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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Battle Torture - Iron Blogger Green - First Rebuttal

I seem to have opened a can of 'em by invoking the Age of Enlightenment. The Challenger obviously has a more-than passing familiarity with this period, which is appropriate; the philosophies of good vs. evil, rational vs. irrational, just vs. unjust, are central to this debate, and should not be omitted from it. I do find myself, however, questioning his interpretations of some of the wisdom he quotes; as, indeed, he seems to do himself.

He begins with a definition. I also prefer not to sidestep into semantics, but I have found another definition which might be more authoritative in this debate.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (to which the United States of America has been signatory since April 18, 1988), the definition of torture is as follows:


Article 1

1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.

I think that definition is sufficiently wide for our purposes, and markedly broader than the one supplied by the Challenger, which seems to center on physical pain, with a side order of mental anguish.

In my Opening Statement, I covered a lot of ground that is well known to us all. Few in this time have not heard of the Witch Persecutions, the French Revolution, or the Holocaust. I felt, and still feel, that it was worth revisiting those times, because they were not isolated incidents. In truth, it would have been appallingly easy to have gone into many more such times, in many more locations, and, as the Challenger states, in much bloodier detail. I did consider using graphic descriptions of the effects of torture, but I think that kind of imagery is well-enough implied by the word itself; we are all aware of several horrifying things that can be done to (to borrow a phrase) hearts and minds. Giving gory descriptions might be effective, but only in shock value. I hope to prove my point on a more solid foundation, although I will not rule out references to sources containing such material: It may be superfluous in detail, but it is relevant in substance.

The foundation of the Challenger’s position, as I believe he himself has laid out, is the difference between Utilitarianism and Absolutism. He takes the role of the Utilitarian, and invites me to play the Absolutist. I don’t find myself in that role, however. The Challenger quotes Nagel in defining these terms, but even Nagel qualified that division by the belief that ‘the gains from a certain measure will clearly outweigh its costs’. The Challenger seems to accept that qualification and be prepared to move forward from there, but I disagree. I think that that qualification is where the Challenger’s case finds its root flaw. Are the abuses at the hands of (specifically) Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay worthy enough that they ‘clearly outweigh’ their costs? The Challenger bases much of his argument on this assumption; as I see it, however, that constitutes a very large and uncertain leap.

He goes on to say that, in our present situation, torture is better defined as interrogation, rather than in the same historical sense as the atrocities at Auschwitz, Paris, and Salem. Again, I find this to be a highly questionable position.

The footholds of the Challenger's argument, then, are first the assumption that torture as we see it being used today is benevolent and that the ends justify the means; and second, the belief that, except for "a few of those soldiers", American use of torture has been controlled enough and mild enough to be classified under the less inflammatory category of 'interrogation'.

Let's examine the former. The Challenger himself points out two major flaws in this argument. First, that "many Nazis believed that what they were doing served a higher purpose", and almost immediately thereafter, "Torture was rarely used to serve a purpose that was acceptable by moral standards (except some religious ones, unfortunately.) ". He also goes on to state that "That word (interrogation) is simply a dressing-up of something that is less appealing, so it doesn’t sound as bad.", which actually is just an alternate phrasing for the definition of the word 'euphemism'.

Allow me to take a look at those examples, again using my own references to the Nazi Holocaust and the Witch Persecutions (the Reign of Terror, I think we all can agree, was primarily driven by revenge).

A good entry point here is the idea that, in reference to the ultimate intended outcome of the Holocaust, "it is quite obvious that the world would have nothing to gain from that sort of 'final solution.'" I would agree absolutely, as, I hope, would any of us. Yet even today, there are many who would take an entirely different stance. Most of us look at such groups of people as extremists, obsessive, even mad. But imagine that history had taken a different path, and Nazi Germany had succeeded in enacting its Final Solution. Having been born and raised in a world in which the genocide of the Jewish people was not only fact, but taught to children as a right and moral thing, would we still find it obvious that it had been the wrong thing to do?

Today in America, there are many who take deep offense at lawsuits brought against the United States by Indian nations, or the idea of reparations to the descendents of the victims of slavery. Yet in many ways, the situations of these two groups of people are comparable to what was inflicted, or intended, by the Nazis upon the Jews, or the Catholics upon the Pagans. The separation of time has a way of seeming to minimalize such actions, at least to those who did not directly suffer them. If a handful of surviving Jews were demanding reparations today, would they be given any more attention than the Indians, or the American Black, or even the modern Pagans, who are still often perceived as blood-thirsty, sex-crazed Devil worshippers (no offense to The Devil You Know), in spite of the total inaccuracy of that image.

It has been said many times (and nobody seems to know who said it first) that “History is written by the victor”. What we see today as a hideous atrocity, beyond all reason, might be viewed entirely differently, had the other side prevailed.

We all know the old morals question, “If you could prevent the Holocaust by traveling back in time and killing Hitler when he was a baby, would you do it?” Many of us would say yes in an instant. But then there is the subsequent question, “If you could prevent it by going further back in time and killing his grandparents, before his parents were even born, would you still?”

I think some among us would have a more difficult time with that one, and that, I believe, is the perfect illustration of our topic. It’s easy to say that it’s worth torturing a guilty person to gain information that might save an innocent. If any one of us could go back in time and ensure that President Clinton was right on the mark when he tried to kill Osama bin Laden long before 9/11/01 , who wouldn’t jump at the chance?

But I don’t think we can debate that question without further asking if it’s still justified to even take the chance of torturing an innocent person, and saving no one; and further still, even if that does seem justified, how can we be sure? To a person brought up in a successful Thousand-Year Reich, even the Holocaust as we know it today might be remembered in the same vein as the Haitian Slave Revolt, the German Peasants' War, or the War of 1812.

The Challenger himself defines the basis of this debate as comparable to that of good vs. evil, and I agree. I submit, however, that it isn’t always clear at the time precisely which side you’re on. Were the Sioux and Cheyenne in the right when they massacred the troops of General Custer at Little Bighorn? Or were the U. S. troops in the right, four years later, when they massacred the Sioux at Wounded Knee? If you ask a Caucasian American today, you might get a different answer than if you ask a Sioux, as I've illustrated above.

The Challenger saves me having to point out that Kant would almost certainly have opposed any form of torture. In fact, the concept of 'duty' as expressed by Kant is not the military sense of duty, but the duty to one's own ability to reason. His entire framework of morality is based on the reasoning processes of the individual, rather than an obedience to the commands of others. Kant's position on this less personal sort of duty, expressed in his Metaphysics of Ethics (written in 1797, some twelve years after the Groundwork), is that "no action performed for expediency or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral." Kant embodies this concept in the philosophy, "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law".

I doubt that most of us would care to live in a world entirely populated by torturers. I think, rather, that Kant would have agreed with John Donne, in that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind".

I move on now to my second perceived weakness in the foundation of the Challenger's position; the assumption that current American use of torture is better termed as interrogation.

In his Opening Statement, the Challenger points to an article that describes how American interrogations of Saddam Hussein since his capture last December have helped to "…round up insurgents and identify false leads..." The article doesn't describe what interrogation techniques were used, but neither does it claim any specific results. I haven't heard anybody arguing that Saddam Hussein even remotely resembled an innocent, and the fact that he inflicted atrocities as hideous as any upon his prisoners is beyond dispute. If this information saved lives, American or Iraqi, few (if any) among us would weep for the miseries of Saddam Hussein.

But members of his family or party who remain loyal to him might. And if so, certainly they feel as much in the right about their beliefs as we do in ours. But we don't even know that the information won from Hussein saved any lives. Suppose nothing of substance was gained? His information might well have been outdated; the insurgents he named may have been innocents against whom he held a personal grudge. Are we then still in the right, for having inflicted harm on him? He was, after all, a murderous monster. The difficulty lies in that until you have the information gleaned from torture in your hand, and are able to follow up on it, there is no way to be absolutely certain that the person being tortured will, in fact, be the key to saving or helping any innocents. It would be nearly impossible, then, to be certain that the person being tortured was himself (or herself) not an innocent.

There have been several revelations, in recent years, of innocent people being put on Death Row in America, or possibly even wrongly executed. The judicial system is not infallible; mistakes can be made. This is why the Court of Appeals was invented. Once a sentence of death has been inflicted, however, finding out that the executed person was innocent is not really much different than seeing that the Witch in the dunking chair did, in fact, drown…oops.

The scandals at Abu Ghraib and at Camp Bucca, the BIF, and Al Mahmudiya, are not yet fully known to us. There are credible reports of tortures at Abu Ghraib which did, in fact, cause deaths. There may not have been maimings (unless you count serious dog bites or wounds stitched by amateurs), or people forced to watch their spouses raped, but there were prisoners who were themselves raped.

The Challenger contends that the only acceptable use of torture is in interrogation. I’ve already given examples of how easily that goal can become lost. Even if the focus on interrogation does not slip or become blurred, without a judicial process that is 100% accurate, there are going to be innocents who are abused, or slain, without cause. But how often does that happen?

Abu Ghraib, as we know, is still being investigated. But there are reports already that many of the prisoners there were innocent people, picked up at random, or instead of a person who’d been intended to be arrested but could not be found; that the guards at the prison were not qualified for that duty, and that racism and intolerance were running high. There are prisoners in Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay, who have not been arrested, tried or convicted, and who may well have been tortured.

The Challenger maintains that Abu Ghraib (and, presumably, the other current situations), are incidents in which “a few of those soldiers got out of hand”. But the investigations already have implicated private mercenaries, intelligence officers, superior officers, the Secretary of Defense and possibly even the White House itself. Should these allegations prove true, then we are already in a situation where the initial use of torture for the cause of good, in interrogation only, has been perverted from ‘saving lives’ to the purpose of ‘destroying them’.

"Indeed," the Challenger tells us, "we find that in the media, the word [torure] is completely subjective to the user in which light they would like to cast the torturing party in."

By the same token, the torture itself may also be subjective, depending on not only the torturer but also on the victim.

In the Islamic world, the actions used against the prisoners at Abu Ghraib had a different effect than they might have elsewhere. In America, most men would have been embarrassed, humiliated, even outraged by being forced into those positions. To a man raised in that Islamic tradition, it goes far beyond that, into realms of utter mortification. Just the act of being naked in the company of another man, or a woman not his wife, may be torturous to him. To most of us, it would be little more than a laughable embarrassment. To him, it is a violation that strikes to the core of his very being.

The Challenger imagines that "The most common result of this mistreatment was either humiliation or periods of intense fear". Yet even his own definition of the word 'torture' includes 'excrutiating...mental pain' and 'severe...anguish'. Perhaps the word 'interrogation' is equally as subjective as the word 'torture'.

I've run way over my limit, and for that I apologize. I'll end here with this thought:

The principle of the Challenger’s position has merit; it is, truly, difficult to argue against the idea that savaging, even ending, a few guilty lives to save many innocent ones is a justifiable act.
The problem is that in reality the practice rarely, if ever, bears out the principle.

"Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself."

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R. G. Pratt

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