Posted by lex, on October 4m 2007
No reasonable person can defend government sponsored torture, but neither is any reasonable person apparently permitted to define what torture actually is – a conundrum that falls rather hard upon those in the field caught up in the fight with people who send car bombs into crowds of school children.
Into that breach boldly steps the New York Times ** and a predictably frenzied cohort of the perpetually hyperventilated set at a long article dealing with secret Justice Department authorizations, internal bureaucratic revolts between those whose hands are not only always clean but also manicured, and the continued use of such aggressive CIA interrogation techniques as head slapping, waterboarding and frigid temperatures.
At this particular litany I was once again transported to Warner Springs in February for SERE school. It sucked. And no one likes to read of such things. Except of course, for those who love to read about it because it confirms them in their sense of moral superiority. I will not call it smug.
Stress techniques are not developed in secret merely because government bureaucrats fear that the light of public opprobrium might be cast upon their efforts, but because there is a relatively short period after a bad actor has been swept up that he is disoriented and vulnerable. This period happily coincides with the tactical usefulness of his information: The longer a terrorist has been held, the more stale his information grows. The bombs have either been moved from their cache sites or have already blown up the police checkpoint, schoolhouse or government building.
The interrogator’s chief advantage is that a man who is willing to murder faceless innocents, pull out fingernails with pliers or sign his name in a captive’s skin with a blow torch doesn’t know that his own captor is limited by a sense of humanity. The inhumane project their own barbarism on their captors – a terrifying moment. Knowing where he is on a publicly disseminated pressure scale – head-slapping, waterboarding and the cooler – allows a terrorist to stiffen his resistance. The clock ticks. The bomb goes off.
But far be it from me to attempt to defend what has been pre-defined as indefensible, certainly not acts that, as the Supreme Court has ruled, “shock the conscience” nor even the expanded United Nations definition of “degrading treatment which offends human dignity”. Whatever that can be interpreted to mean. Head slapping probably. Silk sheets rather than cotton, perhaps.
As a moral matter we ought not slap peoples’ heads because we’d like to think we’re better than that. And we are, some of us. There are probably quite a few people who would be willing to be murdered or maimed rather than allow a terrorist to shiver a while in lock-up. But that may be because most of us understand that the odds are on our side: Some other poor schmuck will likely get his leg blown off, or lose her husband to the butcher’s knife, not us, nor any of us. In retrospect, the man who lost his legs might have countenanced a bit of head slapping, however reluctantly.
It’s “not in our name” not merely because of our elevated sensibilities but because we’re relatively certain that “our names” won’t end up on the headstones. These things happen to other people. We’re willing to endure their suffering for our own sense of moral certitude. It hurts a little, but we make do.
The practical reason not to torture those we label terrorists is, of course, reciprocity. It is certainly an offense against human dignity when the al Qaeda thugs, having severed captured soldiers’ heads from their shoulders with their rusty butcher’s knives, go on to slap them about a bit. Thus the Times closing quote from a former military lawyer:
Like other military lawyers, (former Navy über-JAG John D. Hutson) also fears that official American acceptance of such treatment could endanger Americans in the future.
“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.
Well, if the worst that comes out of it is a bit of head slapping, the waterboard or chill temperatures I should think that Privates First Class Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker, only to name two, would consider that an upgrade.
If only we could ask them **.
** 10-22-20 – Links gone. No replacements found – Ed.