Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Torture Revival


Lawrence Davidson provides a short history of the earlier struggle to eliminate torture started during the Enlightenment in a fine article in the new issue of Logos. He then traces its rehabilitation by what he calls the "Realpolitik Majority."
The fact that, after September 11, 2001, polls showed that “only” around 39% of the American population was willing to endorse the torture of suspects known to have life saving information is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Beyond that tip is the willingness of a much larger percentage of people to accept the government’s general assertion that “tough interrogation,” “stress and duress,” and “fear up” techniques (all of which are official euphemisms for torture and abuse) are sometimes necessary to protect the nation...

In addition, we should be honest and admit that racism plays a significant role in the acceptance of torture when it is used against people we do not identify with. From the 18th through the 20th centuries the evolving rules of conduct that impacted the use of torture were most easily and consistently ignored when practiced against non-Europeans. This was the case in Europe’s extensive imperial holdings, as well as the abuse of non-white minorities in American jails. It is now the case with Iraqis, Afghanis, and Arabs in general.

As to those able and willing to commit torture, we must recognize that there has always been a subset of the population who actually like to abuse others and not all of them operate outside the law. The likelihood of an abuse of power is increased by the fact that those who self-select for police and military careers in which torture may become officially possible are sometimes personalities who find it easy to perform such acts. Conditions of war and crisis give such men and women license to act out in ways that, under normal circumstances, would be deemed criminal.
This rather pessimistic view is somewhat balanced by the fact that Cheney is not having a lot of success convincing people that torture should be legalized. Even former death squad coordinator, now US intelligence czar, John Negroponte apparently isn't willing to go on record supporting Cheney on this. Nor is the ethically challenged cat torturer and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Davidson's account is in any case nicely complimented by a new Frontline documentary The Torture Question which is online here in its entirety. There is a good summary and review in this week's Village Voice.

Ticky Ticky Time Bomb

Along with the documentary there is a discussion of the so called "ticking time bomb scenario", which the "Realpolitik majority" and occasionally even people on the left are so fond of citing as a justification for torture. Although some of the participants raise the right objections and for the most part reject this justification, there is a more concise and forceful response by Amnesty International on their website.

And just to add my own two cents on the issue, a key problem is that the scenario is hypothetical in at least two important senses: it has no credible historical precedent and it assumes perfect knowledge. And of course, perfect knowledge is never obtainable in the real world. So you end up potentially torturing the innocent. Look at how many people on death row were exonerated by DNA evidence for some sense of just how likely such "mistakes" might be. Or as Amnesty points out, you can just look at the evolution of Israeli torture policy.

More generally, using the most extreme unlikely hypothetical circumstances as a guide to policy can justify any atrocity or the most repressive dictatorship. The end justifies any means doesn't have a particularly good track record as a guide to policy or morality.

Torture unto others...

Moreover, the consequences of enacting a policy of torture can not be easily confined. The most obvious implication of this is that if we torture others, others will torture us in return. There are broader and less easily calculable consequences as well, since it would decisively affect the image of the country and how others are likely to respond to us in a variety of situations. Unfortunately, this is already to a certain extent a fait accompli.

The real goal of torture, if we follow the empirical method and examine the regimes that systematically practiced torture (Guatemala, El Salvador, Uzbekistan, the Catholic Church etc.), is terror and obedience, not information. And this kind of terror is a proven, albeit unstable, method of social control. It is obvious to me that that is in fact the goal of Cheney's policy.

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Also in the New Yorker this week: A Deadly Interrogation: Can the C.I.A. legally kill a prisoner?

And from FindLaw a rundown of international and domestic laws that the CIA gulags may be violating.

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