. Talk is cheap, except to some apparently.

12:02 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home