Monday, October 25, 2010

Wikileaks: Torture

One might be forgiven for thinking that “the war is over.” Certainly the midterm elections are filling up the news and leaving no room for our action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places. But since the latest Wikileaks release has made some splash, we are reminded that we have not actually dealt with the issue of torture. We have been encouraged by our leader to quit looking back and move on. Damned Wikileaks.

So, with the inevitable torture justification about to reappear just around the corner (Dick Cheney is still alive, after all), let me offer this.

[In] the real world, the "ticking bomb" situation never arises. It is never the case that we know we can automatically avert mass slaughter by torturing someone. Reality is not that neat. Guilt and knowledge are not established in advance. Those whom we torture may or may not be planning nefarious deeds. As the British political scientist Henry Shue pointed out in his classic 1978 essay "Torture," "Notice how unlike the circumstances of an actual choice about torture the philosopher's example is. The proposed victim of our torture is not someone we suspect of planting the device: he is the perpetrator. He is not some pitiful psychotic making one last play for attention: He did plant the device. The wiring is not backwards, the mechanism is not jammed: the device will destroy the city if not deactivated." Shue concludes that "The distance between the situations which must be concocted in order to have a plausible case of morally permissible torture and the situations which actually occur is, if anything, further reason why the existing prohibitions against torture should remain and should be strengthened by making torture an international crime.”


The Chilean writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman wrote, "Torture is, of course, a crime committed against a body. It is also a crime committed against the imagination. Or rather, it presupposes, it requires, it craves the abrogation of our capacity to imagine others' suffering, dehumanizing them so much that their pain is not our pain." Torture shatters the lives of those subjected to it, Dorfman writes. It corrupts not only the torturer, but all of society. "Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and mute."


As Shue suggests, the "ticking bomb" situation should be left in the classroom, for ethicists and philosophers to ponder. It has nothing to do with the real world.


Sadly, in the real world, we have people who just want torture. For whatever reason, they WANT to. They’re not moralizing or philosophizing or making incredibly difficult decisions. They WANT to torture other human beings. In the words of Barry Eisler’s character, Colonel Scott Horton:

”Look, if they really just wanted the tapes, I already told them their best course of action. The problem is, they don’t just want the tapes…They’re scared and they’re angry, and even though they don’t know it and won't admit it, part of what’s driving them is the urge to subdue the author of their pain and strap him to a table and exercise dominion over his body, mind, and soul. They need to feel like they’re in control again…I want you to remember something, son. Remember it and never forget….There are going to be times when you will be tempted to use what the New York Times in their chickenshit way calls ‘harsh interrogation techniques.’ You can call it whatever you want, you and I know what it means, and so does everybody else…A good ops man understands his real objectives, knows the right objectives, and chooses his means accordingly. So, when you feel that temptation, you never forget that when you resort to those tactics, your motives are at least as much about the means as they are about the ends…People always say they’re torturing to get the information. But there are a lot of ways better than torture to get information…You torture because you want to torture.”-- Inside Out, page 181-182

Incidentally, Eisler (a former CIA covert operative) dedicates this book to “the bloggers.” He has a character named Taibbi, one named Juan Cole, and there’s Marcy Wheeler. His main character takes an alias as an FBI agent named Dan Froomkin. He mentions Jonathan Turley, and he utilizes lots of Glenn Greenwald’s reporting for story background.

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