Godwin’s Law, you say? I don’t think so. Andrew Sullivan points out prior use of the term “Enhanced Interrogation”, promoted not only by the malevolent thickheads of the Bush administration but by most of the Republican candidates for President; prior use, that is, by the Gestapo. Meanwhile Dick Cheney argues that the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution are tools for terrorists. Has the American right wing completely lost its mind? I even had to unsubscribe from Instapundit; I thought I ought to keep in touch with one articulate camera-loving righty, but there was one too many waves of nausea provoked by his “Al-Qaeda tortures much worse than we do and the Mainstream Media ignores it” whining. I had come to think, in mid-life, that while I will never really be conservative, there are smart honorable people on that side who have good points to make. That may be true outside the United States, but in the American context, near as I can tell, at the moment “conservative” means “pro-torture” which means “scum”.

On the other hand, it appears that there is some honor left, and of course, the chances are that American democracy will function as intended and this particular spasm of ugliness will pass. The trouble is that my children’s generation will probably still be explaining to the rest of the world that most of us, you know, feel torture is stupid and evil.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dalibor Topic (May 31 2007, at 23:34)

I'll believe in a regime change in the USA when I see it.


From: Mark (Jun 01 2007, at 00:07)

Of course the problem is is that there is no commonly agreed upon, relatively precise definition of "torture," and the concept seems to be something of a moving target these days. Does it extend to sleep deprivation, for instance? In the not too distant past, most people wouldn't have included that. Now many do.

In a business context, two parties to a deal invariably have different starting assumptions about concepts and terminology. This is dealt with in the process of negotiating a detailed contract and its attachments, where differences surface and are worked through.

In the political realm, something like the ever growing, amorphous meaning of "torture" never gets resolved, so people are speaking at cross purposes.

As for the Geneva Convention, it might be useful for you to write a blog post about it, citing details of the Convention (I assume you've read it, the 4th Convention). It does take a certain degree of creativity to apply it to the present day. I get visions of the old TV show Hogan's Heroes every time I read it.

The underlying assumptions of the 4th Convention seem to be (1) conflict happens in the form of wars, (2) between soverign nations, (3) over geographical territory, (4) where nations have clear leaders, (5) who mostly have control over their citizens so they can make commitments and keep them, (6) who fight in wars that one can reasonably be assumed will last a finite period of time between 1 and 10 years, (7) where many practical methods of intelligence gathering exist besides interrogation, mostly due to the geographical nature of the combatants, (8) where each side mutually and equally is concerned about the fate of the prisoners of war held by the other side and will thus behave in a manner to prevent their harm.

These assumptions don't apply to terrorism. That doesn't mean the who idea of a Geneva Convention should be thrown out, but there does need to be some rethinking, and calling people Nazis doesn't promote an environment where that can take place.


From: Tim Bray (Jun 01 2007, at 00:22)

Hey Mark: the things that are happening under the supervision of United States employees at various points around the world clearly constitute "torture" by any sane definition, and your suggestions that little more than sleep deprivation is involved, or that there is any ambiguity in the moral issues around it, are unsupported by the facts and, in this context, despicable.

Torturing people is wrong under any circumstances and really that's all there is to say about it.


From: David Magda (Jun 01 2007, at 04:42)

Jerry Pournelle is someone who tends to the right that I find still makes a lot of sense. He was against the entrance in Iraq in the first place, arguing that the US should keep to its Republic roots. He has read history and has learned many lessons from it. It's unfortunate that few others in the US Administration have read Tacitus.


From: Martin Probst (Jun 01 2007, at 05:20)

There is a clear and precise definition of torture in many constitutions, e.g. the European Bill of Rights. In German, it says:

"Niemand darf der Folter oder unmenschlicher oder erniedrigender Strafe oder Behandlung ausgesetzt werden."

which translates to

"Nobody may be made subject to torture or inhumane or humiliating punishment or treatment".

Sleep deprivation is a horrible kind of torture, it just doesn't sound as bad. The concept of a leading politician of a democratic state who's trying to defend water torture, suffocation etc. as acceptable behaviour is way beyond something I can understand.

By the way, the above definition also includes bags over your head, undressing prisoners, tying people to the ground etc. And I do think it's right on that.


From: Brian (Jun 01 2007, at 05:42)

Please don't confuse conservative with republican and especially not with the current president and current republican candidates. Conservatives aren't very happy with any of the above people at the moment, they just aren't jumping up and down and insisting that Bush is a criminal mastermind.

"Meanwhile Dick Cheney argues that the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Constitution are tools for terrorists."

What??? If you read what he says again, I'm sure you can see that he is saying that terrorists who don't want a democratic republic and don't care about fighting in uniform still want to be protected when captured.

Sad to see otherwise dignified tech bloggers jumping on the anti-conservative hyperbole bandwagon.


From: Blake Winton (Jun 01 2007, at 06:31)

And more importantly (if you're cynical), torture doesn't work.



From: Stan (Jun 01 2007, at 08:49)

This reminds me ... Why do we get upset when the administration won't let their folks testify before congress under oath? Waterboarding is legal, no? Surely it's far more effective than swearing on a book. Let's use it!


From: Rob (Jun 01 2007, at 12:34)

Tim may be a dinified tech-blogger, but I'm not. I'm a not so dignified human rights blogger. I've spent the last 20 years in refugee work, and yes, have had the acquaintance of a good many folks who had been tortured. And were dealing with the after-effects. Which can be terrible to see.

The biggest problem, aside from the logical absurdity of torture, is that you can't be sure that the person you are torturing isn't innocent. Very often they are.

The other point is that the US has been engaging in torture by proxy for a very long time now, this is nothing new, the only new things is that American government employees are getting their own hands dirty. Trained (School of the Americas) & supported by the US, the torturers were active in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc. over 30 years ago, and have been busy all over the world ever since.

The purpose of torture, actually, is not to extract information, for which it is a logically and factually useless technique, but to terrorize civilians that may oppose you. Plain and simple.


From: Andrew Phoenix (Jun 01 2007, at 13:37)

Up above it is mentioned that the concept of torture is a "moving target" and that it is hard to nail down what it is. I think it's actually pretty easy to know what torture is, and I'm not going to go out of my way to explain it. It's when we start talking about what constitutes torture in a semantic way that this sort of discussion becomes distressing; when we argue about sleep-deprivation and whether it's torture, what we're really arguing about is whether we're allowed to use sleep deprivation as an interrogation technique. That's mildly despicable.

Also, we should think back to our days at the schoolyard. Do you remember when the schoolyard bully would walk up and hoist your arm up behind your back? Do you remember what they'd do? They'd say, "Now say, 'I eat my own boogers.'" or somesuch, and eventually you would do it just to make them stop. When so many of us have so much anecdotal evidence, is it really reasonable to think that we should use these techniques on other people and that they work any better just because we're older?


From: Mark Pilgrim (Jun 01 2007, at 19:16)

No discussion of torture is complete without a link to Arthur Silber's "On Torture" series: http://thesacredmoment.blogspot.com/2006/01/on-torture.html

It took me three months to read it all.

To the other Mark in this thread: Tim is right, arguing about the semantics of torture is despicable. No civilized nation should do these things to *convicted* terrorists; we damn well shouldn't be doing them to "suspects" (most of whom, as someone else correctly noted, turn out to be completely innocent).

History will be the judge of all who fell on the wrong side of this.


From: Eric J. Bowman (Jun 01 2007, at 19:33)

Centuries of human history have taught us one simple truth about torture: Those subjected to it invariably lie in order to make it stop. Am I missing something here? Is there some other reason we don't allow coerced confessions in courts of law? Coercion has no place in extracting actionable intelligence, except in the movies and on TV. Precise definitions of what constitutes torture vs. what is merely an "enhanced technique" distract us from the fundamental truth that any form of coercion is valuable only as a propaganda tool, not the legitimate gathering of intelligence.

The second Republican cadidates' debate featured a question about torture by Brit Hume which began with a false assertion that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn't give us any valuable information until after he was tortured, which directly contradicts the account in Ron Suskind's book. Mr. Hume proceeded to relate a parable designed to make coercion appear as a perfectly rational choice, as if under torture the truth would come out and the ticking could be stopped, James Bond-like, just in the nick of time.

If Biden, Kucinich and Gravel get asked such a question at the Fox "debate" they seem bent on attending, I hope they answer it correctly:

"I would not order torture, because I have no reason to believe that it would elicit a truthful response, and every reason to believe that it would permanently damage our ability to gather intelligence from that suspect. If the bomb is ticking, you're already too late, which is precisely why we must resort to constructing elaborate what-ifs to even consider such a situation -- we have no historical examples.

Rapport building has won the seal of approval from our courts of law precisely because it has been time-tested and proven effective and reliable, not just humane. Coercion not only fails to stop any ticking bombs, but gives us many more potential bombs to worry about trying to defuse before they have begun to tick, because it is inhumane. The CIA has deemed this the 'blowback effect'.

We cannot continue to deny American citizens like Walt Murphy or Donald Vance, or Canadian Citizens like Maher Arar, the rights guaranteed to them under our Constitution and the various international agreements we have duly ratified as the laws of our land. The decision to subject Mr. Arar and Mr. Vance to the treatments they endured was made without any reasonable suspicion that they knew of any ticking bombs, let alone the probable cause required to detain them for questioning in the first place. We must stand by our Constitution rather than undermining it for the purpose of using discredited methods."

Unfortunately, the odds of a Democrat standing up to even the weakest and lamest of Fox News talking points appears to be nil. Biden will probably come out in favor of torture, then later claim he was misquoted or taken out of context. And this insane world will continue, where the debate on torture has become a debate of semantics framed in the notion that coercion has some value beyond propaganda, while few challenge the irrationality of using some one-in-a-million ticking bomb scenario to justify using these methods as a matter of course.


From: David Smith (Jun 01 2007, at 21:20)

Tim, you're young. Cling to your certainty. Pray that lives never depend on the effectiveness of your interrogation techniques. The math gets complicated when it does.


From: Aristotle Pagaltzis (Jun 02 2007, at 09:29)

David Smith:

That is PRECISELY THE POINT. If lives depend on the effectiveness of my interrogation technique, then torture would be the last technique I’d pick! It has been PROVEN beyond a shadow of a doubt that torture extracts extremely UNreliable information.

Torture serves no purpose beyond terrifying those that you have power over. It’s a tool for bullying others into submission; nothing else.

Arguing the semantics of what constitutes torture is despicable for the simple reason that, by definition, it means we’re debating about how close one can get to torture without crossing any formally defined lines.

Torture. Is. Wrong. Period. To condone torture under any circumstances makes you worse than an animal. There can be no discussion about this among humans with intact morals.

(PS.: I’m sorry for the caps, but I can’t use emphasis tags here.)


From: David Smith (Jun 03 2007, at 06:34)

Aristotle -

We agree, which is the source of my concern. Note that I'm by definition "scum" so test my logic carefully.

Our reason for assuming that the CIA (or the U.S. Army) will systematically select a counterproductive interrogation technique with catastrophic political and moral consequences because...

Please complete that sentence. I've tried myself and the options that I come up with seem too much like silly caricatures.


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