Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bybee Memo: The SERE Is O.K., Therefore Torture Is O.K. Argument

One argument in the Bybee memo goes roughly like this:

(1) An insignificant percentage of those who have undergone SERE training have experienced lasting harm

(2) Only methods that inflict lasting harm are torturous
(3) The methods used in SERE training are not torturous

(4) Our interrogation methods were all used in SERE training
(5) None of our interrogation methods were torturous

This argument struck me as implausible as soon as I read it. I heard someone on NPR today arguing that the inference is flawed because the SERE circumstances and the interrogation circumstances are dissimilar...and that the relevant dissimilarity has to do with control and lack thereof. Specifically, he argued as follows: those undergoing SERE training know that they're in control of the situation--they can stop it when they want to, and they know they won't really be harmed; but this is not true of those who are being interrogated/tortured.

My guess is that this doesn't get things quite right.

My guess, rather, is that the most important asymmetry has to do with the intentions of the agents and the character of the actions. Consider the following inference:

(1) Mary went along with her boyfriend's rape fantasy (though she herself found it unpleasant), and did not suffer lasting harm
(2) Actual rape victims do not suffer lasting harm

I take it that argument (II) is obviously absurd.

Seems to me like the most salient difference is that between:

(a) Actions which are genuinely intended to harm and dehumanize


(b) Actions which are intended to simulate harmful and dehumanizing actions.

The reason the actual cases and the simulated cases are relevantly dissimilar isn't exactly because the people in the latter are in control and those in the former aren't. Rather, it's because there's a relevant difference between (i) actually being harmed and dehumanized and (ii) willingly subjecting oneself to actions that simulate harmful and dehumanizing actions.

If this is right, then, though control (or lack thereof) is one element mixed up in this, it's not the most important one.


Blogger matthew christman said...

Have you seen this, Winston?


Ticking time bomb schmicking time bombe. These motherfuckers were torturing people to JUSTIFYING AN INVASION OF IRAQ THAT THEY WERE GOING TO DO ANYWAY!!!! That's some Soviet shit right there, committing torture to ratify a political agenda.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Haven't seen--will check it out.

But just want to make it clear that I'm perfectly clear on the fact that there were no ticking-time bomb scenarios involved.

My position, in brief:

1. Torture is justified in what I think of as "strong" ticking time-bomb scenarios (where there's knowledge of guilt, all other methods have been tried, etc.).

2. STTB scenarios never happen.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Montag said...

i think the difference is in what the person believes about the situation, not in the perpetrator's intent. so if mary believes she is acting out a fantasy and she can stop it at any time, she is less likely to be suffer harm, even if the boyfriend lied about his intent to play fair.

but what if things get out of hand? the boyfriend gets carried away, gets too rough, and he doesn't stop when mary says so. mary's belief about the situation changes and she suffers harm.

so maybe it's a matter of control after all(?) (the difference between the person believing they are in control and the person actually being in control.)

this in a sense gives credence to Rove's admonition that by releasing the memos and revealing the interrogators' intent "all of these techniques have now been ruined."

[my position in brief: i abhor coercion and dehumanization, and though these things may be justified in a 'ticking bomb' case, it isn't right that they be codified as legitimate instruments of state power.]

2:09 PM  
Anonymous Montag said...

more along these lines: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2009/04/learned-helplessness.html

3:26 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home