Saturday, 11 September 2010

Themes, Disgusting Bloodthirsty Chickenhawks, Etc.

[EDIT: if you've followed a link promising neocon propaganda about torture, you may (it's hard to believe, but you just might) wish to skip my musings and go directly here.]

The recent spasm of interest in the Hutton/Kelly business (which I’ve been unobtrusively and undogmatically mentioning for years - links to follow, when I track them down) has brought a bit of traffic to what was previously not much more than an archive of my sporadic productions. I’m going to try and keep it going as a proper blog, and among other things to gather together various bits and bobs I’ve blurted into cyberspace over the last few years. That includes quite a few longish emails I’ve circulated to a select group of one or two hapless victims, and this post is one of those.

But first, a word on the theme of Themes, and specifically the prospect of this becoming a conspiracy-theory-themed blog.

The trouble with ‘conspiracy theories’ is that I don’t really consider it to be a theme at all. My interest in use of the term is twofold: first, as a form of abuse that has been very successfully disguised as an ordinary descriptive term and is thus a cause of much sophistical rhetoric and a great deal of self-censorship. The climate of self-censorship can be observed in the great lengths people go to to deny being ‘conspiracy theorists’ or propounding ‘conspiracy theories’.

The deceptive nature of the term as it is used lies in a peculiar feature: the term can be applied to any theory about a conspiracy (though this is done selectively), but once the label is applied, it is treated as indicating that the theory has certain defects, notably and most crudely, being untrue. Yet the basis for inferring such defects is shifty: sometimes it is treated as deriving directly from the definition of 'conspiracy theory' (but this would mean it can only be applied after a theory is shown to be defective), sometimes from a general empirical truth about all conspiracy theories (but there is clearly no such general fact, if the term applies to any theory of conspiracy). By shifting between these different positions sufficiently skilfully, polemicists can perform the conjuring trick of inferring the defects without having to justify the application of the discrediting term.

Of course that is only the visible portion of the glacier, and there are deeper levels at which the vilification of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ works – at the point of opinion-formation, the murky area in which self-censorship is hard to disentangle from cognitive bias. This can be observed indirectly (in polite conversation) in the very high level at which the evidential bar is set for even avowedly speculative remarks if they can be assimilated to the murky category ‘conspiracy theory’.

The situation is not helped by the fact that there is a range of phenomena which have in part arisen from the rhetoric about the ‘Conspiracy Theory of History’ (Popper), the ‘Paranoid Style’ (Hofstadter), and all the rest. ‘Conspiracy theory’ as irony, as a hobby, as a self-consciously adopted identity, as a form of non-literal consciousness raising – all these exist, though not necessarily as very important phenomena in their own right. More worrying is the possibility that some ordinary political dissenters may accept the idea that ‘conspiracy theories’ come as a package, and since they accept some of them, indiscriminately adopt all or most other supposed instances of the supposed category, thus discrediting themselves and others who share the less outré of their opinions. This is more of a possibility when an intellectual ghetto is set up and ignorance is deliberately fostered.

So that is the problem of the effects of the ‘conspiracy theory’ faux-category. The second problem that interests me is interrelated, and concerns the causes of the category’s existence and widespread acceptance. This is the more substantive area about just how plausible are the interesting core examples of ‘conspiracy theory’, for example, appropriately gappy hypotheses about smallish-scale covert action involving known organisations doing things known or easily inferable to be within their power.

(When I say these are the ‘core’ examples, I mean they are the core as far as sensible dicussion is concerned – and as far as the polemical aims of the Aaronovitch etc. are concerned. Of course they aren’t the ‘core’ examples as far as the polemical methods are concerned. In that context, core examples – stereotypes, in the fullest sense of the word – would be the classic perennial, all-controlling secret cabal. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a favourite, since it has the bonus feature of virulent antisemitism. Other ‘core’ examples used to frame the issue might include anything including aliens, the supernatural (usually in the form of imputed belief in the supernatural, but it all helps to ramp up the ridiculousness), and of course the Lizards, which is so perfect for propaganda purposes that if it didn’t exist it would have to be invented.)

Exaggeration of the implausibility of hypotheses positing covert action (and more broadly, corruption, collusion, dishonesty, confluence of powerful actors to disreputable ends, etc) is, as I suggest, bolstered in subtle ways by the rhetoric of ‘conspiracy theory’, but that rhetoric could not be as effective as it is if the exaggeration had not already been done. It’s unsurprising to the point of near-tautology that governments would want to underplay the extent of their secret activities, and none of the psychobabble about why people believe conspiracy theories is as convincing as the clear fact that there are very strong psychological (I should say ‘psychic’, but that has unfortunate connotations) factors motivating people not to believe them.

Unfortunately, arguing the toss about how plausible ‘conspiracy theories’ in general are is a daunting task for anyone interested in being honest and diligent. For one thing there are far too many imponderables for any actual applicatuion of the probability calculus to be possible, so one can’t really get any further than highly contestable assertions about plausibility. That’s where the likes of Aaronovitch have an advantage, being shameless anough to tout their own supposed – in Aaronovitch’s case, non-existent - historical acumen and, unaccountably, influential enough to get away with it.

For another thing, there is just no clearly discernible class of beliefs or propositions corresponding to the ‘conspiracy theory’ label – so an assessment of the (average?) plausibility of the members of such a class is doomed – only better-defined classes of belief can be assessed, and even then, given the sizeof the samples involved and the lack of homogeneity of the individual ‘theories’, any attempt to assess the whole group is hardly likely to be very illuminating.

Of course these points are stunningly obvious, but you wouldn’t think it if you were to take seriously the work of an Aaronovitch, a Daniel Pipes or a Damian Thompson.

But the biggest problem of all, in practical rather than theoretical terms, is that actually trying to make any assessment of covert action theories requires extensive knowledge not only of history but of the deliberately concealed aspects of history. I don’t pretend to be a historian, and I certainly don’t pretend to have any special access to secret information, so I think the word ‘disadvantage’ would be a very good one to describe what I am at here. Which is why I am much more interested in the more a priori aspects of the matter: the rhetoric, the epistemology, the assessment of what is possible rathetr than more or less probable. Which is not to say I’m averse to having a bash at guessing what really happened in a variety of cases, it’s just that I’m rather more honest than the Official Story merchants at acknowledging the inadequacy of the available evidence.

I think these (the rhetoric of ‘conspiracy theory’ and the downplaying of the extent of conspiratorial activity) are important things to address, and indeed the main things I’m currently interested in addressing, but I don’t want this blog to become – nor to appear to become - just about them. While I’d like to bring down the whole edifice of ‘conspiracy theory’ mythology singlehandedly and instantly, I’m realistic enough not to expect to do so just yet, and in the meantime I’d like to avoid being stigmatised too much myself, or putting off new readers before I’ve had a chance to make my points.

This is all by way of an intro explaining why I want to displace the ‘Week in Tinfoil’ from its current (at the time of writing) top billing [update – this is now pretty otiose as the next instalment is only a day away], and thus to excuse myself for posting – unedited – a ‘fisking’ of an article from an email a sent a few years back. I don’t really like the term ‘fisking’, since its origin lies in right-wing attacks on Robert Fisk. But in default of an alternative, fisking it is. This is (reasonably enough, I think) a rather bad-tempered specimen done (as any proper fisking should be, I’ve just arbitrarily decided) during the first reading, in real time. If I were to edit it at all, it would be unrecognisable, and that would take time, so here it is complete with a slightly grating style.

(Oh yes, I should just mention that the article was included in a volume on torture which had every appearance of being a serious treatment of the issue. Pretty staggering, you might think, if you hadn’t read the contributions from Alan ‘I’m not part of the Israel Lobby (he is) because I opposed the Iraq War (he didn’t)’ Dershowitz and a variety of other pseudo-scholarly hacks. Why that book doesn’t come into the category of ‘Counterknowledge’ is a mystery to me. Well, it’s not really – it would be if I thought Damian Thompson had any intellectual integrity.)

Weekly Standard

Vol. 11, No. 12
December 5, 2005

The Truth about Torture

It's time to be honest about doing terrible things.


DURING THE LAST FEW WEEKS in Washington the pieties about torture have lain so thick in the air that it has been impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The McCain amendment that would ban "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of any prisoner by any agent of the United States sailed through the Senate by a vote of 90-9. The Washington establishment remains stunned that nine such retrograde, morally inert persons - let alone senators - could be found in this noble capital.

Now, John McCain has great moral authority on this issue, having heroically borne torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. McCain has made fine arguments in defense of his position. And McCain is acting out of the deep and honorable conviction that what he is proposing is not only right but is in the best interest of the United States. Lucky he doesn’t have to choose, eh. His position deserves respect. But that does not mean, as seems to be the assumption in Washington today, that a critical analysis of his "no torture, ever" policy is beyond the pale.

Let's begin with a few analytic distinctions. For the purpose of torture and prisoner maltreatment, there are three kinds of war prisoners:

First, there is the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle. There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head. His detention has but a single purpose: to keep him hors de combat. The proof of that proposition is that if there were a better way to keep him off the battlefield that did not require his detention, we would let him go. Indeed, during one year of the Civil War, the two sides did try an alternative. They mutually "paroled" captured enemy soldiers, i.e., released them to return home on the pledge that they would not take up arms again. (The experiment failed for a foreseeable reason: cheating. Grant found that some paroled Confederates had reenlisted.)

Because the only purpose of detention in these circumstances is to prevent the prisoner from becoming a combatant again, he is entitled to all the protections and dignity of an ordinary domestic prisoner - indeed, more privileges, because, unlike the domestic prisoner, he has committed no crime. He merely had the misfortune to enlist on the other side of a legitimate hmm, interesting - do I see a convenient distinction taking shape here? war. He is therefore entitled to many of the privileges enjoyed by an ordinary citizen - the right to send correspondence, to engage in athletic activity and intellectual pursuits, to receive allowances from relatives - except, of course, for the freedom to leave the prison.

Second, there is the captured terrorist er, terrorism suspect. A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents (does he mean civilians here?). He is entitled to no protections whatsoever. Oh really? People seem to think that the postwar Geneva Conventions were written only to protect detainees. In fact, their deeper purpose was to provide a deterrent like almost any criminal law with sanctions to the kind of barbaric treatment of civilians that had become so horribly apparent during the first half of the 20th century, and in particular, during the Second World War. The idea was to deter the abuse of civilians by promising combatants who treated noncombatants well that they themselves would be treated according to a code of dignity if captured - and, crucially, that they would be denied the protections of that code if they broke the laws of war and abused civilians themselves. No - they would be treated ascriminalsif they werefound guiltyof breaking the laws.

Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. Except that a lone nail bomber, for example, hasn't broken any laws of war - just other criminal laws. And a terrorist might attack empty buildings, military installations, police stations etc... They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. No, they are entitled therefore to be treated as criminal suspects, shurely?Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire. But we don't do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. Oh, I see - well that's interesting. Lets see how far we will go though eh? We don't do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people. And when on rare occasions we fail to do that, as has occurred in several of the fronts of the war on terror, we are duly disgraced.

The norm, however, is how the majority of prisoners at Guantanamo have been treated. We give them three meals a day, superior medical care, and provision to pray five times a day. Our scrupulousness extends even to providing them with their own Korans, which is the only reason alleged abuses of the Koran at Guantanamo ever became an issue. Not the only reason - in fact neither necessary nor sufficient.That we should have provided those who kill innocents in the name of Islam with precisely the document that inspires their barbarism is a sign of the absurd lengths a.k.a. scrupulousness I thought?to which we often go in extending undeserved humanity to terrorist prisoners.

Third, there is the suspected terrorist with suspected information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. And you know this. It will go off in one hour. And you know that. A million people will die. And you know that to be the unavoidable consequence. You capture the terrorist. And you know that he is the terrorist. He knows where it is. And you know this. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant what if it were an innocent with the same information, who believes he is protecting some legitimate secret?by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.If you have the slightest belief that it will get you the information? Even if some other method might get you the info? Even if you might force him to talk, but not to give the correct information? Even if you might only harden his resolve and help him to overcome his doubts by doing so?

Yes, you say, but that's an extreme and very hypothetical case. Well, not as hypothetical as you think. Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. Oh yeah? Let's have one example please. The closest I know of was an abductor thought to be hiding the whereabouts of his child captive who was thus in danger of starving This "hypothetical" is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.Outrageous - this is based on Dershowitz's name for the very same imaginary example!

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, (yes, even if) the conclusion if this is our conclusion - yes, in this case even torture is permissible - is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whethertorture is ever permissible, but when - i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.- and rather a lot of other considerations - such as, notably, epistemic ones - which I consider might well mandate a policy of non-torture - and also whether the torturee must be guilty, and if so, of what - as well as the question of how harmful/extreme the torture may be. And the questionable efficacy of torture might render the class of permissable incidents of torture empty as a matter of fact - and of a deep fact based in human nature.

That is why the McCain amendment, which by mandating "torture never" refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of any moral calculus (No: it 'refuses' to accept that given the presumably invariant conditions in which is is meant to operate no decent moral 'calculus' can permit state-sanctioned torture) , cannot be right. There must be exceptions. Not if 'exceptions' has its common meaning of ad hoc (and discretionary) permissions The real argument should be over what constitutes a legitimate exception.

Let's Take An Example that is far from hypothetical. You capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan. He not only has already killed innocents, according to..who? he is deeply involved in the planning for the present and future killing of innocents. Ah, let's hear about this future killing them as that's the only relevant bit He not only was the architect of the 9/11 attack that killed nearly three thousand people in one day, most of them dying a terrible, agonizing, indeed tortured death. let's hear about this future killing them as that's the only relevant bit But as the top al Qaeda planner and logistical expert he also knows a lot about terror attacks to come. let's hear about this future killing them as that's the only relevant bit He knows plans, identities, contacts, materials, cell locations, safe houses, cased targets, etc. No ticking time bombs then? No specific information needed quickly to save huge numbers of lives? Just an unknown and open ended load of info of unknown value and relevance? What do you do with him? And what do you do with all the other prisoners who also aren't known to have done anything wrong or to know anything even useful?

We have recently learned that since 9/11 the United States has maintained a series of "black sites" around the world, secret detention centers where presumably high-level terrorists like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed have been imprisoned. The world is scandalized. Black sites? Secret detention? Jimmy Carter calls this "a profound and radical change in the . . . moral values of our country." The Council of Europe demands an investigation, calling the claims "extremely worrying." Its human rights commissioner declares "such practices" to constitute "a serious human rights violation, and further proof of the crisis of values" that has engulfed the war on terror. The gnashing of teeth and rending of garments has been considerable.

I myself have not gnashed a single tooth. My garments remain entirely unrent. Indeed, I feel reassured. It would be a gross dereliction of duty for any government notto keep Khalid Sheikh Mohammed isolated, disoriented, alone, despairing, cold and sleepless, in some godforsaken hidden location in order to find out what he knew about plans for future mass murder. Is this punishment or interrogation? What are you trying to find out? Was there a trial? What happened to hanging him by the thumbs? Now it;s cold and sleepless is it? What are we supposed to do? Give him a nice cell a nice cell? in a warm Manhattan Manhattan? prison, complete with Miranda rights might be an idea, a mellifluent lawyer what is mellifluent please, and should a lawyer not be it?,and his own website? Now you're really losing it... Are not those the kinds of courtesies we extended to the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, then congratulated ourselves on how we "brought to justice" those responsible for an attack that barely failed to kill tens of thousands of Americans, only to discover a decade later that we had accomplished nothing done nothing I think you mean - indeed, that some of the disclosures at the trial had helped Osama bin Laden avoid U.S. surveillance? More fool you, if that's true - which I doubt

Have we learned nothing from 9/11? Are we prepared to go back with complete amnesia to the domestic-crime model of dealing with terrorists, which allowed us to sleepwalk so it's sleepwalking or mass torture is it?through the nineties while al Qaeda incubated and grew and metastasized unmolested until on 9/11 it finished what the first World Trade Center bombers had begun?

Let's assume (and hope) that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has been kept in one of these black sites, say, a cell somewhere in Romania, held entirely incommunicado and subjected to the kind of "coercive interrogation" that I described above. Which one - the cold and sleeplessness, or the suspension by the thumbs? McCain has been going around praising the Israelis as the model of how to deal with terrorism and prevent terrorist attacks. He does so because in 1999 the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed all torture in the course of interrogation. But in reality, the Israeli case is far more complicated. And the complications reflect precisely the dilemmas regarding all coercive interrogation, the weighing of the lesser of two evils: the undeniable inhumanity of torture versus the abdication of the duty to protect the victims of a potentially preventable mass murder.

In a summary of Israel's policies, Glenn Frankel of the Washington Post noted that the 1999 Supreme Court ruling struck down secret guidelines established 12 years earlier that allowed interrogators to use the kind of physical and psychological pressure I described cold and sleeplessness? in imagining how KSM might be treated in America's "black sites."

"But after the second Palestinian uprising broke out a year later, and especially after a devastating series of suicide bombings of passenger buses, cafes and other civilian targets," writes Frankel, citing human rights lawyers and detainees, "Israel's internal security service, known as the Shin Bet or the Shabak, returned to physical coercion as a standard practice." Not only do the techniques used "command widespread support from the Israeli public," 'widespread' eh? really? Is that the same as 'majority'? And if so, is that a recommendation? but "Israeli prime ministers and justice ministers with a variety of political views," including the most conciliatory and liberal, really? how about those most opposed to torture? have defended these techniques "as a last resort in preventing terrorist attacks." this might mean that they have defended them, but only as a last resort - say the imaginary ticking bomb case - or it might mean unconditional support, with the additional info that they are a last resort

Which makes McCain's position on torture incoherent. If this kind of coercive interrogation were imposed on any inmate in the American prison system, it would immediately be declared cruel and unusual, and outlawed. No, it would prababy be covered up - and it is already outlawed. How can he oppose these practices, which the Israelis use, and yet hold up Israel as a model for dealing with terrorists? Perhaps because he was referring to the official Israeli position. Or perhaps he is an idiot who doesn't represent the best case against torture Or does he countenance this kind of interrogation in extreme circumstances - in which case, what is left of his categorical opposition to inhuman treatment of any kind?

But let us push further into even more unpleasant territory, the territory that lies beyond mere coercive interrogation and beyond McCain's self-contradictions what does this second bit mean? It's just added as a way of referring to supposed self-contradictions it appears. How far are we willing to go?

This "going beyond" need not be cinematic and ghoulish. (Jay Leno once suggested "duct tape" there is no such thing as duct tape, he probably means Duck tape - a brand of gaffer tape. for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. See photo.) Consider, for example, injection with sodium pentathol. (Colloquially known as "truth serum," it is nothing of the sort. It is a barbiturate whose purpose is to sedate. Its effects are much like that of alcohol: disinhibiting the higher brain centers doing what? Ha ha! to make someone more likely to disclose information or thoughts that might otherwise be guarded.) Forcible sedation is a clear violation of bodily integrity. No, forcible injection is. In a civilian context it would be considered assault. So would doing the actions involved in arresting someone or even chasing them. It is certainly impermissible under any prohibition of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Is it? It's certainly not an example of torture as normally conceived, so shouldn't be used as one.

Let's posit that during the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps early on, we got intelligence about an imminent al Qaeda attack. And we had a very good reason how good could it be? to believe he knew about it. And if we knew what he and only he? knew, what about our other source? we could stop it. If we thought we could glean a critical piece of information by use of sodium pentathol, would we be permitted to do so? Again, is this what he means by torture?

Less hypothetically, there is waterboarding, a terrifying and deeply shocking torture technique in which the prisoner has his face exposed to water in a way that gives the feeling of drowning. According to CIA sources cited by ABC News, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed "was able to last between two and 2 1/2 minutes before begging to confess." Should we regret having done that? Should we abolish by law that practice, so that it could never be used on the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed having thus gotten his confession? What did he confess to I wonder?

And what if he possessed information with less imminent implications? Ah now we get to the real agendaSay we had information about a cell that he had helped found or direct, and that cell was planning some major attack and we knew that - but not who was involved and we needed information about the identity and location of its members. A rational moral calculus might not permit measures as extreme as the nuke-in-Manhattan scenario, but would surely surely! permit measures beyond mere psychological pressure. Now we're getting into number-crunching, are we? I'd like to see the calculations.

Such a determination would not be made with an untroubled conscience. Interesting... It would be troubled because there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture. And there is no denying how corrupting it can be to the individuals and society that practice it. Butand it'd better be a big but!elected leaders, responsible above all for the protection of their citizens, have the obligation to tolerate their own sleepless nights by doing what is necessary - and only what is necessary, nothing more why the sleepless nights then? - to get information that could just 'could'? prevent mass murder.

GIVEN THE GRAVITY OF THE DECISION, if we indeed cross the Rubicon - as we must - we need rules. The problem with the McCain amendment is that once you have gone public with a blanket ban on all forms of coercion, it is going to be very difficult to publicly carve out exceptions. The Bush administration is to be faulted for having attempted such a codification with the kind of secrecy, lack of coherence, and lack of strict enforcement that led us to the McCain reaction.

What to do at this late date? Begin, as McCain does, by banning all forms of coercion or inhuman treatment by anyone serving in the military - an absolute ban on torture by all military personnel everywhere. We do not want a private somewhere making these fine distinctions about ticking and slow-fuse time bombs. We don't even want colonels or generals making them. It would be best for the morale, discipline, and honor of the Armed Forces for the United States to maintain an absolute prohibition, both to simplify their task in making decisions and to offer them whatever reciprocal treatment they might receive from those who capture them - although I have no illusion that any anti-torture provision will soften the heart of a single jihadist holding a knife to the throat of a captured American soldier. Well which one is it - reciprocal or not? We would impose this restriction on ourselves for our own reasons of military discipline and military honor. Oh right.

Outside the military, however, I would propose, contra McCain, a ban against all forms of torture, coercive interrogation, and inhuman treatment, except in two contingencies: (1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse high-level terrorist (such as KSM). Each contingency would have its own set of rules. one would hope so - including what would count as such a contingency In the case of the ticking time bomb, the rules would be relatively simple: Nothing rationally related to getting accurate information would be ruled out. The case of the high-value suspect with slow-fuse information is more complicated. The principle would be that the level of inhumanity of the measures used (moral honesty is essential here - we would be using measures that are by definition inhumane) would be proportional to the need and value of the information. Interrogators would be constrained to use the least inhumane treatment necessary relative to the magnitude and imminence of the evil being prevented and the importance of the knowledge being obtained.

These exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib. Nor would they be acting on their own. They would be required to obtain written permission for such interrogations from the highest political authorities in the country (cabinet level hmm the government eh?) or from a quasi-judicial body not anactuallyjudicial body then? like, er, a court for example? I wonder why not? modeled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (which permits what would ordinarily be illegal searches and seizures in the war on terror great blueprint). Or, if the bomb was truly ticking and there was no time, the interrogators would be allowed to act on their own, but would require post facto authorization within, say, 24 hours of their interrogation, so that they knew that whatever they did would be subject to review by others and be justified only under the most stringent terms. yes, of course they would be banged up stright way if they were found to have exceeded their authority

One of the purposes of these justifications would be to establish that whatever extreme measures are used are for reasons of nothing but information. Historically, the torture of prisoners has been done for a variety of reasons apart from information, most prominently reasons of justice or revenge. We do not do that. We should not do that. Ever. that's big of him. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, murderer of 2,973 innocentsa list, with evidence please? , is surely deserving of the most extreme suffering day and night for the rest of his life. But it is neither our role nor our right to be the agents of that suffering. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. His, not ours. Torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity including its moral twin, capital punishment.But..?

If Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knew nothing, or if we had reached the point where his knowledge had been exhausted, I'd be perfectly prepared to throw him into a nice, comfortable Manhattan cell and give him a trial to determine what would be fit and just punishment. But as long as he had useful information, things would be different. And I'll bet that that will be a long long time - in fact it has already been a ludicrously long time.

Very different. And it simply will not do to take refuge in the claim that all of the above discussion is superfluous because torture never works anyway. Would that this were true. Unfortunately, on its face, this is nonsense. Is one to believe that in the entire history of human warfare, no combatant has ever received useful information by the use of pressure, torture, or any other kind of inhuman treatment? It may indeed be true that torture is not a reliable tool. But that is very different from saying that it is never useful. Well, let's go back to using leeches for all ailments then.

The monstrous thing about torture is that sometimes it does work. In 1994, 19-year-old Israeli corporal Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car used in the kidnapping and tortured him in order to find where Waxman was being held. Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister and peacemaker, admitted that they tortured him in a way that went even beyond the '87 guidelines for "coercive interrogation" later struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court as too harsh. The driver talked. His information was accurate. The Israelis found Waxman. "If we'd been so careful to follow the ['87] Landau Commission [which allowedcoercive interrogation]," explained Rabin, "we would never have found out where Waxman was being held." Should we believe him? How does he know?

In the Waxman case, I would have done precisely what Rabin did. (The fact that Waxman's Palestinian captors killed him during the Israeli rescue raid makes the case doubly tragic, but changes nothing of the moral calculus.) Faced with a similar choice, an American president would have a similar obligation. To do otherwise - to give up the chance to find your soldier lest you sully yourself by authorizing torture of the person who possesses potentially lifesaving information - is a deeply immoral betrayal of a soldier and countryman. Not as cosmically immoral as permitting a city of one's countrymen to perish, as in the Ethics 101 case. But it remains, nonetheless, a case of moral abdication - of a kind rather parallel to that of the principled pacifist. There is much to admire in those who refuse on principle ever to take up arms under any conditions. But that does not make pure pacifism, like no-torture absolutism, any less a form of moral foolishness, tinged with moral vanity. Not reprehensible, only deeply reproachable eh? and supremely impracticable. People who hold such beliefs are deserving of a certain respect. But they are not to be put in positions of authority. One should be grateful for the saintly among us. And one should be vigilant that they not get to make the decisions upon which the lives of others depend.

WHICH BRINGS US to the greatest irony of all in the torture debate. I have just made what will be characterized as the pro-torture case contra McCain by proposing two major exceptions carved out of any no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb and the slow-fuse (THERE IS NO FUSE!!!)high-value terrorist. McCain supposedly is being hailed for defending all that is good and right and just in America by standing foursquare against any inhuman treatment. Or is he? Is he really being hailed for that?

According to Newsweek, in the ticking time bomb case McCain says that the president should disobey the very law that McCain seeks to pass - under the justification that "you do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it." But if torturing the ticking time bomb suspect is "what you have to do," then why has McCain been going around arguing that such things must never be done? Must never be permitted under law, actually. Because an individual decision to torture is different from a state-imposed duty to do so. Because a defence of necessity in a criminal court, or a decision not to prosecute are both very public and newsworthy things which recognise a crime and an excuse, unlike some quasi-judicial, possibly retrospective, authorisation mechanism. Because if a means of authorising something exists, it is no longer exceptional, and those involved will assume there must be some cases in which it is to be authorised, and recalibrate their moral 'compass' accordingly. Because itr os too easy to quietly relax the criteria after the authorisation regime has been introduced. Because as this bloke has already pointed out, torture is an evil and the individual would have to choose freely to commit it, if it ever really were justified. The state may not approve it, only forgive it.

As for exception number two, the suspected high-level terrorist with slow-fuse information, Stuart Taylor, the superb legal correspondent for National Journal, argues that with appropriate legal interpretation with sufficiently warped legal interpretation, the "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" standard, "though vague, is said by experts bring out these experts to codify . . . the commonsense principle that the toughness of interrogation techniques should be calibrated to the importance and urgency of the information likely to be obtained." That would permit "some very aggressive techniques . . . on that small percentage of detainees who seem especially likely to have potentially life-saving information." who seem what? Or as Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsh put it in the Newsweek report on McCain and torture, the McCain standard would "presumably allow for a sliding scale" of torture or torture-lite or other coercive techniques, thus permitting "for a very small percentage - those High Value Targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - some pretty rough treatment." so this is some other people saying what they assume that McCain meant?

But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in two very circumscribed they haven't been circumscribed - hardly even adumbrated circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture. Having established that, we can then begin to work together to codify rules of interrogation for the two very unpleasant but very real very real, or only a little bit real? cases in which we are morally permitted - indeed morally compelled - to do terrible things.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard. and a disgusting bloodthirsty chickenhawk


  1. Ok - Krauthammer's slippery and dim (and obnoxious etc.). I'd be more impressed if you took down a philiosopher like Michael Levin, whose very short defence of torture can be found here:
    Good luck.

  2. Well, Levin's more consistent.

  3. No luck needed.
    Suppose a terrorist has hidden an atomic bomb on Manhattan Island which will detonate at noon on July 4 unless ... here follow the usual demands for money and release of his friends from jail. Suppose, further, that he is caught at 10 a.m on the fateful day, but preferring death to failure, won't disclose where the bomb is. What do we do? If we follow due process, wait for his lawyer, arraign him, millions of people will die. If the only way to save those lives is to subject the terrorist to the most excruciating possible pain, what grounds can there be for not doing so? I suggest there are none. In any case, I ask you to face the question with an open mind.
    Why not just acceed to his demands? If you are prepared to abandon 'civilised norms' against torture, why not chuck the idea that you won't negotiate with terrorists?
    Nuclear terror is a state affair, it's far too difficult for freelancers.
    Once you concede that torture is justified in extreme cases, you have admitted that the decision to use torture is a matter of balancing innocent lives against the means needed to save them.
    You have to concede first, and a paranoid fantasy derived from the unpleasant 24 colour television series, does not persuade me.
    Torture only the obviously guilty, and only for the sake of saving innocents, and the line between "US" and "THEM" will remain clear
    Easier said than done.
    How many lives were saved in Abu Ghraib?
    Philosopher or creepy sophist?

  4. Yeah there are two points that any of these arguments needs to overcome:
    1. the slippery slope - where does this stop. Seldom addressed because the idea is generally to justify lots of torture whenever it is convenient;

    2. More fundamentally - these arguments are in favour of a person who is in a position to torture doing so under certain (contrived) circumstances. An explanation is owed how and why they are supposed to translate into a regime of state-sanctioned, institutionalised torture. Exercising discretion not to prosecute and permitting a defence of necessity should be quite enough involvment for state institutions, rather than the role of their personnel in making a free choice to torture in light of the obvious defensibility of doing so. This point recognises the 'dirty hands' nature of the business that features in the rhetoric even of a headbanger like Krauthammer (I haven't read Levin; read one, read em all).

  5. "Of course these points are stunningly obvious, but you wouldn’t think it if you were to take seriously the work of an Aaronovitch, a Daniel Pipes or a Damian Thompson"

    Hear hear. As a student of conspiracy theories, and someone who thinks we should use the term to refer to any explanation that cites a conspiracy as a salient cause, it disturbs that Aaronovitch's deeply contradictory book is the bee knee's of the subject.

  6. Thanks for the comment Matthew. As you probably know, I have a link to your site and as time permits am working my way through it. I'm glad the topic is getting at least some serious attention.

    I'll be posting a long-procrastinated review of Voodoo Histories here, probably in instalments, starting very soon (that's my intention anyway). I hope you may find some of it of interest, and any comments would of course be very welcome.