Monday, May 18, 2009

America's Opinion On Torture

Waterboarding in the Middle Ages, where it belongs

When I first read this post by Jane Hamsher Saturday, I must admit my heart sank a little [unless otherwise noted, all links that appear in article quotes are from the original articles]:

These words from Digby sent chills straight down my spine, because she's right:

The argument against torture is slipping away from us. In fact, I'm getting the sinking feeling that it's over. What was once taboo is now publicly acknowledged as completely acceptable by many people. Indeed, disapproval of torture is now being characterized as a strictly partisan issue, like welfare reform or taxes.

If you oppose torture and share that despair, watch Kagro X (David Waldman of CongressMatters) on and he'll be your hero, too.

I Oppose Torture, and Kagro X Is My Hero

While David Waldman has certainly been courageous in arguing against torture, there are people who have to summon even more courage in order to be against it. One such person is a National Guard Lieutenant Colonel who is quoted by Thomas Ricks in Foreign Policy magazine:

So you must wonder, by what authority is this letter writer speaking? Well, as a Lieutenant Colonel and Combat Arms Battalion Commander in the Army I am responsible for the welfare, training, good order, and discipline of my soldiers. I am responsible for everything they do or fail to do. I am also responsible to follow and issue only those orders that are legal, ethical and moral. Torture of another human being is illegal, unethical and immoral, and I would be duty bound to disobey any such order...just as PFC Lynndie England and SPC Charles Graner (and their many counterparts, senior officers and NCOs at Abu Ghraib) should have done...just as any of my soldiers should disobey should I give such an order. We all have the lessons of Nuremburg to rely upon anytime such questions come to mind; "I was just following orders" is never justification for committing crimes against other human beings.

Before deploying to Iraq last year, I explained these things to my troopers. It is difficult to explain to young (practically) kids, with little experience, and poor knowledge of the world...but if you are caring and committed, and repeat yourself often enough they learn and understand. I told them the most important thing they needed to take away from all their preparations was that while it would be terrible to lose one of them or have one of them seriously physically injured, it would be worse to have them come home physically well and mentally broken because they had somehow lost their humanity. Torture destroys our humanity, and any equivocation (feel free to exercise the Kantian absolutist vs utilitarian argument to your heart's content) on the matter is just bullshit.

Torture: A National Guard officer responds to Krauthammer

While I can't be entirely certain that this anonymous LTC is who he says he is, I've been around enough current and former Army officers to see the resemblance between the way he writes and the way they talk. Ricks isn't normally in the habit of making stuff up, either. There are obvious reasons why this person would want to remain anonymous. While I'm always skeptical of anonymous sources, this one strikes me as believable.

If you wonder why I say that the quote reads as genuine, here's what a former Special Forces colonel, Patrick Lang, wrote on the subject not too long ago:

"I was ordered to..." has been a a discredited and unacceptable basis for a defense in war crimes trial since the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg. "Things were tough..." is an equally discredited defense.

What are we saying? Is it our position that international law applies to eveyone but us and that it does not apply to us because we are "special?"

Are we that childish?

Nuremberg And American Exceptionalism

Here's a quote from another article about waterboarding:

Waterboarding is worse than a crime. It is stupid. (That was a quiz. 10 points for recognizing the quote) As [SERE trainer Malcolm] Nance says in the article, when you are being drowned, you will say anything, anything, anything.... Surely that should lead to the conclusion that, at the very least, it is useless to waterboard people. Useless, unless you happen to be a sadist who just likes doing things like that without regard to rational thinking. People like me are given to rational thinking and moderation in action. That's what the word "professional" implies. Waterboarding should not be something that the United states allows, EVER.

In extremis, I might do something really beastly to someone to satisfy the needs of the "ticking bomb" fantasy scenario, but it would not be waterboarding, and I would want to know that it was not legal.

Waterboarding Is Torture

Lang's military experience includes both Vietnam and the Gulf War. He's certainly seen enough of war to have a considered opinion on the usefulness and morality of torture.

But how do most of us feel on the subject? Is Digby right, have we already lost the debate? A Gallup poll that was reported in last Sunday's USA Today implies that we haven't:

Even as Americans struggle with two wars and an economy in tatters, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds majorities in favor of investigating some of the thorniest unfinished business from the Bush administration: Whether its tactics in the "war on terror" broke the law.

Close to two-thirds of those surveyed said there should be investigations into allegations that the Bush team used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects and its program of wiretapping U.S. citizens without getting warrants. Almost four in 10 favor criminal investigations and about a quarter want investigations without criminal charges. One-third said they want nothing to be done.

Even more people want action on alleged attempts by the Bush team to use the Justice Department for political purposes. Four in 10 favored a criminal probe, three in 10 an independent panel, and 25% neither.

Poll: Most Want Inquiry Into Anti-terror Tactics

Considering that at the end of his presidency George W. Bush still had a 25 percent approval rating, I'd call this an overwhelming majority who want investigations. There are clearly people who don't have the capacity to think about things like this or to disagree with the commentators on Fox, and most of them are likely in that 34 percent who don't want to know.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald sums the situation up pretty well:

This happens all the time in our political debates. Rather than argue the substance of the issue, there is this virtually compulsive need to assert -- with no evidence -- that "the American people" believes a certain way and that anyone who believes otherwise is fringe and isolated. There's just no denying the fact that, as evidence of the depth of our national crimes continues to emerge, there is increased attention across the political spectrum being paid to these issues. In today's New York Times alone, Frank Rich lays out the case for why investigations are critically necessary, and Maureen Dowd -- in an uncharacteristically cogent and substantive column -- ends with this:

I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.

If [the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy group, some of whose members apparently don't support investigations] wants to have its representatives arguing against torture investigations, that's its prerogative, but it really shouldn't be making claims about what the "American people" and especially Democrats believe when those claims are so clearly false.

Distorting Public Opinion on Torture Investigations

As many bloggers have noted over the past couple of years, it's astonishing that a "balanced" debate on torture includes a "torture is good" side. If it were up to me, the debate would be between whether torture was merely a completely useless exercise, or an ethically repugnant practice in civilized society. That this is not the sort of debate we see is an example of how distorted the issue has become.

It certainly doesn't help that most news outlets refuse to call what we've done torture. As Glenn pointed out recently, this has become so absurd that a recent issue of the New York Times included an obituary for an American veteran of the Korean war who was tortured that referred to his treatment as torture. Yet, barely a week earlier, an editorial appeared in that same paper justifying the use of "brutal" to describe our torture practices, in lieu of "harsh". A Los Angeles Times article I quoted recently about whether Nancy Pelosi was aware of the CIA's use of waterboarding, never once mentioned the word "torture", even in a sentence that went "some critics call this torture". Reading fluff like this, it's amazing that Americans have any idea what's going on.

I think many Americans are just waking up to what's been going on in their names in the last few years. Even many of us who suspected that the Bush Administration was torturing suspects to justify the invasion of Iraq have only recently had our suspicions confirmed. While I'm not a whole lot more optimistic than Jane Hamsher about whether this will ever lead to concrete action on the part of our government, I think it's at least a possibility. And I really, really wish that progressives would stop trying to give President Van Pelt a pass when it comes to doing things he'd rather not do.

Why do I want to see us repudiate torture, even though it means recrimination and, possibly, yet another division in our society? I think the reason is summed up in the quote that Jane began her article with:

"Defending torture insistently means one's moral compass is pointing straight down to hell." -- Bacaccio

We can't remain a civilized society and countenance such behavior. If our survival as a nation or a species is ever at stake, I suspect torture will happen. Even then, it must be treated not as behavior to be emulated or copied, but as something that will inevitably have consequences for the perpetrator. What the use of torture should never be is accepted practice. There is no virtue in it. There is only the loss of our humanity. If we refuse to accept that notion, we will be vastly diminished as a people, and our influence in the civilized world will wane. We can't afford any of those consequences.

Nothing that torture has ever gotten us is worth that cost.


Igor said...

Old Russian saying...You can tell same lie 1000 time(Ms.Pelosi) but not change truth!

Difference between USSR Communist media and USA "mainstream media"

In Russia government make media say what they want - even if lie.
In USA "mainstream media" try make government what they want - even if lie..
.....eventually they become same thing?!

I Igor produce Obama Birth Certificate at

Cujo359 said...

Old American saying - you're more full of shit than a Christmas turkey. Pelosi's version of events is supported by the facts. More important, it's not contradicted by them. The same cannot be said for the CIA's version of events.

If you're going to accuse people of lying, you had better improve your critical thinking skills.