Taking the Wrong Approach

Mark of New Jersey

Mark is a Founding Editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, the predecessor of Ordinary Times.

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33 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    the thing that gets me about pro-torture apoligists is how they tend towards the right side of the spectrum but have this completly naive faith that any “harsh” techniques would only be done with the best intentions and as little as possible. that have complete trust in goverment when it is convient.

    Mccain spills the truest motive for torture, which is revenge.Report

  2. ChrisWWW says:

    Yep. How often have we heard the Reagan quote, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”?

    I guess it’s more like “The eleven most comforting words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to torture your neighbor.'”Report

  3. matoko_chan says:

    I think you give Americans way too little credit.
    Just look at Shep.
    Could it be that Dostoyevsky was right?
    “Neither man or nation can exist without a sublime idea.”Report

  4. Greginak: Absolutely correct on that point. That said, I think we tend to forget in the blogosphere that neither the partisans of the Right nor those of us who are passionately anti-torture are really in touch with the average workaday American on this issue. Given the circumstances, the average workaday American has pretty good reason to want revenge, and they’ll usually be pretty open about it, and they’ll also be pretty open about the fact that they would nonetheless consider those acts of revenge immoral.

    Maybe a good analogy is the death penalty. Americans are fully aware that killing someone is morally wrong; but they assume that the death penalty has a deterrent effect or that it provides some moral closure for truly heinous crimes. Since it’s theoretically (though by no means actually) only ever applied against perpetrators of heinous crimes and not against friends and neighbors, there’s little reason for the average person to care all that much about the morality part of the equation – it’s not like they’re the ones pulling the switch, after all, and it’s tough enough to worry about one’s own morality without having to worry about some distant government entity’s morality. But the moral retribution and/or deterrent effect DO matter quite a bit to the average American since there’s at least a theoretical chance that they or a friend or family member could be a victim of a particularly heinous crime. If they’re going to fight to oppose the death penalty, most folks probably need to be convinced to some varying degree that: 1. The death penalty doesn’t have any significant deterrent effect (and they do increasingly realize this to be true); and/or 2. The death penalty is rife for abuse and at least sometimes leads to the execution of innocent people, who could be their friends and neighbors. Only once its perceived benefits decrease to some degree will concern about the death penalty’s morality register as a priority worth spending time on.Report

  5. Roque Nuevo says:

    On the whole, I don’t see anything different about this than the hundreds and thousands of other published opinions on our use of torture. I agree with a lot of it. But I’m not all that interested in deciding whether a certain practice is torture or not, and therefore immoral or not, and therefore reason to form some idiot “truth commission” or not. My point isn’t deciding whether we’re going down some black hole and a police state is just around the corner—i.e., the slippery-slope, “we’re losing our soul” argument—which I have yet to see ED Kain defend. All these things to me are only political wedge issues—maybe entertaining to debate but irrelevant to political analysis. I can’t see how one can deny that a lot of people are just using the controversy to admire their own approach to morality and this frankly disgusts me. I hate to be lectured to on morality.

    The point of view I’ve been trying to promote is centered on the decision-making process that led to our use of torture, where all of what you say comes into play. This is where the idea that “it’s lonely at the top” acquires a terrible reality. I refuse to believe that Bush is some monster who “went into a psycho rage of hatred toward Muslim’s [sic] and their countries Chris WWW dixit after 9/11. I believe that Bush’s moral framework is just as in-line with what people here want to promote as anyone’s. But he had the responsibility of making a decision and nobody else.

    This is why I’ll continue to defend him. Not exactly because I think he did the right thing (i.e., the “efficacy” argument). We could argue about that if Obama hadn’t blacked-out the relevant information from the memos he published. Maybe soon we’ll known what was in there and then I’ll find out that he did the wrong thing.

    If torturing a handful of people is going to save a few thousand lives, the government’s immoral actions are well justified (to the average person) by the .00001% increase in the likelihood that they’ll be able to continue feeding their family until they retire or die of old age. On the other hand, this isn’t going to be the case if it’s only going to save one or two or a handful of live[s]; and it’s definitely not going to be the case if it actually costs more lives than it saves.

    This is exactly the calculation that Bush is forced to make. Except your “.00001%” idea is bogus. It should be “.00001% less chance that Americans will die in the war.” It has to come down to thinking that even saving one American life would be worth it. How could he face the family of even that one dead American knowing he could have prevented it? And, of course, it never comes down to this. It’s about getting an advantage in the war. Bush was CIC. His job is to get an advantage in the war. He thought that by using torture is a limited and safe way would get us an advantage. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. Like I say, this has not been established yet, largely because the information is still classified. If we get an advantage and defeat the jihadists, then Americans are safer. That’s the president’s responsibility.

    The president is CIC. His job is to save American lives. Nobody says that this “overrides” his oath of office, to “preserve and protect the Constitution” but if it conflicts with it, then what? Does he do the right thing and “preserve and protect the Constitution” or does he do the right thing by saving American lives? How will history judge his decision? Will his decision lead to his reelection, or his party’s enhanced hold on power or not? Etc etc. Keep in mind that if Bush did violate his oath to “preserve and protect” he wasn’t the first president to do so nor will he be the last. The first was Jefferson when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase. Roosevelt was operating the Lend/Lease program outside the margins of the law for years before WWII. These two are ranked among our greatest presidents. James K. Polk trumped up a bogus causus beli against Mexico, which was a startling model for Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1965, and declared war against them and later annexed half their territory. Do you (or ED Kain) want to give it back to them because his actions were immoral?

    Still, I can’t see that Bush even broke the law in such an egregious way as Jefferson, Polk, Roosevelt, and Johnson did. What I see is that he was trying to expand the limits of the law. That was the whole purpose of the memos. At the time, even waterboarding hadn’t been ruled as torture. He had a case that it wasn’t even if you and everyone else here disagree. Maybe in doing so he actually went outside it. Most people here think he did. I really don’t know. But expanding the limits of the law is how the law is used, isn’t it? Aren’t we always trying to see just how far we can get? That’s the American way, isn’t it? At least, that’s the basis of the “checks and balances” theory that Madison invented in 1787.

    This is one reason why I say that the “truth commission” idea is idiotic. Another reason is that it would uncover worse abuses under Clinton (there goes ED Kain’s “slippery-slope-we’re-losing-our-souls” argument). Another reason is that Congress was informed all along about what we were doing and raised no objections until it became politically correct to do so. Another reason is that a “truth commission” puts us on the same level of some tinpot thirdworld dictatorship and we’d be making a spectacle of ourselves once again for nothing. Whatever Bush authorized is not even in the same ballpark as the atrocities committed in El Salvador, for example. To say that it is is simply Andrew-Sullivan-style panties-in-a-wad moral posturing.Report

  6. Roque Nuevo says:

    Your death penalty example is just one more reason why ED Kain’s “we’re losing our soul” argument is so bogus. The tendency today is for the death penalty to disappear. If ED Kain were correct, we’d be murdering more and more people in our prisons every year, but the opposite is true. Some states have gone many years without an execution, even if it’s still legal there. More states have outlawed it. A hundred years ago we were lynching people in public. Where, exactly, is the slippery slope?

    Another analogy is abortion. Who can really deny that abortion kills a human life? What’s in the mother’s belly otherwise, no matter how far along she is in her pregnancy? But people will accept the fact that the state permits abortion, just like it permits the death penalty, because the state has the right to do so, i.e., permit murder, if it has a good reason for it.Report

  7. Cascadian says:

    I re read The Penal Colony this morning. I can’t sign on. Though I may allow for instances where the participants are convinced enough of the national interest that they sacrifice themselves to the process, I can’t seriously, or honestly, entertain the notion that torture is an acceptable activity.

    If, as you claim, most Americans in the twentieth century still believe this is a gray area, then we do in fact have a problem and need to deal with reality. We might want to rethink the efficacy of the whole enlightenment project. I don’t know. The conclusion seems to call for a drastic rethinking of our institutions.Report

  8. Winston says:

    I think just about all the discussion here and elsewhere are missing a key point. There actually is a way to square the circle – and that is to keep torture illegal under ALL circumstances, even when it is extremely effective and would save many lives. The person who tortures under these circumstances would know that he would be indicted and subject to trial by a jury of his peers who would decide whether the particular circumstances justified leniency or even a non-guilty verdict. The rough comparison I would make is to a private agreement with my spouse about whether she should assist me in a suicide under certain medical conditions. Do I think assisted suicide should be legal? I do not. That would lead to and grease a terribly slippery slope. We want that deterrence in place, so that there are criminal penalties associated with assisted suicide. But under certain circumstances one can imagine that no jury would convict. Similarly, I would want a blanket legal prohibition against torture. But there might well be very particular circumstances where I would feel compelled to proceed, and throw myself on the mercy of the court. That preserves the rule of law; deters unjustified or particularly horrific forms of torture; and, if the law is violated, puts the final adjudication of these issues where it belongs: in the justice system.Report

  9. Roque Nuevo says:

    The conclusion seems to call for a drastic rethinking of our institutions. I hope so. This is exactly what I’ve been saying here for a while.

    By the way, In the Penal Colony was based on the so-called enlightened efforts of one of the commanders of the penal colony in Australia early in the nineteenth century to mold the so-called criminals to society’s moral standards. It was an Enlightenment approach to prisons at the time, so there goes (once again) the slippery-slope argument along with the “efficacy of the Enlightenment project.” This project has only become clearer as time goes by. For the Australian history, read Bob Hughes, The Fatal Shore.Report

  10. Roque:

    First, I think you misinterpret the point I was trying to make here, which was that for the average American, there’s no real reason to be passionate about this issue unless they think that torture, waterboarding, etc. were and are relatively ineffective at making them safer. That’s not to say that the average American necessarily approves of what was done, just that they lack the interest to care one way or another unless they think it directly affects them. This is true whatever those of us who emphasize the moral issue may wish.

    As for the issue of Bush’s decisionmaking here, look, I can fully acknowledge that his decision was not easy, at least in 2001-2002 (2005 should have been another issue, though). I can also even appreciate the ethical conflict between faithfully executing the laws and protecting and defending Americans.

    However, the existence of an ethical conflict does not create a Constitutional conflict. For all purposes relevent here, the Constitution gives the President the duty only to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It does not provide him with a duty to protect the physical well-being of Americans. Additionally, I should note that the Commander in Chief powers (which are powers, not duties) refer only to the President’s role with respect to the armed forces, of which the CIA is not a part. Even if it did, a duty always – ALWAYS – takes precedence over a power.

    So Constitutionally, the President’s duty was, first and foremost, to “faithfully execute the laws” and to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.” While it’s perfectly rational to wish otherwise, defending American lives is Constitutionally irrelevant. Thus, there was no conflict in the President’s Constitutional responsibilities – his first responsibility was to abide by the laws; to the extent he sought to defend American lives, he and his advisors should have known that he could do so only within the strictures of existing statutory and Constitutional law.

    Even if there were a Constitutional duty to protect American lives, the power to fulfill that duty could only be construed as being restricted by the laws enacted by Congress and by other Constitutional provisions. Otherwise, the President would have truly absolute power in both foreign and domestic affairs since just about any policy can be justified as being necessary to “protect American lives.”

    But these are legal questions, and American public opinion, which is what will ultimately decide what future actions will be taken against Bush Administration officials, doesn’t much care about the niceties of the Constitution, at least not unless they are somehow personally affected by the Constitutional violation.

    On the issue of waterboarding not being known as torture under the law, I really can’t emphasize enough how totally not the case that was. Others have noted that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers for exactly that, so there was precedent. But beyond that, the words of the treaty and the statute are pretty clear, and it’s difficult to come up with an interpretation of those words that doesn’t conclude that the use of all these acts repeatedly in a program is torture. Even if it weren’t torture, the Eighth Amendment prohibition would still come clearly into play – waterboarding is certainly both cruel and unusual.

    Now, of course the Bush Administration’s actions are not the first to violate the Constitution or the law – every administration has done it, often regularly (and don’t even get me started on FDR). I would, however, note that the examples to which you cite did not involve criminal actions, merely unconstitutional actions. The criminality, under duly enacted US law, is what makes this situation somewhat unique.

    Still, I confess that I don’t think prosecution of Bush Administration officials is an easy decision – I’ve already expressed that I think the individual CIA officers deserve qualified immunity at a very minimum. Without further investigation, I can’t yet conclude that the OLC attorneys had the requisite mens rea for criminal charges, although that does not lessen my outrage at the derogation of duty reflected in those opinions. If it’s found that the attorneys lacked that mens rea, then I think non-attorney Bush Administration officials would possibly be entitled to some sort of qualified immunity.

    One final point – “expanding the limits of the law” was definitively NOT the right or duty of the OLC attorneys, or for that matter any government official who is charged with faithfully enforcing the laws and with preserving and defending the Constitution. The Executive branch of government may often wind up pushing the limits of the law, but that is not its responsibility and is instead, I would argue, simply the result of Congress’ near-complete abdication of power over the last 70 years – but that is an issue for another time. Regardless, tolerating a branch’s inclination towards seeking more power, no matter how illegally and unconstitutionally, is only acceptable if there is a legitimate check to that inclination. Because of the nature of these cases, here the only such check was the OLC, which chose instead to act as an advocate for the Executive Branch.Report

  11. Catching up. Briefly:

    @Cascadian: The point I was trying to make here isn’t so much that this is a gray area to most Americans as it is that there’s little reason for most Americans to care much about the morality of the situation until and unless it can be shown that it affects them or those they know. Like I said, changing the light bulb in the attic is (and arguably should be) a higher priority for most Americans than worrying about whether their government tortured two or three Really Bad Dudes. If that torture winds up affecting them or their neighbors negatively, then and only then will they much care.

    @Winston – actually, I’ve been making exactly that argument for a good year now, maybe more.Report

  12. Roque Nuevo says:

    Mark: I think you have a lot of fair points to make. On one thing, though, I still say you’re wrong: the Eighth amendment does not protect enemy combatants in a foreign war. And in spite of everything, waterboarding had not been ruled as torture by US courts at the time Bush authorized it. Maybe he should have known, maybe not. But the pressure was on to get info out of KSM. What would you have him do then, especially if it’s true that the torture of KSM worked and we got information to thwart future attacks?Report

  13. Herb says:

    “there’s no real reason to be passionate about this issue unless they think that torture, waterboarding, etc. were and are relatively ineffective at making them safer.”

    Perhaps…but I think the “making them safer” argument doesn’t hold any water either. Take the gun control issue. Curbing gun rights would result in “making us safer” but you don’t hear anyone making that argument from the right. Climate change? “Making us safer” doesn’t even play into it.Report

  14. ChrisWWW says:

    The first was Jefferson when he authorized the Louisiana Purchase. Roosevelt was operating the Lend/Lease program outside the margins of the law for years before WWII. These two are ranked among our greatest presidents. James K. Polk trumped up a bogus causus beli against Mexico, which was a startling model for Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1965, and declared war against them and later annexed half their territory. Do you (or ED Kain) want to give it back to them because his actions were immoral?

    I think at the very least we should have given back the land we took from Mexico. Of course we should have done that 150 years ago, because now it would be a terrible moral injustice to U.S. citizens who have built lives on that land. That’s the same reason no one is arguing giving up control of the United States to Native American tribes.

    In any case, I’m not interested in defending the entirety of American history or English history before that. It doesn’t have a bearing on what moral decisions we make here and now about what sort of country we are. Do we want to be like the UAE which recently turned the other way after a prince tortured a man, or do we expect our elected officials to abide by ours laws, like they do in Peru.

    If Bush and Cheney weren’t cowards, they would have asked Congress to throw out the laws barring torture and shred the relevant treaties. But I suspect they knew Americans wouldn’t accept shared responsibility for the monstrous treatment of our prisoners, even if they had Muslim sounding names. Whatever the reason, they left the laws on the books, and they were required to abide by them. Those very same laws compel us to investigate and prosecute them.Report

  15. The Eighth Amendment is not restricted to protecting legal “persons,” unlike the Fifth Amendment. It say in its entirety: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. ”

    Additionally, AFAIK (not positive), it also applies to foreign affairs through treaty obligations.

    Finally, the duty of the OLC attorneys was not to consider the potential efficacy or inefficacy of the torture, although other officials may have been justified in doing so. But even those other officials, to the extent they were or reasonably should have been aware that they were authorizing illegal torture, did so at their own risk. The affirmative defense of necessity would presumably be available to them, as Winston indirectly suggests above and as I’ve been noting for a long while; the big problem is that they probably wouldn’t be able to prove that the harm to be prevented was imminent such that torture was truly the only option, so the necessity defense would likely fail.

    Regardless, what you are asking, i.e., what should they have done under the circumstances, is currently a purely moral question rather than a legal one. The law was clear – no torture, no exceptions. Sometimes the result many, maybe most, people would prefer as being the normatively best result is not the result the law allows. What is legal and what is moral are always two very different questions.Report

  16. Herb: The problem with your argument is that it: 1. Assumes gun control and climate legislation would make us safer, which whatever my personal thoughts, is not something upon which everyone agrees; and 2. There is no cost to the average American by implementing such measures. Those costs play into the calculus quite a bit.Report

  17. NDP405 says:


    In regards to your ends justifying your means argument and that Bush was being Commander in Chief by torturing people, how do you justify this:


  18. Roque Nuevo says:

    1. I said that Bush was fulfilling his duty as CIC by trying to stretch the limits on the definitions of torture, so as to get information to thwart future attacks on America. As far as I know, he never authorized anything that had been defined as torture at the time.
    2. Keep in mind that we’re not discussing “torturing people” in general. According to the memos, we’re talking about torturing only some captives thought to be in possession of high-value information. And, again, at the time, the techniques that were inflicted on them had not been defined as torture yet.
    3. As for the link you threw up at me, well… if it’s true, then I put that in the category of Polk’s “American blood was spilled on American soil” speech that got us to declare war on Mexico. In other words, if true, Bush was pushing a lie to justify the invasion of Iraq. Note that the article you link to does not accuse Bush of fabricating a link between Saddam and 9/11 but only a link between him and al Qaeda in general.

    However, this wasn’t the only justification for the invasion of Iraq or even the most important one. Besides, I can’t see how they would need to fabricate evidence of Saddam’s links with al Qaeda when al Zarqawi was already in Iraq after the invasion of Afghanistan. Wikipedia:

    In the summer of 2002, Zarqawi settled in northern Iraq, where he joined the Islamist Ansar al-Islam group that fought against the Kurdish-nationalist forces in the region. He became a leader in the group, although the extent of his authority has not been established. According to Perspectives on World History and Current Events (PWHCE), a not-for-profit project based in Melbourne, Australia, “Zarqawi was well positioned to lead the Islamic wing of the insurgency when the March 2003 invasion took place. Whether he remained in Ansar al-Islam camps until April 2003 or laid the preparations for the war during extensive visits to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle is uncertain, but clearly he emerged as an important figure in the insurgency soon after the Coalition invasion.”

    Ansar al-Islam, of course, was an al Qaeda affiliate. Whether or not Zarqawi was under bin Laden’s orders in 2002 or not, he was an adherent of the same fanatic ideology. Therefore, I say that Bush would have been justified in seeing his presence in Iraq as a growing threat to us.Report

  19. Roque:

    The trouble with your CIC argument is that it misunderstands the CIC clause in the Constitution. His role as Commander-in-Chief is defined as a power, not as a duty – this is an important distinction. If it were defined as a duty, then perhaps there would be an argument that “defending Americans” falls within that duty – but it’s not a duty, it’s a power.

    Additionally, even if it were a duty, the CIA is not, to my knowledge, considered part of the Armed Forces such that the CIC clause would be relevant.Report

  20. ChrisWWW says:

    As far as I know, he never authorized anything that had been defined as torture at the time.
    It doesn’t matter if they didn’t know it was illegal. Ignorance is not a valid defense for breaking the law. “Murder? What’s that?”

    But I don’t think anyone could read the plainly written statute against torture and not believe that waterboarding, stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation and beatings weren’t torture or more specifically “the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering.”

    The law intentionally sets the bar very low – even threatened infliction of pain is illegal – to provide maximum protection for prisoners.

    On a related note, even if you thought somehow that treatment wasn’t causing severe pain, wouldn’t you concede that waterboarding is all about threatening death by drowning?Report

  21. angulimala says:

    We have been thinking about you and Seth and wondering when we would be hearing from you next

    He swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, NOT to protect and defend American lives.Report

  22. Miles Stuart says:

    The trouble is that for the vast majority of people, the issue isn’t whether torture is moral or immoral, but whether the results it provides warrant the breach of morality.

    Which is how we ended up torturing people.
    The laws and prohibitions on torture we have are not the result of abstract theorising, they are the embodiment of what our fathers learnt from the mistakes and crimes of the past. The question now is what should we learn from this and bequeath to our children.

    I live in the UK so I do not have as good a feel for the values and attitudes of average Americans as of Europeans. Torture may be a marginal concern to average Americans, I do not know, but to average Europeans it is an absolute anathema even in the UK and Ireland which were not occupied by the Nazis.

    I wish I could believe that Bush agonised over difficult moral dilemmas, but I just don’t. It is not that he was evil, he was just not capable of grappling with complexity.

    Roque said:

    … if it’s true, then I put that in the category of Polk’s “American blood was spilled on American soil” speech that got us to declare war on Mexico. In other words, if true, Bush was pushing a lie to justify the invasion of Iraq.

    Hold that thought.
    “In the summer of 2002, Zarqawi settled in northern Iraq”.
    Where he was a fugitive from the Saddam regime, not an accomplice of it.

    As I write this I am listening to a radio report of the collapsing Pakistani state. Do we now think it was a good idea to support all those military dictatorships? The problems we face today are often direct consequences of the moral compromises we made yesteryear. Do we now think that Rumsfeld and Cheney were wise to support Islamic fundamentalists in the 1980’s? If it is justified for us to use torture, why would it not be justified for the Pakistani government to do so? Do we think that will help to re-establish civil society, a democratic culture and the rule of law in Pakistan? Or do we not care?
    Which is of course how we got here.

    Torture has been a pervasive feature of political life since time immemorial. Look back at the history of it and how it is still used today. How much of it has been ‘good’ torture? If its use is legitimised in by any state (particularly one as overwhelmingly dominant as the US) then humanity loses a powerful moral weapon against tyrants everywhere.
    Is the fraction gain, assuming there is one, really worth the loss of moral authority?

    We are making the world our children will live in.
    What sort of world do we want it to be?Report

  23. Katherine says:

    I disagree. When we make the argument over whether torture is useful, rather than over the fact that torture is, under any circumstances, wrong, we weaken our argument. Because someone like Cheney or George Will or Mukasey can just keep saying “it saved lives”, and if they say it long enough people will believe it regardless of truth. “Torture is wrong” is a stronger argument that “torture is bad policy in most circumstances.”

    And if the American people don’t believe that – well, that’s their problem and America’s. But I think you may be underestimating them. When even someone on Fox is saying he it doesn’t matter if it works or not, it’s still wrong, there’s a good chance others feel similarly. We need to strengthen that sentiment, not undermine it. It’s true that torture isn’t effective, but this is not a policy question, it is a moral one. If we make it a policy question, we implicitly condone it.Report

  24. Michael Drew says:

    On what are you basing your low estimation of what matters to Americans? Do you have polling data? Sure many people don’t particularly care what happens to KSM. But that doesn’t mean that they condone illegal torture by Americans. The fact is that large numbers of Americans profoundly care what it means for the U.S. to break its own laws and turn its greatest enemies into its own victims, even if concern for those victims per se is not the driving reason for their views. Moreover, recent polling shows that a majority of Americans believe that torture should NEVER be used (http://voices.washingtonpost.com/behind-the-numbers/2009/01/on_torture.html?wprss=behind-the-numbers). So while the way you describe the thinking of “workaday” Americans may be accurate if you define that set to be those people who think the way you describe them to, the meaning of such data-free speculation is ultimately pretty much nil.Report

  25. Michael – I never said Americans weren’t opposed to these actions or didn’t consider these actions to be torture. I just said that they don’t seem to be particularly outraged over it – it’s not like this stuff is new, and those of us who have been complaining about torture loudly for years have gotten into the habit of being routinely frustrated by the lack of real outrage in the press or in the American public. Do I have polling data to back this up? No. But neither am I aware of any polling data saying that this IS a high priority for most Americans. This is because polling on prioritization, rather than straight up-or-down, yes-or-no opinion, is pretty rare. Even if it were done, there’s usually a big discrepancy between what people say they care about and what people actually care about enough to do something.

    That said, if the case is clearly made to the public – and increasingly it is – that the torture memos, etc. led directly to Abu Ghraib and the torture of truly innocent prisoners, then it’s a different story altogether. It’s entirely possible that the tide has finally turned with the release of these memos; but given how long some of us have been talking about this, I think I have good reason to be skeptical.Report

  26. From Mark:

    The trouble is that for the vast majority of people, the issue isn’t whether torture is moral or immoral, but whether the results it provides warrant the breach of morality. For some of us (and I include myself in that group), the morality breach is never or almost never worth it.

    I think ultimately you are right. This will not be a conversation about whether or not certain techniques are torture, but instead it will be about whether or not torture is okay. Otherwise the govt can just keep inventing new methods to stay one step ahead of the people who define various techniques (personally i find sleep deprivation to be a-ok, but suprisingly i’m less okay with zapping someone’s testicles with a cattle prod.)

    As for the statement of morality, I find it hard to reconcile the immorality of torture with the morality of war in general. If we accept that sometimes the only way to deal with some people is to blow people up with precision-guided bombs, why do we draw another line in opposition to making them think they are drowning even though they really aren’t?

    But then again, I’ve never really understood the ‘rules of war’ mentality. As Stonewall Jackson said, “If it were up to me, it would be the black flag. That is the quickest way to bring wars to a conclusion.”Report

  27. Mike:

    I think this sentence of yours hits it right on the head, especially since you make it as a positive rather than normative statement:

    “This will not be a conversation about whether or not certain techniques are torture, but instead it will be about whether or not torture is okay. Otherwise the govt can just keep inventing new methods to stay one step ahead of the people who define various techniques.”

    I’m not sure how much I agree with the rest of your point. I think the amount of sleep deprivation were talking about here is troubling for any number of reasons. That said, the role of morality in war is a topic that is well worth exploring, and on which I’ve got some conflicted views. I’m not sure whether I’d agree, but I could see a plausible argument to be made that having “rules of war” makes war more likely.

    To quote another famous Civil War general: “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” Of course, I’d counter that the horrors of WWI did little to stop WWII. But it’s a worthwhile question.Report

  28. Mark,

    I guess my point about the supposed immorality of torture in the context of war is that it ignores the realities of what war is. While there have been some wars where the fighting only stopped when the opposing forces were annhilated and one side was left firmly in control of the landscape, there have been many other wars that were more psychological in nature. I’m thinking specifically of the aerial wars favored by Clinton with regards to Bosnia and Iraq but also even a medieval seige of some fortress city in Europe. In both scenarios the goal was not to obliterate the opposing forces but instead it was to inflict a lot of psychological damage on the them so as to bend their will to the goals of the attackers. It could be argued pretty effectively that a member of the Republican Guard who had to spend several sleepless nights in a bunker while American planes bombed the holy heck out of Baghdad was subject to a sort of psychological torture. Likewise the residents of Paris in 886 who watched the bodies of dead prisoners flung over the walls of their city by Viking invaders were subject to a sort of psychological torture as well.

    While there is a physical component to techniques like waterboarding, it seems the psychological torment is the real by-product. I wonder if it is really so different than the experience of someone who experiences the general horrors of war. Do we put torture on a forbidden shelf because of its solo nature? Where is the line?Report