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Tortured Illogic

A long time ago, a guy I knew said that there almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the level of one's education and the level of one's common sense. It's a horribly overbroad generalization, but every now and then I come across something that affirms that sentiment.

Such is the case with this column by Professor Darius Rejali, published in yesterday's Boston Globe.

Professor Rejali has a new book coming out, entitled "Torture And Democracy." And his thesis seems to be this excerpt from his Globe column:

Torture isn't an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

He goes to great lengths to spell out the intertwining of democracy and torture, and his conclusion seems to be that torture is inherent in democracies.

Far be it from me to quibble with such a learned scholar as Professor Rejali of Reed College, but he comes across as an overeducated idiot, who's started with his conclusion -- that Western-style democracies are bad -- and worked backwards to justify that.

It seems to me that torture is not a trademark of democracy, but of government itself. All goverments are creatures of force -- they all use force and the threat of force to ensure its citizens/subjects/inhabitants obey the rules and laws.

Democracies differ from other forms of government in that the authorities govern by the consent of the governed, and the governed choose who governs them.

But all governments will come to the point where they need to exert force to ensure compliance by individuals, and will wish information that the individual would rather not disclose. It is inevitable, and all governments will go to lengths to extract that information.

The difference in democracies is that they are constantly exploring the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. They balance multiple factors when re-evaluating their self-imposed rules, including efficacy, humaneness, and one factor that almost never comes up in other forms of government: the acceptance of the general public should the methods become known.

And then there is the factor that democracies tend to be capitalist states as well; the two are a natural fit. And capitalistic societies tend to be far more innovative than other forms of government -- look around the world, and see just what countries are the greatest producers of patents and new technologies and intellectual property. It's the democracies, the capitalists. The Chinese are the masters of copying and making stuff cheaply, but they need original ideas to steal. The Japanese started out as copiers after World War II, but began pushing quality and innovation after they got their toehold -- I'm just old enough to remember when "Made In Japan" was shorthand for "cheap junk," but it's now an imprimatur of quality. And look at Israel -- the only functional democracy in the Middle East, pretty much the only part of the region not swimming in oil, and they are intellectual giants of the region. I don't have hard numbers at hand, but I believe they hold more patents and Nobel Prizes (in the hard sciences) than all their neighbors combined.

So therefore it should come as no great surprise that democracies are the ones who develop more new interrogation and detention techniques than other forms of government. As I said, every government needs ways of punishing people and extracting information, and democracies are no different. But they have both more restrictions and more innovative resources, so it should come as no surprise that democratic governments are constantly trying to find ways to achieve its ends while trying to live within those restrictions.

The people get upset when they hear about people killed by torture? Fine -- find some way that doesn't kill them. The people don't like scars? OK, find some ways that don't leave marks. They don't care for seeing mentally broken wrecks? Gotcha, come up with something that leaves them functional afterwards.

That's how I suspect waterboarding was developed. They found one of the most terrifying sensations a human being can feel -- drowning -- and then worked up a way to evoke that sensation without actually putting the subject's life or health at risk. It's instant terror, but a terror that can be turned on and off with a switch. And afterwards, the biggest consequence seems to be shame at how readily the subject gave up -- note how one of the three Al Qaeda leaders we waterboarded rationalized his surrender as "a vision from Allah saying it was all right for him to talk."

In other forms of government, they tend not to be so inventive about new forms of torture. The old ways work well enough for them, and should the people get uppity about the techniques, there's a simple solution -- show 'em just what torture is. A few sessions with the old, tried-and-true methods ought to still their tonges -- one way or another.

The line between interrogation and torture is not black and white, it's a gradient. As anyone who has ever raised a child or been a child, as soon as you draw a hard line, you have people trying to find ways to live up to the letter of the rule while weaseling around the spirit. And in a democracy, you can't prosecute someone for living up to the letter of the law.

I defy anyone to come up with a definition of torture that does not resort to vague, unquantifiable language. The United Nations Conventions Against Torture defines it as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

"Severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental." So slight and moderate pain and suffering are fine. And what is the definition of "severe?" Where is the line demarcating "moderate" from "severe?" There's no lever with markings like in "The Princess Bride." It's a very subjective thing, and what one person would consider annoying another would describe as intolerable.

Yes, torture is wrong. And yes, it should be illegal and punished. But to say that democracies are the worst practitioners of it, to give a pass to the brutal, totalitarian regimes of yesterday and today is the worst sort of moral relativism.

Here's the acid test: ask Professor Rejali -- or anyone else who argues like he does -- whom he would preferred to be interrogated by: agents of the United States, North Korea, Communist China, Nazi Germany, Syria, the Soviet Union, Putin's Russia, Castro's Cuba, the Taliban of Afghanistan, the medieval Catholic Church, or any other non-democracy -- past or present --
they wish.

Despite all his pages and pages of assailing democracy, I have little doubt that Professor Rejali would -- if forced to choose -- he would choose the United States.

As would I. As would any honest, sensible person, with any sense of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, that excludes a lot of people who have been howling about how horrid the United States is.


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Comments (10)

The United Nations Conventi... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

The United Nations Conventions Against Torture bases a lot of its definition on the motives of the party inflicting the torture. It seems to be fine with medical experiments as long as there's no discrimination in selecting the subjects.

Hillary laughing is torture... (Below threshold)

Hillary laughing is torture to me. Going shopping in a mall is torture to me. Stuck in a Houston traffic jam is torture to me. It is like the word racist, it has lost it's punch. ww

I think "or anyone else who... (Below threshold)

I think "or anyone else who argues like he does" applies to some members of the Senate but we'll never hear their answers to your question.

Jay, instead of trying to m... (Below threshold)

Jay, instead of trying to make a case for innovation with torture being consonant with the western democracies' innovation with everything else, why do you not question the good professor's basic premise that "In one instance after another, democracies developed new torture techniques, refined them, and then exported them to more authoritarian regimes"?

Is there some documentation for this assertion?

He claims "Chicago police used magneto torture in the 1970s and 1980s to extract confessions." He makes it sound like official police procedure, but it was in fact THREE cases involving FIVE officers:


Plus, there's this gem - "the French colonial police, the Sûreté." Which amounts to saying "The French colonial police, the Police."

Illiterate in one language... and an idiot in another.

You could also add the Baby... (Below threshold)

You could also add the Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, Huns, Vandals, Sioux, plus any number of ancient civilizations to the list of peoples whose torture techniques were much less palatable than those used by the CIA.

And similar to the case that Th_Ph noted, we should also remember that -- despite the hysterical claims of the left -- the facts indicate that the CIA has used waterboarding exactly THREE times in the last five years...not exactly a track record of routinely violating human rights.

One more thing. Describing colonial-era France as a "democracy" akin to the modern USA is a stretch that only an ignorant or dishonest person could make. I wonder which of these applies to Prof. Rejali?

Intelligence and Reed colle... (Below threshold)

Intelligence and Reed college is an oxymoron.

A long time ago, a guy I... (Below threshold)

A long time ago, a guy I knew said that there almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the level of one's education and the level of one's common sense.

FrnakJ to the rescue.

"Postoperational thought" is the term I think you were looking for.
It's a special state of stupidity that only the most intelligent can reach. To give an example, let's say there is a tree lying in one's path. If it were a simple creature approaching the tree, such as a dog, it would walk around the tree, not knowing of any other option. But, a very intelligent person in the postoperational thought stage could, using his vast intelligence, explain away the existence of the tree and walk right into it. A great intellect is required to be that dumb.

And if you RTWT, you will see a very good explanation for some of the lefties here under "Beta Liberals".

That's one of FrnakJ's better articles, cuz it's funny and it's true.

The other thing the author ... (Below threshold)

The other thing the author misses is that most of those "innovations" in torture weren't invented here...

Electricity as a scientific torture method? Argentina, 1930s.

And yes, that was an official, widely-practiced form there, as opposed to the illegal, seldom-used type in the US.

Even waterboarding isn't really new - it's just a refinement of a technique used for centuries.

The Thunder Run has linked ... (Below threshold)

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 12/18/2007 A short recon of what's out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Back in September, I wrote ... (Below threshold)

Back in September, I wrote an open letter to an interrogator with the Army.

He loses my support with two of the arguments he offers: "Torture doesn't work", and "Torture is any physical or mental coercion – any.

One comment I make regarding definitions is that his definition is quite different from the definition given in the U.S. Code. After citing it, I note:

Now this definition suffers from a problem you were trying to avoid with your definition: What do we mean by "severe"? While we're at it, how long is "prolonged", how soon is "imminent", and how profoundly is "profoundly"? Any reasonable definition, used by reasonable people in the real world is ultimately going to be a process of line-drawing. You have chosen to draw your line such that "severe" means "any", "prolonged" is "any", "profoundly" is "any", and "imminently" is "at any time in the foreseeable future". I don't think this is a useful definition.

His response in his blog has been to instruct his readers to ignore me.

I invite everyone reading to give him a few more people to ignore. The more, the merrier!






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