17 February 2006

More About Torture

My irate comments of yesterday may have been interpreted by some to mean that I am Soft On Torture, or perhaps even an advocate thereof. To which I can only respond, no, I think torture in general is a Very Bad Thing, I am disgusted that our troops or anybody's troops may have stooped to using it, and I am still more disgusted that the US military is in such disarray that any soldiers could come to think that abuses like those that took place at Abu Ghraib were acceptable or tolerable. For that, of course, I blame the mental midgets at the top, who, regardless of whether you think the US should have gone into Iraq at all, completely mismanaged both the invasion and the subsequent occupation to the point where the situation today is considerably worse than before the invasion.

That being said, a little perspective here: this week's publication of new (or, more specifically, photos of abuses that occurred over two years ago) adds little or nothing to the debate. We already know that terrible things went on, that people around the world were shocked and appalled by them, and that the soldiers found to be responsible were charged, convicted and punished for them. To publish more photos now has limited news value (do we regularly see new photos of Islamist beheadings years after they occurred?), but a great deal of political value, at least to those who want to see America and/or the West portrayed as the principal villain behind nearly everything wrong in the world today.

In some senses, those favouring this latest atrocity exhibition have a common cause with those who would like to see the offending Danish cartoons plastered all over the world's newspapers and websites, in that both sides seem to have a vested interest in riling up murderous Muslim mobs. But those most enthusiastic about the torture photos, strangely enough, seem for the most part reticent about offending Muslim sensibilities when it comes to the cartoons. The borderline hysteric Lila Rajiva puts it like this:
Funny how freedom of expression -- so indispensable for the survival of Western Civilization when it comes to inflammatory and dangerous anti-Muslim imagery -- gets jettisoned in a hurry when it comes to exposing war crimes.
Ms Rajiva, whose diatribe goes on to elide various bits of conspiracy theory with bleatings over alleged "child abuse" by British soldiers at Basra, seems to be missing a couple points here. In the first place, no war crimes have been "exposed" by these new photos. The Abu Ghraib torture story was one of the most widely covered news events so far this decade. No matter where you lived in the world, you'd almost have to make a deliberate effort not to be aware of it. Secondly, the "inflammatory and dangerous anti-Muslim imagery" was only inflammatory and dangerous because there are disturbingly large numbers of superstitious fanatics in the Muslim world. If we were to follow Rajiva's reasoning that printing the cartoons is inflammatory and dangerous, how could printing new torture photos be any less so?

Speaking of inflammatory and dangerous, how about the way Rajiva's frothing-at-the-mouth fulminations manages to turn the slightest bit of unpleasantness into "torture" on a par with splinters being driven under your fingernails or jumper cables attached to your testicles. I'm not denying that genuine acts of torture appear to have been committed at Abu Ghraib and possibly elsewhere, nor that those responsible for them should be punished.

But being kept awake for long hours by questioning, having psychological pressure exerted on you to give up some information: if this is torture, then nearly every police department in the world is guilty of it. Desecrating the Koran - if this actually happened - is in poor taste, but is hardly "torture." I mean, I'd be seriously bummed out if you took my computer and smashed it to bits, and I might even cry a bit, especially if I hadn't backed up all the data, but I could hardly say I'd been tortured. What about men or women forced to strip naked? Happens every day to millions of teenagers in gym classes around the world.

So let's keep on topic here: sort out what is genuinely torture and punish the torturers. As for the rest, well, here's a suggestion: if you don't want your sensibilities or your personal space violated, how about not joining an army of car bombers randomly blowing up your fellow Iraqis in hopes that the ensuing chaos will allow the nutcases at the head of your movement to impose a totalitarian theocracy on your land?

Yes, I'm asking for a little personal responsibility here, and while I don't doubt that some perfectly innocent people have been arrested and abused - as if this doesn't happen in American and European law enforcement, too - but I think it's safe to say that the great majority of prisoners of war are prisoners specifically because they took up arms against the American or British forces. War is hell, folks, as the mismanaged, undermanned Coalition forces have also been finding out. Nobody comes out of it looking very good, though it's only since the Vietnam era that the most damning coverage of American excesses comes from America's own media. But meanwhile car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings on the part of Islamist rebels have become so routine that the media barely take notice of them unless they're particularly horrible, treating them instead like a Page 8 summary of the day's traffic tieups or police calls.

Lastly, I marvel at how the incident of British troops beating up some local young men who were captured after a rock-throwing battle has somehow been transmogrified into "child abuse." You can track the reporting of through subsequent editions and broadcasts. First the victims were "young Iraqi men throwing rocks at British troops," then they became "teenagers," then "barefoot teenagers" (as if the presence or absence of footwear had any bearing on one's ability to throw rocks, or, for that matter, fire an AK-47), and finally, "barefoot children."

Well, once again, I have a suggestion: if you don't want to have unpleasant encounters with armed men, don't throw rocks at them (feel free to pass this suggestion on to generations of Palestinian "children"). That's not to say that the British troops shouldn't have shown more self-control and shouldn't have been better commanded, but face it: get caught throwing rocks at the cops in Los Angeles or New York or Omaha and you're likely to have a pretty unpleasant time of it too.


JAB Seattle said...


Your analysis is an interesting one but seems to gloss over the very real problems of both waterboarding (the means by which Khalid Sheik Mohammad gave up some Al Queda plots....it also meets all the criteria for a mock execution as set down by the Geneva Conventions) and rendering. Rendering is an especialy troubling process by which private citizens are kidnapped, often violating the sovergeinity of other nations...in the most obvious case our ally Italy, and then taken to undisclosed locations for interrogations. American media has documented at least 2 of these cases in which the person rendered was later released without charge in a forgein country in the dead of night.
You also reference the brutal beating administerd to unarmed teens by heavily armored British soldiers. A case 2 years old but documented by the News of the World from a video tape obtained by friends of one of the soldiers. Especially troubling is the sick commentary by the filming soldier as the teens are held down and then kicked/punched by his fellows. One would think that those exporting democracy might want to allow the importers the luxury of seeing the difference between a civil society (which you are a firm believer in) and that of the warlord mentality, which you discuss in a later blog entry, by which men with guns enforce the rules they choose.

Larry Livermore said...

Hi there

I'm not really sure what "waterboarding" is; somehow I suspect it's a lot worse than it sounds, since the first thing that came to mind was some variation of snowboarding or surfing. So let's assume that it's a fairly gruesome form... Never mind, rather than speculate, I just looked it up: apparently it involves strapping someone to a board and dunking them underwater with the suggestions that they are going to be drowned.

Is this torture? Mental torture, certainly, and probably physical as well: I know I would strongly prefer it not be done to me. And as you'll note, what I said that was that some of the activities carried on - the sexual tauntings, the Koran-desecrating, for example - didn't strictly qualify as torture. This particular activity most likely would, even if no serious physical damage was done.

Am I all right with this? Not really, though I have to stretch my conscience to feel any sympathy for Khalid Sheik Mohammed or to censure CIA agents who are able to extract information about Al Qaeda plots from him.

As I tried to say, war is an awful business, and awful stuff happens as a matter of course. I can virtually guarantee that the same was true in "good" wars like WWII, but at that time there was both media censorship and media cooperation to keep negative or disheartening information from the public. Had that not been the case, had the American public known some of what we were doing to the Nazis (and to innocent German civilians), they might have been so appalled that support for the war would have flagged.

And here's where it gets sticky: if people had insisted that we fight World War II on a strictly humane and Geneva Convention-approved basis, and as a result, the Nazis had won, would that have been a good result?

Of course the analogy only holds true if one considers Islamic jihadists to be on a similar moral plane to the Nazis. I personally do feel that way, but I'm aware that many people might strongly disagree with me. And even still, yes, I have serious trouble justifying an "anything goes" approach to war, while at the same time, I have serious trouble with the the idea of allowing Nazism or Islamic fundamentalism to win for the sake of a moral principle. I suppose at that point one has to ask whether the violation of certain moral principles on our part makes us equivalent to or worse than our enemy, at which point I guess it no longer matters which side wins. Ultimately, you can colour me confused on this one.

Not so much on the "unarmed teens" episode. Although I found the video and especially the commentary very disturbing, the "teens" were only "unarmed" because the soldiers had already captured them and taken away their weapons, i.e., rocks. If you're going to defend them by saying it was "only" rocks, then I suggest you volunteer to stand in front of a rock-throwing mob yourself. Or are you forgetting that a favourite punishment under sharia law is stoning to death?

As I said earlier, it's the duty of police and soldiers to restrain their emotions, even when dealing with violent or heinous criminals, even if they've been attacked or had their lives put in danger by those criminals. So yes, the British soldiers involved should be punished for their breach of discipline and professionalism. But I don't think it's unfair to give some consideration to the fact that they had just been under attack by the "teens" that they had captured. That doesn't mean they should be let off, any more than the cops who beat up Rodney King should have been let off because Rodney King was an asshole who had put numerous people's lives in danger. All I'm arguing for is a bit of balance.

Lastly, I don't think any sensible commentator could argue that the US and British are "exporting democracy" or even claiming to. Democracy is an organic process which grows up of its own accord in societies which are mature and stable enough to sustain it. I think the best that military force can accomplish (and it can't always accomplish that) is to impose enough order for a society to be able to attain that maturity and stability. I have no idea whether the current Bush-led fiasco will ever be able to achieve that result, but I dread what is likely to happen if it doesn't.