Monday, April 20, 2009

Would You Have "Walled" A Terrorism Suspect?
A Wee Quiz

So say it's fairly soon after 9/11--we'll leave that vague. Conventional wisdom is that "it's just a matter of time" before another such attack occurs. Somehow you end up a part of the team interrogating a suspect who you've been assured is an important al Qaeda operative. You're assured by reliable sources that he knows more than he's telling. And you're informed that government lawyers have concluded that it's permissible--and non-torturous--to shove him into a wall...a specially-designed wall that's guaranteed not to seriously harm him.

The question, of course is: do you shove the guy?

What I'm sort of wondering is: how many people can give a negative answer with something like certainty.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well that's the point, isn't it. Ordinary people shouldn't be doing interogations, since they'll let their own generalized anger and hamfistedness control the way they proceed and be knocking teeth out within a half hour. Common sense, and the darker elements of human nature, say that twisting arms is the best way of learning something that someone doesn't want to tell you. But its not true. From what I understand of the KSM case, the only useful information that was gotten from him came out of being interogated by FBI agents, people trained to behave contrary to the way an orginary person would. You or I would want to exercise some vague idea of revenge upon the man, but they palled around with him, building raport. I doubt any of these FBI agents actually liked the man. They made as if to be his friend because decades of expirience with gangsters, spies, psychopaths and other tough nuts proved that it was the most effective way of getting to the truth. They put aside their normal human urges and went with the counterintuitive, scientific practice.

Of course, it was the FBI that was removed from this process early on. The entire torture episode illustrates many of the awful things about the Bush administration: the sadism, the secrecy, the ass-covering. But in addition, it represents the Bush people's abiding contempt for any kind of expertise, especially when it didn't conform to the easiest, 10-second-thought, "common sense" answer. Criminology, like climatology, was one more set of inconvenient facts to be set aside.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, I anticipated your general point, A, tho your understanding here is clearer than mine.

I think that, in the end, those are the most salient points. But the point of asking the question was to try to establish a kind of baseline for thinking about this. Sometimes I get the feeling some on the left are thinking "only monsters would do these things!"...whereas I think reasonable people might be led to do them.

But the big point in response, I think, is your point: yeah, and that's why ordinary people shouldn't be involved in this sort of thing.

3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that was the point, though of course we are all to some degree ordinary. The irony of the "some on the left" that you allude to is that their attitude expresses exactly the same kind of normal human urges that make torture look like a good idea. I read the Bybee memo, and my first desire is to put on a brocade coat and hang Justice Bybee from the yardarm. But that is not the right thing to do. If reasonable people could be counted on to do the right thing without the help of a great giant formalism, there would be little point to criminology, the law, or liberal democracy.

The administration was not stocked with monsters, but mostly ordinary people. This only adds to the urgency of investigation, justice, and reform in the light of the torture. If it took monsters, then we might rely upon their rarity to guard against a repeat of this evil. But, since anyone, placed in the role of creating secret law for a secret army in service of a "unitary executive" is likely to bahave this way, we have got to eliminate this role, with structural reforms. And as for Bybee and his ilk, they must be punished, not for our gratification as non-monsters, but to deter the future ordinary people who will find themselves in positions similar to theirs.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

WS closes the post with:
What I'm sort of wondering is: how many people can give a negative answer with something like certainty.I think the Milgram Experiment is sufficient to answer WS's question.

For a typical person we can expect that they would start by lightly shoving the captive against the wall, and, as the desired answers were not forthcoming, they would use more and more force up to and beyond the point of causing serious pain and injury.

Anon. has summed it up well in saying:
And as for Bybee and his ilk, they must be punished, not for our gratification as non-monsters, but to deter the future ordinary people who will find themselves in positions similar to theirs.A start is to sign the petition at Think Progress asking the House Judiciary committee to recommend impeaching Jay Bybee.

Check to see if your congresscritter is on the committee here.

BTW, WS, the Virginia delegation for the committee includes Reps. Boucher, Scott, Goodlatte, and Forbes, If any of them are yours, then write or call them as an Independent constituent and tell them that Jay Bybee is not fit to be a judge in the US.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Would I have 'walled' a terrorism suspect? I don't know. Maybe. Based on all available evidence, such as the Milgram experiment which Jim alluded to, as well as the Zimbardo prison experiment, I'd say there's a good chance I would have, if the chain of command and superiors were complete hacks like Bybee, Addington, Yoo et al.

I also answered a similar question in another forum, like this (sorry for the long post):

""Please consider the possibility that the President was weighing national security against the legal and moral implications and that - just maybe - he did not begin from all of the same assumptions that you begin with."

my response ------>

If that was the case, then not only did he disregard the oath he took upon assuming office:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

but he also failed in his constitutional duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed (such as the Convention against Torture).

Also, what many are losing sight of is the difference between personal moral agency and the function of employees of the government. Those employees all take a similar oath to that of the president, which is an oath to uphold the consititution. They owe no similar moral duty to my family that I do.

So while the question of what I would do if confronted with some kind of one-in-a-million situation that for example Mr. Evans refers to, where I could save my family by committing torture, I suspect I'd probably torture. But if I did it would be because I believed that I owed such a moral obligation to my family.

But even in that case, I would also have no reason to expect legal immunity or even leniency. Seeking legal protection strips the entire exercise and justification of its moral profundity. Either you think your moral justification trumps the law or you don't. Having official and legal approval doesn't make your action a morally trenchant decision, it makes it following orders.

There is no evidence of a similar moral duty owed to citizens by employees of our government. They may believe it is so; but that does not make it so. They are acting in their capacity as our employees. If we wish to empower them with that ability, we should undo all of the laws on the books forbidding such behavior and withdraw from all treaties that do so as well.

People may attempt to graft that moral obligation to MY family onto our servants in government, but that merely represents an attempt to win by visceral reaction, rather than logic. Yes, I would probably HOPE that some random interrogator would save my family by torturing a suspect, yet I have no legitimate reason for expecting it. In this respect the analogy to WW II Germany is apt: a German interrogator may have been able to morally justify torturing a captive in an effort to save his family (say by gaining information about a planned bombing raid in Dresden), but he should not expect to escape legal liability at Nuremberg.

As far as the practical results of torture, I would say that the use of torture could result in increase peril to our troops in battle because opposing combatants who thought they might be tortured would be more apt to fight to the death rather than surrender. There was a good reason why the understood rule among German soldiers in WW II was to run west not east if they found themselves behind enemy lines or separated from their unit.

Finally, also from a practical point of view, I would ask that people examine the case of Ahmed Ressam, the captured millenium bombing plotter:

A sample:

"Ahmed Ressam became a terrorist turncoat.

On May 10, 2001, FBI Agent Fred Humphries questioned Ressam, the first of dozens of interviews. The information was invaluable — and terrifying. He explained how he was recruited in Montreal and funneled into the bin Laden camps. He talked in detail about training with Taliban-supplied weapons. He informed on Abu Zubaydah, Abu Doha and other top al-Qaida operatives. He provided the names of jihad fighters he had met in the camps. He revealed that he had contemplated blowing up an FBI office and the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C....

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam's solitude has been broken by a stream of visitors, often FBI agents such as Fred Humphries, but also investigators from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

With federal public defender Jo Ann Oliver at his side, he is told names and shown photographs of suspected terrorists and asked if he knows them.

On several occasions, Ressam has been flown to New York City for similar questioning. There, he is held in a detention center just blocks from Ground Zero.

Ressam did not recognize any of the 19 suicide hijackers from Sept. 11. But he was able to identify student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui of Minneapolis, now in U.S. custody, as a trainee from Osama bin Laden's Khalden camp.

Ressam informed on Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian who was the brains and money behind Ressam's Los Angeles airport plot. He identified Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran the Khalden camp, and Abu Sulieman, who taught bomb-making at the Darunta camp.

Most importantly, Ressam named the previously little-known Abu Zubaydah as a top aide to bin Laden. That helped smash the notion that Zubaydah, also now in U.S. custody, was little more than a travel agent for terrorist wannabes making their way to the al-Qaida camps.

Ressam is expected to testify at the trials of these and other suspected terrorists.

So it is that Ahmed Ressam — the boy who loved to fish in the Mediterranean, the teenager who loved to dance at discothèques, the young man who tried and failed to get into college, who connected with fanatical Muslims in Montreal, who learned to kill in bin Laden's camps, who plotted to massacre American citizens — has become one of the U.S. government's most valuable weapons in the war against terror...

Ressam's information was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world _ in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to blow up aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001"

11:25 PM  

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