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May 16, 2004 Torture and morality and all that sort of thing ...

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Torture and morality and all that sort of thing - Alan Dershowitz or Robert Jay Lifton... Who do you trust?



Back on December 21, 2003 in these pages you would find Iraq Tactics: The Israeli Model versus The French Model.  


That was a second discussion of something that happened on the preceding Wednesday, the 27th of August 2003, when the command of Special Operations in the Pentagon held a screening of The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film about a rather famous urban terrorist insurgency, the conflict between Algerian nationalist insurgents and French colonial forces in the late nineteen-fifties.


Some comments about torture, then and now, followed.


I also mentioned that the previous week I had seen the moralist Bill Bennett on Fox News arguing that now that we have captured Saddam Hussein we had the moral right, if not the fundamental moral duty, to use torture to extract the greatest possible information from Hussein.  And he said we should be open about it - we should announce we are using torture, and rightly claim that this is for the greater good, to make the world safer.  He said the world would rally to us in agreement.


I asked readers to consider this exchange on CNN where anchor Wolf Blitzer posed the question of torture to the author and Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.  This is from Monday, March 3, 2003, so you see the topic had been ongoing.  They are discussing what to do with a fellow who had been recently captured and might know some dangerous things, or might not.


BLITZER: Alan Dershowitz, a lot of our viewers will be surprised to hear that you think there are right times for torture.  Is this one of those moments?

DERSHOWITZ: I don't think so. This is not the ticking-bomb terrorist case, at least so far as we know.  Of course, the difficult question is the chicken-egg question: We won't know if he is a ticking-bomb terrorist unless he provides us information, and he's not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures.

My basic point, though, is we should never under any circumstances allow low-level people to administer torture.  If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice. 

... I would talk about nonlethal torture, say, a sterilized needle underneath the nail, which would violate the Geneva Accords, but you know, countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords.  They do it secretly and hypothetically, the way the French did it in Algeria.  If we ever came close to doing it, and we don't know whether this is such a case, I think we would want to do it with accountability and openly and not adopt the way of the hypocrite.

ROTH: The prohibition on torture is one of the basic, absolute prohibitions that exists in international law.  It exists in time of peace as well as in time of war.  It exists regardless of the severity of a security threat.  And the only other comparable prohibition that I can think of is the prohibition on attacking innocent civilians in time of war or through terrorism.  If you're going to have a torture warrant, why not create a terrorism warrant?  Why not go in and allow terrorists to come forward and make their case for why terrorism should be allowed?

... Torture is not needed.  If you start opening the door, making a little exception here, a little exception there, you've basically sent the signal that the ends justify the means, and that's exactly what Osama bin Laden thinks.  He has some vision of a just society. H is ends justify the means of attacking the World Trade Center.  If we're going to violate an equally basic prohibition on torture, we are reaffirming that false logic of terrorism.  We are going to end up losing the war.

DERSHOWITZ: Well, in fact, we've done that [attacked civilians].  Of course, we've done that.  We have bombed civilian targets during every single one of our wars.  We did it in Dresden.  We did it in Vietnam notwithstanding these rules.  So you know, having laws on the books and breaking them systemically just creates disdain....  It's much better to have rules that we can actually live within.  And absolute prohibitions, generally, are not the kind of rules that countries would live within. 


And so it goes.


Oddly enough, Dershowitz is still chatting about this, but from a slightly different perspective.


See Covering up the coverup

Alan Dershowitz, The Boston Globe, May 15, 2004


Here’s his new take on it now:


Neither the release of detainees from Abu Ghraib, nor Donald Rumsfeld's assurance that the abusers will be brought to justice address the real problem revealed by the photographs taken at the prison.  That problem is the Bush administration's conflicting messages.  Out of one side of its mouth -- the public, rhetorical side -- it condemns all forms of torture regardless of the need to secure intelligence.  Out of the other -- the discreet wink and nod side -- it tells intelligence officials the gloves are off and they should do what they have to do to obtain life-saving information.  The results were predictable: Low-ranking military intelligence and police believe that they are supposed to get information but are given little guidance about the means (short of lethal torture) deemed appropriate.


Ah.  Wrong or right, you should decide which it is and just say so.  Why?  Well, folks get confused!


Nor would it be obvious to an untrained officer whether humiliation is a proper means of "softening up" or, if it is, whether exploiting religious taboos regarding sex comes within the category of acceptable humiliation.  The fact that photographs were widely circulated suggests a belief that superiors would not disapprove of what they saw.  This is not to excuse those who inflicted the humiliation, but it may explain why apparently decent soldiers believed they were doing what was expected of them.


After all, the administration did approve rough interrogation methods for some high valued detainees.  These included waterboarding, in which a detainee is pushed under water and made to believe he will drown unless he provides information, as well as sensory deprivation, painful stress positions, and simulated dog attacks.  It is also well known that the US subcontracts difficult cases to nations such as the Philippines, Egypt, and Jordan, which have no inhibitions about pulling out fingernails.  The administration's attitude, as reflected in a secret memorandum prepared by the Justice Department, seems to be that we are not responsible if it can be argued that the detainees are formally in the custody of another country.  This head-in-the-sand approach comes from the top.


And Dershowitz gets on Bush’s case…


The New York Times has reported that a CIA official was told that Bush had informed the CIA that he did not want to know where [the high value detainees] were [being held.]  If this is true, it reflects a breakdown of responsibility.  The president should know where detainees are being held and what is being done to them in the name of our country.  It is his responsibility to authorize extraordinary means of interrogation if he believes they are necessary to our national security, or forbid them.  It is this kind of choice of evils -- pitting our treaty obligations against our security -- that should never be abdicated to low-ranking officials.


The buck stops in the Oval Office, and the president may not willfully blind himself to the unpleasant realities of the dirty war against terrorism.  If Bush believes that extraordinary means -- torture lite -- must be employed in extraordinary cases, then he must make the decision and bear the consequences.


It is not unlike the tragic choice that would have to be made if an apparently hijacked passenger jet were headed toward a crowded city.  The decision whether to shoot it down should not be delegated to a low-level Air Force pilot.  It should be made by the highest ranking official available -- the president or secretary of defense.


Note Dershowitz is not saying we should NOT torture people.  He just thinks you shouldn’t avoid the decision about whether or not to, well, do it.  It comes down to his claiming that unless the president is prepared to authorize the use of extraordinary methods in extraordinary situations, such as the ticking bomb terrorist or the terrorist who could lead us to Osama bin Laden, no such methods should be employed.  Dershowitz says every soldier should be instructed to ask, before following an order to violate the norms of interrogation, whether the president has authorized him to break the rules. 


Yeah, like that’s going top happen.


Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Times media critic has a different take.  Hey, you just don’t do it!  And it doesn’t matter whether you call it just “abuse” or actual torture.  You just don’t do it.


See 'Abuse' may not be accurate

Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times, May 15 2004


… Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Mohammed was "not likely to provide information unless we use certain extreme measures."  In Dershowitz's view, that's why we need "a torture warrant."  There is, of course, no moral distinction between warrantless torture and the authorized sort.  A notion of due process elastic enough to encompass a legal difference is somewhere on the other side of worthless.

The Wall Street Journal matter-of-factly quoted a "senior" federal law enforcement official's prediction that "there's a reason why [Mohammed] isn't going to be near a place where he has Miranda rights or the equivalent.  You go to some other country that'll let you pistol-whip this guy."

The New York Times calmly adjudged that Mohammed's "detention also presents a tactical and moral challenge when it comes to the interrogation techniques used to obtain vital information."

This week, the New York Times reported on how the government met that challenge.  According to a story by James Risen, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis, "CIA interrogators used graduated levels of force, including a technique known as 'water boarding' in which a prisoner is strapped down, forcibly pushed under water and made to believe he might drown…. Defenders of the operation said the methods stopped short of torture."

The Times also reported that other "detainees have also been sent to third countries, where they are convinced that they might be executed….  Some have been hooded, roughed up, soaked with water and deprived of food, light and medications."

As we now know from the revelations about Abu Ghraib, some "detainees" there and, allegedly, in other places were deprived of their lives.

Torture requires not only secrecy but also euphemism.  The mainstream media's insistence on primly referring to what occurred in what was once Saddam Hussein's most infamous prison as "abuse" is part and parcel of their deep avoidance of this story's implications.  Abuse is what happens when you fail to feed your parakeet or speak intemperately to a sensitive child.  When you starve or drown or beat or sexually humiliate another human being, it is called torture.  It's what occurred in Hitler's concentration camps, Stalin's Gulag, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Pinochet's Chile, Hussein's Iraq and — now — in the secret prison system the United States has constructed in defiance of its international obligations and our own laws and traditions.

There is no more insidious moral trap than the notion that immoral means can obtain a moral end.  We have been told repeatedly since Sept. 11 that, if we fail to defeat Al Qaeda, a new dark age may descend.

The photos from Abu Ghraib suggest it already has.


Ah, maybe so. 


But this notion that immoral means can obtain a moral end?  Dershowitz still maintains they can.  But you have to be clear that is just what you have chosen to do.  You don’t wink and nod and nudge and then stick to the low-level people who weren’t in on the con.




Another follow-up…


Something I saw Tuesday on television….


Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who's studied Nazi doctors and Vietnam veterans among others.  His latest book on violence is called "Superpower Syndrome."   I’ve quoted from that book – extensively - in the daily weblog and the weekly virtual magazine.  See The Apocalypse - It'll be just fine... from last December.


Philip Zimbardo is that psychology professor at Stanford University.  In 1971 he conducted that study in which two dozen college students were directed to play the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated jail with “disturbing results.”  See Evil is Easy: It is NOT George Bush or Dick Cheney or Karl Rove from early February.


Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is a retired psychology professor at West Point.  His new book is "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill"  - and Jay Winik is a professor and war historian, and author of "April 1865: The Month That Saved America."


Here’s a transcript of all of them batting around these current issues on the PBS “News Hour” show…


When they finished I switched to a Simpsons rerun on the local Fox affiliate that was running at the same time.


Robert Jay Lifton expands on his NPR comments in the May 31, 2004 issue of The Nation in Conditions of Atrocity.


As a tease, here’s his opening –


Even before the Congressional hearings on the criminal abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, Colin Powell brought up My Lai, the Vietnamese village where, in 1968, American troops slaughtered more than 400 civilians, mostly old people, women and children. He cited it as the kind of thing that can happen in wars. I also thought of My Lai, but for somewhat different reasons.


Both Abu Ghraib and My Lai are examples of what I call an "atrocity-producing situation"--one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities. In Vietnam that structure included "free-fire zones" (areas in which soldiers were encouraged to fire at virtually anyone); "body counts" (with a breakdown in the distinction between combatants and civilians, and competition among commanders for the best statistics); and the emotional state of US soldiers as they struggled with angry grief over buddies killed by invisible adversaries and with a desperate need to identify some "enemy."


The Iraq military environment is quite different from that of Vietnam, but there are some striking parallels. Iraq is also a counterinsurgency war in which US soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment, and in which higher-ranking officers and war planners feel frustrated by the great difficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy. The exaggerated focus on interrogation, including the humiliation of detainees as a "softening-up" process, reflects that frustration.


And you can imagine the rest.


He concludes with this:


To attribute the scandal at Abu Ghraib to "a few bad apples" or to "individual failures" is poor psychology and self-serving pseudomorality.  To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such pressured conditions.  But the greater responsibility lies with those who planned and executed the war on Iraq and the "war on terrorism" of which it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying denial of rights of captives and suspects.


Psychologically and ethically, responsibility for the crimes at Abu Ghraib extends to the Defense Secretary, the Attorney General and the White House.  Those crimes are a direct expression of the kind of war we are waging in Iraq.


George Bush cannot catch a break these days.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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