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More on torture

Yesterday, I wrote a pretty lengthy piece about torture, in response to a typically asshatted column by Glenn Greenwald (or, perhaps, ghost-written by "Rick Ellensberg," "Ellison," "Thomas Ellers," or "Ryan," or some new pseudonym) on torture and its role in the War on Terror. It prompted a lot of discussion -- a lot of heat, but some light. For example, I said that US interrogators had "developed" the waterboarding technique, when I should have said "refined" -- it's actually an old method, but updated to greatly reduce the risk of physical harm.

But one of the points raised in the comments was by Wizbang Blue author Paul Hamilton, and I think it needs fully addressing:

Torture is wrong. Period. And when you start parsing the definition, you're tacitly admitting that.

A seemingly-unassailable moral principle. But as they say, the devil is in the details.

The problem is that "wrong" has no real meaning in a legal sense. "Right" and "wrong" don't mean a damned thing in a courtroom -- and let's face it, that's where these sorts of disputes almost always end up. They are replaced with "legal" and "illegal."

And those terms need absolute definitions. The law must be a black and white matter, a purely binary equation. It is simply unreasonable and untenable to say that "torture" is illegal without spelling out what "torture" is -- and, more importantly, what it is not.

Otherwise, we tell our interrogators -- government employees acting as agents for the American people -- to "do what you need to get information from these people, but don't torture them. But we won't say whether what you do is torture until after you do it, and then it'll be in a court room when you're on trial for it."

Torture is like "obscenity" -- something everyone condemns, but no one really wants to define. (And for similar reasons.) No one wants to be a censor, no one wants to stifle the freedom of speech and expression, but hardly anyone wants to go into detail into just where the boundary of obscenity lies. Instead, we use vague platitudes such as "community standards" and "I know it when I see it," and force those who flirt with that nebulous definition to perpetually walk through minefields.

If we expect our interrogators to carry out their duties while staying within the law, we owe them clear, precise guidelines -- especially when the penalties for violating those laws is so severe. So yes, we do need to "parse" the precise definition if we're going to be holding people to legal penalties -- including lengthy terms in prison -- to "interrogate and extract information, but not torture."


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Comments (40)

Torture as a form of punish... (Below threshold)
goddessoftheclassroom:

Torture as a form of punishment is wrong and should be illegal.

Techniques that do not usually result in permanent physical harm adminsitered to extract information should not be illegal. It's not torture.

Noticed I don't include "emotional" and do include "permanent." Getting information is paramount.

I want our country to fight on the enemy's terms. Yes, I'd rather be merciful and generous, but not when that makes us weaker and ends up costing more more blood and treasure.

This is a war.

"This is a war"...... (Below threshold)
JLawson:

"This is a war"...

That seems to be lost on a lot of people...

J.

The problem is that the def... (Below threshold)

The problem is that the definition of torture has been..tortured. These days, what happened at Abu Ghraib is considered "torture" and the left thinks what happened there is the worst of them all.

It's probably why I personally don't trust 99% of the left when it comes to national security

These idiots don't realize ... (Below threshold)
kim:

These idiots don't realize that culture is plastic and neural tissue, not.
===========================

Torture is a word that has ... (Below threshold)
WildWillie:

Torture is a word that has lost it punch to me. It is deminished by the frequent usage. Torture, racism, bigot and sexual harrassment are just a few that have been thrown around so much that they are more white noise then words. ww

My definition of torture is... (Below threshold)
kindlingman:

My definition of torture is simple: Can you do it to your Aunt's cat without being arrested?
When we permit tactics on people that are illegal if performed on animals, that may qualify as torture.

But I am not as upset about torture as I am the indiscriminate use of torture. OR perhaps I should say the organized,systemic, and applied use of torture without discrimination.

Torture should not be front page news but in the backroom and infrequent.

Let's make it that way.

You're right J. Permissible... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

You're right J. Permissible treatment and interrogation methods must be defined. The lefties are more concerned about the welfare of our enemies than our own people. I become more convinced every day that Ann Coulter's Treason was right on the mark.

Waterboarding gets most of the attention, but I think the following treatments, among others, should be permitted and/or considered outside the realm of "torture":

Sleep deprivation, cold rooms, no clothes, loud noise, use of dogs to intimidate, lying to manipulate, "koran abuse" or other religious manipulation or humiliation, and "firing into a barrel." The last item underscores the need for built-in flexibility. Intimidation is not torture.

Why should we send the message to our enemies that they should not fear interrogation because leftists have made it impossible to do it effectively?

It is pathetic how the left... (Below threshold)
drjohn:

It is pathetic how the left believes that if we only treat jihadists nicely, they'll treat American GI's nicely too.

Our treatment of jihadists ought to a be one of reciprocity.

Simple.

I do not have the soul of a... (Below threshold)
donnie:

I do not have the soul of a jihadist. We are better. Simple.

Well I'm no lefty, but if I... (Below threshold)

Well I'm no lefty, but if I were to define the word "torture," I'd have to stop somewhere short of "permanent disfigurement."

Bu tthen, I wouldn't apply the "no torture" rule to these people either.

As long as the dog doesn't ... (Below threshold)
Allen:

As long as the dog doesn't bit the person, who cares? The do gooders think by being nice to the terrorist, they in turn will be nice to us. What a CROCK OF BS that is. Wars are won by being meaner than the enemy is, simple.

The terrorists sure cared about innocent people when they explode their bombs, or crash planes into buildings. If the methods being used gets us the information we need, DO IT! It just might save your or one of your loved ones life.

What about the tourture end... (Below threshold)
spurwing plover:

What about the tourture endured by the POWs in vietnam has this ever flowed onto greenwalds thick skul full of mush?

kindlingman: "Can you do... (Below threshold)
Justrand:

kindlingman: "Can you do it to your Aunt's cat without being arrested?"

There a LOT of things I could do to your Aunt's cat without being arrested. Not that I WOULD, mind you! :)

p.s. your Aunt's cat would look pretty silly with a pair of panties on its head!

hmmm...can we do things to ... (Below threshold)

hmmm...can we do things to terrorists that we DO do to cats? Can we rub their noses in their poop?

Oyster:Kindlingman... (Below threshold)

Oyster:

Kindlingman's question has me wondering: can we "fix" the terrorists?

J.

I'd rather be safe than "ri... (Below threshold)
TR19667:

I'd rather be safe than "right"

I wonder if flying planes into buildings was "wrong"

or

Sawing off Nick Berg's head was "wrong"

or

ambushing, killing, burning, and hanging the bodies of 4 contractors from a bridge was "wrong".

Being naive will get us all killed.

TR19667, its not even being... (Below threshold)
Robert:

TR19667, its not even being naive. It's flat out being STUPID.

Thanks, Jay. I was hoping ... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

Thanks, Jay. I was hoping I'd get a response but I didn't know my little comment would rate a whole new entry. :)

And I realize that "wrong" has no legal meaning, but it does have a moral meaning and that was the point I was trying to raise. The US can either attempt to trample other nations into submission, which would include the use of torture, or we can lead by example.

When we first invaded Iraq, we made a couple particularly bad symbolic mistakes. The first is that we set up our headquarters in one of Saddam's old palaces. And we moved right into Abu Graib, which was one of the most hated symbols of Saddam's repression. We told the Iraqi people we were there to make a change, but then we emulated the worst aspects of the old dictator's rule. It's no wonder that the optimism about our occupation faded almost before it began.

And then there were the photos from Abu Graib. Maybe they were isolated incidents involving rogue soldiers, or maybe they weren't, but they clearly resonated very badly with the Iraqi people. Why should they support this new regime when it was no better than the old one? This is why our actions against the prisoners served us so badly. When the word got out, the damage they caused to popular support far outweighed any gain we made in intel -- we CAUSED more terrorism than we prevented.

Here's the real test: If we are doing something to our prisoners which would outrage you if it were something the enemy did to OUR prisoners, then we are just as morally wrong as they would be.

Torture is more than just "intelligence gathering," it's the belief that human beings are nothing more than means to an end, and it's permissible to do whatever you want to achieve your goals. And one of the classic definitions of evil is dehumanization. The Nazis dehumanized the Jews and had no moral qualms about killing millions of them. Stalin's purges and systematic starvation killed tens of millions, but he did it to maintain political power. Mao did the same thing in the "Cultural Revolution." And yes, Saddam did it to both the Kurds and the Shia during his reign.

And make no mistake, a LITTLE wrongdoing, is still wrong. I've seen people attempt to justify what we've done by saying we're not as bad as Hitler, or Stalin or Mao or Saddam, but think about that for a minute. If you have to justify our deeds by comparing them against the greatest villains of history, that's pretty faint praise...

And you are correct that we need clear legal definitions as to the proper treatment of prisoners. (And I might add here that we don't need to be parsing the definition of THAT word, either. If we capture and confine them, they are prisoners and the clothes on their backs don't change a thing.) It's called the Geneva Conventions, and we are a signatory to that agreement, as are every civilized nation on the planet. They have been the standard of treatment for prisoners for decades and have served humanity well.

But now this administration has decided they are "quaint," or some such insult because they don't want to follow the rules. Like others before them, they've decided that prisoners aren't so much human beings deserving of respect as they are means to an end, and thus "whatever it takes" is the only standard they follow.

That's wrong.

It's wrong for us to torture -- as defined by the Geneva Conventions -- and it's wrong for us to fly prisoners to places who have no respect for international law to be tortured. It's a fact that information gained by torture is notoriously unreliable, so any benefit is questionable at best.

But worst of all, it sets the United States down a road from which it may be impossible to return. Once our reputation as the world's leader for right is shattered, it will be nearly impossible to get it back.

So it's not just warm and fuzzy -- there are many good reasons why torture is just plain wrong.

Clarification:I sa... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

Clarification:

I said:
Here's the real test: If we are doing something to our prisoners which would outrage you if it were something the enemy did to OUR prisoners, then we are just as morally wrong as they would be.

But that, what I meant was that if we are doing something to the prisoners we hold that would outrage you if it were done to Americans held by our enemies, then we are just as wrong as they would be.

Pronoun trouble... :)

Holding prisoners outrages ... (Below threshold)

Holding prisoners outrages me.

Seriously, Paul. Locking people up is inhumane. Even if they are treated well, warm, fed, unharmed... being locked up is really horrible.

I think that Abu Ghraib was "worse" than other things that we've done, despite the panty-frat house antics because it had no purpose other than a couple of perverts getting off on it. It was meanness for meanness' sake.

As it is... if the enemy treated their prisoners as well as we treat ours I'd be *thrilled* and several young men would be alive and healthy who are now dead or tortured to death and defiled.

The standard, in fact, is such that I'm *happy* (and this is just a sickening thought) I'm *happy* if it seems that all they did was beat our boys bloody and then shoot them in the head. What a better death and what a horrific thing that I'm *happy* that maybe they didn't have their genitals cut off while they were alive and stuffed in their mouths before their head was sawed off with a dull knife. God what mercy is a bullet!

So I've little patience with the idea that discomfort, manipulation or even stark fear, applied for the purpose of interrogation (and not punishment or confessions or perverts getting off on it) is so horrible that we have to don hair shirts and ashes, scourging ourselves in the street for how horrible we are.

I think sometimes that people refuse to see that we *have* the high ground on this because it feels so much more... immediate and vital to be "bad."

Like slumming or something.

Nobody's arguing that the e... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

Nobody's arguing that the enemy are good guys. Terror is their MO, and that includes torture, but our standards of treating prisoners must not be defined by an evil enemy.

Nobody's arguing that the e... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Nobody's arguing that the enemy are good guys. Terror is their MO, and that includes torture, but our standards of treating prisoners must not be defined by an evil enemy.
-------------------------------------------------
Using the same logic, our culture shouldn't be defined by abortion, esp partial birth abortion.

Abortion is wrong. Period. And when you start parsing the definition, you're tacitly admitting that.

Couldn't help the the similar logic in both cases.

Sometimes an abortion is a ... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

Sometimes an abortion is a medical necessity to save the life of the woman, but torture is never "necessary" by that definition. Furthermore I don't support partial-birth abortion because it's taking the life of a living person (as defined by a functioning brain in the unborn child) without medical necessity. If you perform the procedure to do the abortion, you could just as easily, and with no more harm to the woman, simply deliver the child and let it live.

But I don't really want to drag this thread off topic.

Paul,I got turned ... (Below threshold)
Heralder:

Paul,

I got turned around and posted this to you in yesterday's thread, but I'm going to repost it here since it's a more current discussion.

Torture is wrong. Period. And when you start parsing the definition, you're tacitly admitting that.

On the contrary, that's exactly what needs to be done...the parsing that is.

The best analogy I can think of is this:

Calling both a slingshot and a howitzer artillery.

While they both fire projectiles, only the howizter is artillery.

I want to ask this question because I am curious. Given your stance on the subject, how would you recommend getting vital information from a terrorist who refuses to give it to you?

Like others before them, they've decided that prisoners aren't so much human beings deserving of respect as they are means to an end, and thus "whatever it takes" is the only standard they follow.

Like it or not...the reality of the situation is that these people have valuable information. That information can be used to save lives. While you're busy respecting terrorists as human beings, remember their would-be victims. This directly ties into the question I posed to you above.

And I might add here that we don't need to be parsing the definition of THAT word, either. If we capture and confine them, they are prisoners and the clothes on their backs don't change a thing.

What does the Geneva Convention say about out of uniform fighters? I think they're referred to as 'non-combatants'.

It's a fact that information gained by torture is notoriously unreliable, so any benefit is questionable at best.

No Paul, a confession obtained through torture is unreliable. We're not seeking confessions, we're seeking information. We don't ask yes or no questions, otherwise there really wouldn't be a point.

Once our reputation as the world's leader for right is shattered, it will be nearly impossible to get it back.

We haven't had that reputation since WWII, I think you're a little behind the times. You may be getting confused with our view of ourselves. Sure there have been brief periods where a few less people hated us, but it hasn't been this violent, sudden and recent flucuation as you seem to think. I believe this misconception stems from the feeling that we actually had global goodwill to squander after 911, which by in large, we did not.

Paul Hamilton at J... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton at June 4, 2007 03:21 PM

Isn't that post, by definition, "parsing the definition"?

CAIRO, Egypt - Al-... (Below threshold)
Heralder:
CAIRO, Egypt - Al-Qaida linked insurgents killed three American soldiers after capturing them last month in Iraq, according to a militant video released Monday...

This is why I have a hard time feeling morally wrong by making people like this feel uncomfortable to get information from them.

Oh, and a "militant video"...wtf?

Paul cavalierly discounted ... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Paul cavalierly discounted the situation where trrops captured enemy combatants that planned mines and bombs to kill their fellow soldiers. So these combatants had to spill the info or these soldiers will have to kill them (to avoid torture them). How about the nuke terrorism case, where you can save millions of people?

And Eric is right. Paul is parsing the definition. It is always interesting to see liberals pronouncing absolute standard on torture etc... at the same time trying to parse on abortion.

Sometimes an abortion is a ... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Sometimes an abortion is a medical necessity to save the life of the woman
------------------------------------------------
So abortion is only justified when the mother 's life is endangered. So the liberal policy of abortion-on-demand for reasons beyond this has morally degraded our culture. Again, our culture shouldn't be defined by the liberal abortion policy, which is morally "evil, according to Paul's logic.

Heralder:>>On the co... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

Heralder:
>>On the contrary, that's exactly what needs to be done...the parsing that is.

I think we should use the Geneva Conventions' definitions of what is and is not acceptable. IMHO, we've gone beyond what is acceptable by those standards but then said, "Well, it's not poking out eyeballs, so it's not really torture." You can keep moving those goalposts just about forever because terrorists will always use despicable tactics and we cannot just keep lowering ourselves according to their actions.

>>Like it or not...the reality of the situation is that these people have valuable information.

And yet torture is about the most unreliable means there is of getting information. Sure, you can get a person to say just about anything if you are coercive enough, but how do you tell what is really true and what is just him talking to get you to stop what you are doing?

>>What does the Geneva Convention say about out of uniform fighters? I think they're referred to as 'non-combatants'.

Hence a real problem with this new form of warfare. But it's a fact that while terrorists do not wear uniforms, they most certtainly ARE combatants. We should recognize their true status, not their clothing.

>>We haven't had that reputation since WWII, I think you're a little behind the times.

That's a little more cynical than I'd believe. We converted Germany and Japan not because we trampled them under our boots, but because America was a great example, especially when those nations had seen the results of dictatorship up close and personal. That's why I believe we made such a terrible mistake when we emulated Saddam so closely after our invasion of Iraq. And I believe that the majority of the world still admires the principles which are supposed to define America and why I hate to see them ignored.

LoveAmericaImmigrant said:<... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

LoveAmericaImmigrant said:
>>So the liberal policy of abortion-on-demand for reasons beyond this has morally degraded our culture.

Yes, it has. If the fetus has the characteristics of a living human being -- and I use brain waves to define that -- then abortion does indeed cheapen society's value of human life.

Yes, it has. If the fetus h... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Yes, it has. If the fetus has the characteristics of a living human being -- and I use brain waves to define that -- then abortion does indeed cheapen society's value of human life.
-------------------------------------------------
Is this parsing? Why not a unique DNA structure at birth? Shouldn't we veer on side of safety here using your logic?

Sure, you can get a person ... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Sure, you can get a person to say just about anything if you are coercive enough, but how do you tell what is really true and what is just him talking to get you to stop what you are doing?
-------------------------------------------------
Very simple in the battlefield. Take our soldiers to where the land mines or bombs are and we can check out the truth of their information!

How about the nuke terrorism case where milions of lives can be saved?

Yes, it has. If the fetus h... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Yes, it has. If the fetus has the characteristics of a living human being -- and I use brain waves to define that -- then abortion does indeed cheapen society's value of human life.
-------------------------------------------------
Is this parsing? Why not a unique DNA structure at CONCEPTION? Shouldn't we veer on side of safety here using your logic?
Still abortion is not justified except in the case of endangered mother 's life?

An eye for an eye. They to... (Below threshold)
LenS:

An eye for an eye. They torture their enemies. So clearly we need to return the favor. In addition, since this is a war and you win wars by killing or breaking your enemies, then we need to be hurting them on a scale they can't handle. When they are either dead or have rejected Islam for civilized beliefs, then we can treat them with dignity as human beings. Until then, they are barbaric animals, worthy of no mercy.

Or we can continue to dither until we are dead or converted.

LAI said:>>How about... (Below threshold)
Paul Hamilton:

LAI said:
>>How about the nuke terrorism case where milions of lives can be saved?

For starters it's unlikely in the extreme that a terrorist group could develop a nuclear device capable of killing millions. Even if they did, it's also unlikely in the extreme that it would come down to one person's word to stop it.

Regarding the other issue, as I said, I don't want to drag this thread off topic.

For starters it's unlikely ... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

For starters it's unlikely in the extreme that a terrorist group could develop a nuclear device capable of killing millions. Even if they did, it's also unlikely in the extreme that it would come down to one person's word to stop it.

Regarding the other issue, as I said, I don't want to drag this thread off topic.
--------------------------------------------------
Still the parallel in logic between the two cases is instructive. In one case, it seems that you are willing to let millions of people be killed to avoid "torture". In the other case, it seems that you are trying to parse in order to justify abortion even when the mother 's life is not in danger.

This is an inconsistent logic at best. That 's all. Again, I am just pointing out that liberal policy on abortion is "morally evil" using your logic. Again, using your logic again, I wonder why liberals want to emulate so closely the abortion policy of Hitler 's Germany or communist China and Soviet Union.

"If we expect our interr... (Below threshold)
Is our children learning?:

"If we expect our interrogators to carry out their duties while staying within the law, we owe them clear, precise guidelines -- especially when the penalties for violating those laws is so severe." Jay Tea

Here is a fine example of just what you are calling for, Jay. Once upon a time it was called "Verschärfte Vernehmung,"before it was renamed as "enhanced interrogation."

Thought there was some familiar stench to the way you think.

Thought there was some fami... (Below threshold)
LoveAmerica Immigrant:

Thought there was some familiar stench to the way you think.
-------------------------------------------------
Well known exaggeration by Andrew Sullivan. Just wonder when the liberals will condemn AlQ days in and out instead of the cheap rhetoric of knowing that they are evil to sweep them under the rug. Sorry I will treat liberals as liars until they keep condeming AlQ publicly and loudly for several years.

Again, using your logic about Gestapo, I wonder why liberals want to emulate so closely the abortion policy of Hitler 's Germany or communist China and Soviet Union.

"like slumming or something... (Below threshold)
kim:

"like slumming or something". Oh, Synova, what an insight.
===================================

Folks, the Geneva Conventio... (Below threshold)
kim:

Folks, the Geneva Convention is a 'gentleman's agreement', by old, now dead, white men, at that, who had the power to see that everyone played by the rules.

When there is assymetry, and no rules, we must get control over our side of the interface, and acquisition of time sensitive intelligence has classicly been the rationale for continuing to confront the opposing soldier with his mortality after he can no longer confront you with yours. If we do not have a decision tree, with accountability, then water-boarding will be improvised in the field against opponents without rules.

The perfect foil to perfect American power:

When the opposing fighter knows he will be waterboarded, fed, and housed if captured, he will enter battle easily.

The American fighter, knowing he will be tortured to the ennuyance of his captors, then killed, will enter battle most cautiously.

Thereby keeping American power in a fundamentally defensive posture, as it should be.
=======================




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