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May 05, 2005

Torture? What Torture?

When I was a kid, we used to play a game called Cowboys & Indians. It worked basically like this. If you were a cowboy, you had a gun. If you were an indian, you had a tomahawk. You both had horses. The cowboys would come around to where he thought the indians were and if they could find them first, they'd use their guns. Bang Bang You're Dead. The indians on the other hand had to sneak up on the cowboys. If they were successful they got to tie the cowboy to a tree, dance around and then scalp him. It was much more fun to be the indian, because we got to tie all the knots and make the cowboy struggle. Sometimes new kids would join the game in the middle and turn things around.

Today, American children are not encouraged to play such games. Chances are that you're not going to see any kids in your neighborhood riding a bicycle and trying to lasso another kid.

I don't think there is anything particularly redeeming about learning how to hogtie a 'cowboy', but it sure was fun. Times change as do a lot of sensibilities about what is supposed to be good for children, what is supposed to be useful knowledge, what is the line between roughhousing and danger. It was not long ago when knowing how to tie a knot was considred more important than mousing skills. But there are still a lot of roughnecks among us.

I've made a literal rut in cyberspace repeating the idea that the atrocities at Abu Grhaib were not particularly atrocious to American sensibilities. I believe the soundbite was directed towards 'Fear Factor'. Basically, there are conventions on the definition of torture, because people's sensitivities vary widely. Yesterday, the judge in the Lynndie England trial agreed with me by declaring a mistrial. He says he doesn't believe that England thought she was torturing prisoners and thus her guilty plea is not legitimate.

The judge, Col. James L. Pohl, ordered the mistrial after Pvt. Charles A. Graner Jr., testifying on behalf of Private England, his former lover, portrayed their handling of a leashed prisoner as legitimate, contradicting her sworn admission of guilt and said she had acted at his request in helping to remove an obstructive prisoner from his cell.

"I was asking her as the senior person at that extraction," Private Graner said.

Clearly taken aback, Colonel Pohl broke in, lecturing the defense lawyers. "If you don't want to plead guilty, don't," he said. "But you can't plead guilty and then say you're not. Am I missing something here?"

There are all kinds of slippery slope arguments to be made here but I won't defend them. The fact of the matter is that what any international conventional definition of cruelty states, one cannot expect anyone to naturally understand that convention. Under a justice system that requires that people understand that they are in violation of a law or treaty, one could hardly expect irregulars like England to be strictly guilty, especially if she's an American who grew up watching cartoons like 'Tom & Jerry'.

This argues for prosecution at a higher level which is probably a dead end. What may be due for public review is the strict policies of interrogation. There are two problems with this. In the first place, it's water under the bridge. Abu Ghraib was extraordinary and the need for it has passed. Secondly, the cries of the outraged will not be satisfied by a policy review, and I am speaking specifically about the noise raised over the candidacy of our current Attorney General.

So where does it leave us? It leaves us in the unfortunate position of being the nation that enslaved one race of people and exterminated another. Which is exactly what we were before Abu Ghraib, and no amount of trials, mistrials or policy wonk sessions is going to change that history. Own up. We bad.

Around the Blogsophere there are other modalities of questioning torture. Tyler Cohen implies that there doesn't seem to be any way out of torture no matter what you do.

If this is the case, one must ask of torture as a weapon in war why is it more effective now than before? Well I ask that question. If you ask me whether it is morally preferable to have tortured 500 prisoners to death or to have firebombed the city of Dresden during WW2, I think I would have had to say bomb Dresden. After all that was WW2 and Dresden was the manufacturing center of the German's warmaking machine. But these tactics don't make sense in today's world. In order to avoid the firebombing of Dresden, I think you could get 500 volunteers who would fight to the death.

If fighting to the death is worse than torture then the only other question is which is worse, the killing of an innocent or the torture of an innocent? Or as Volokh has suggested, the marginal cost & value of torture when death is certain.

But I'm going down the wrong slope, because ultimately what is most important is whether or not torture can be an effective weapon. And I think that the inevitable answer is that it is a more important weapon in the context of the current American War on Terror than it has ever been before. Whether or not that weapon is used on innocents is besides the point, rather is it actually a valuable weapon. If you accept that it can be, then we owe it to ourselves and everyone concerned to see that it is used properly, and that is the scope of the moral dimension of Abu Ghraib.

There we put the weapon in the hands of amateurs and we shouldn't have. It was abused and its use was of no discernable benefit in the war effort. There's the crime.

Some will argue that there is no proper way to manage the weapon of torturous interrogation. I tend to doubt that argument. There must be many ways to get to the truth, just as there are many ways to kill the enemy. I think we must carefully weigh the forces brought to bear on the enemy and ruling out torturous interrogation is premature.

Posted by mbowen at May 5, 2005 08:45 AM

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Interesting. I wish we'd do something (if there is anything possible to do) to make up for the genocide of the natives back in the older days, and also for the enslavement of the africans and asians. Any ideas oh great Cobb? I bet you could come up with a good solution, even though it may not be possible for us to accomplish as a society.

Posted by: matt at May 5, 2005 11:24 AM

My solutions aren't popular because I'm a neocon. But they basically consist of sticking our nose into everybody's business and preventing genocides from happening around the world. GWBush calls this unilateralism, but he only has to because other nations are to chickenshit to do what America does. Basically, we're a global policeman.

The real question, I think comes down to how much American taxpayers are willing to foot the bill, and how such a policy stacks up against the national interest. I think that the current neocon definition of the the national interest is proper and appropriate to global capitalism and free markets. So there is no fundamental conflict, just a matter of political will and dollars.

There is also the matter of the threshold. I think that the Sudanese situation called for some US troops on the ground, but the OAU needed to be first. I also think that we needed to place more troops in Liberia.

Sooner or later, the US is going to have to choose a military partner for Africa.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2005 11:46 AM

The trouble with Africa is that it wasn't colonized by the USA, but by a bunch of European powers who still maintain strong economic ties with their former colonies. There are places where the French, Germans, British, and Dutch should be but aren't (well, give the French some credit -- they've put troops on the ground in Africa, if only to protect their own businessmen). And in the third of Africa which is Muslim, the US has very little standing.

As you pointed out, we are the world's policeman. Well, the police (particularly those not born and raised in the neighborhood) are never well liked.

Posted by: UncleSmrgol at May 8, 2005 12:53 AM


While you're at it, please ask Mr. Cobb to figure out some way to counterbalance the enslavement and starvation of my Scots forebears by the English, and the dastardly treatment of my Sicilian forebears when they first arrived on these shores by the Pennsylvania mine owners. By the way, no fair indicating that my Scottish ancestors were betrayed by their own into English subservience, or that my Sicilian forebears were recruited by their own greed into coming here in spite of ample indication that they would be treated as second class citizens upon their arrival.

Posted by: UncleSmrgol at May 8, 2005 01:02 AM