Saturday, July 23, 2005

On torture

the elder President Bush's White House physician, a former doctor in the Army Medical Corps, had to say recently on this Bush administration's treatment of prisoners:

"Today, however, it seems as though our government and the military have slipped into Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.' The widespread reports of torture and ill-treatment -- frequently based on military and government documents -- defy the claim that this abusive behavior is limited to a few noncommissioned officers at Abu Ghraib or isolated incidents at Guantanamo Bay. When it comes to torture, the military's traditional leadership and discipline have been severely compromised up and down the chain of command. Why? I fear it is because the military has bowed to errant civilian leadership."

We are in an interesting place.

Usually, torture and its analogs are useless. If a prisoner has not broken and refuses to talk, you get nothing from them. If they break, you get whatever they think you want, not the truth. In any case, by the time you can get the prisoner to someone who knows the right questions to ask and who can get useful information out of them, the information is dated and useless.

But, there are always exceptions. At times someone can be turned without being broken. It is almost always a threat of harm, not torture/pain that does it, and almost always in a tactical setting. The prisoner who leads the way through the minefield is a good example.

However, in an irregular war, where names, places, people, and contacts are all unknown (imagine WWII if the Allies did not know the names of the Nazi chain of command) there is suddenly useful information. It is like fighting the war on crime.

As a society we have already faced the temptation to use "the third degree" on criminal suspects, to beat, intimidate and deprive them of rights in the name of a greater good. National Socialism promised that greater good and our parents had to deal with NS (or, in English, the Nazi Party) in a world war and its aftermath.

But we are in a position of great temptation. The enemy is irregular (in traditional war, irregulars have no rights and are generally shot on sight). The enemy will not treat prisoners any differently no matter how we treat their prisoners (and can not take any great number of them -- all of whom they will brutally torture and murder). And, the enemy holds the promise of useful information that will not decay, if we only take the time to turn them.

Now, we are not abusing prisoners with the goal of causing them pain. We do not want them to break. Instead, we are trying to seduce them with methods that actually work. Which is why we, ourselves, risk seduction.

When God told Joseph Smith that those who lied in order to deceive were not excused because they thought others were deceiving them (or trying to), I think he was stating an important principle. When Mormon refused to lead the people in preemptive war and warned them that the grace of God would depart from them in that endeavor, he was giving a strong warning.

Now the war in Afghanistan was not preemptive. I don't think the President told any intentional lies (and honestly, given the track record of those attacking the "cake" story, their opposition would have been enough reason to believe it was true).

But I think we are facing a terrible temptation and that we are giving way to it. I have no doubts that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but I have no doubts about where it leads either. I think that in spite of the fact that those who point out the problems with abuse are caustic and at times glory in hostility e.g., they may be right this one time (heck, they may be right more than once, a stopped clock is right twice a day, hundreds of times a year).

I am not making a call for action. I'm not suggesting that we condemn anyone. But I do think it is a time for thought and discussion, knowing what we face and what we want to become. That is because the ends do not justify the means. The means are the end. How we live and how we accomplish what we do is what we are and what we will become.

Whether we are talking about how we treat people of a different sex, or a different religion, or a different race or a different creed, in peace or in war, how we act is what we are.

Useful context links:

John Bruce's Blog

powerline comments on POWs, etc.


motherof8 said...

I agree. I don't think we should "coddle" prisoners, but I think if we act like the civilized people we claim to be and let them see that they have been taught lies, perhaps we could turn more of them. I may be wrong, though, people living free in this country and enjoying all the benefits still work to destroy it. Go figure.

Stephen said...


the current cover this topic.

Lisa M. said...

Very interesting prespective.

Thank you for it.

annegb said...

Yes, this is an interesting post.

I don't know how I feel, I guess I have mixed emotions. It seemed after 9/11, those first days, we would have to fight dirty to accomplish anything. I was out for blood.

I don't think what happened at Abu Ghraib was torture, I didn't like what happened, it was embarrassing and didn't represent our country well, but I'm less black and white on the issue of real torture if it helps save innocent lives.

Then again, who decides who is innocent?

I think it's a terrible dilemma and I would hate to be in charge. Well, you guys would hate me to be, as well. One minute I would be all nice and the next, planning on making the mid-east a parking lot.

Stephen said...

Some day I need to post on how weapons of mass destruction are a bad investment for a military.

Until then: