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Mar 10 2006

The case against torture-3

One practical problem with using torture to extract information is that the people who ardently advocate it, including “the vice-president for torture” don’t seem to realize that the kinds of scenarios they propose work only in fiction. It seems like they use TV programs like 24 hours as the basis for their claims for the validity of torture as a mechanism for extracting valuable information in a timely manner.

One is the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a captured terrorist has information on an imminent attack that could kill hundreds or thousands of civilians.

Two administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to the press, said Cheney had described such a scenario several times, in which interrogators using generally approved methods can’t pry the particulars out of the prisoner in time to prevent an attack.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued that in such cases, torture should be used as a last resort, openly, with approval by the president or a Supreme Court justice.

But intelligence officers and other U.S. officials said the scenario was more likely to be found in James Bond films than in the real war on terrorism.

As Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch says:

“Israel tried that. Under the guise of just looking at the narrow exception of where the ticking-bomb is there and you could save the poor schoolchildren whose bus was about to be exploded some place. They ended up torturing on the theory that — well, it may not be the terrorist, but it’s somebody who knows the terrorist or it’s somebody who might have information leading to the terrorist.

They ended up torturing say 90 percent of the Palestinian security detainees they had until finally the Israeli supreme court had to say this kind of rare exception isn’t working. It’s an exception that’s destroying the rule.”

But it is Michael Kinsley writing in Slate magazine who really destroys the case for torture, arguing that there is no bottom to the pit of abominations where this kind of thinking can lead.

What if you knew for sure that the cute little baby burbling and smiling at you from his stroller in the park was going to grow up to be another Hitler, responsible for a global cataclysm and millions of deaths? Would you be justified in picking up a rock and bashing his adorable head in? Wouldn’t you be morally depraved if you didn’t?

Or what if a mad scientist developed a poison so strong that two drops in the water supply would kill everyone in Chicago? And you could destroy the poison, but only by killing the scientist and 10 innocent family members? Should you do it?

Or what if an international terrorist planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Manhattan, set to go off in an hour and kill a million people. You’ve got him in custody, but he won’t say where the bomb is. Is it moral to torture him until he gives up the information?
. . .
In law school, they call this second point, “salami-slicing.” You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there’s only a two-out-of-three chance that person you’re torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why?
. . .
There is yet another law-school bromide: “Hard cases make bad law.” It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don’t torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents.

I never deal with extreme hypotheticals, situations so far removed from one’s usual experience that it is futile to predict how one would act and feel is one happened to actually find oneself in that situation. Also, it is easy to tweak the hypothetical in order to get whatever result one seeks.

For example, people who construct extreme hypotheticals to justify torture always assume that it is done to a stranger. But what if it is done to someone close to you? Suppose the authorities happen to suspect that your own child or brother or sister or father or mother or spouse or close friend happens to have important information. Would you willingly hand them over to the torturers and listen to their screams of agony knowing that it is for a ‘good cause’? I personally would never, under any circumstances, agree to the torturing of someone close to me and if it is not justified against those whom I love, where is the morality in allowing it to be done to strangers?

We now have reports of children as young as ten being raped and tortured in US custody in order to get others to talk.

An Iraqi TV reporter Suhaib Badr-Addin al-Baz saw the Abu Ghraib children’s wing when he was arrested by Americans while making a documentary. He spent 74 days in Abu Ghraib.

“I saw a camp for children there,” he said. “Boys, under the age of puberty. There were certainly hundreds of children in this camp.” Al-Baz said he heard a 12-year-old girl crying. Her brother was also held in the jail. One night guards came into her cell. “She was beaten,” said al-Baz. “I heard her call out, ‘They have undressed me. They have poured water over me.’”

He says he heard her cries and whimpering daily – this, in turn, caused other prisoners to cry as they listened to her. Al-Baz also told of an ill 15-year-old boy who was soaked repeatedly with hoses until he collapsed. Guards then brought in the child’s father with a hood over his head. The boy collapsed again.

Soon after veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker magazine broke the original Abu Ghraib torture story, he gave a talk where he said that even worse things had happened and hinted darkly of the existence of videos of the rape of children and their screams that would horrify people. But those videos never emerged, although we know that that the US authorities have been working feverishly to bottle up the information coming out of these prisons. The recent release in Australia by newspapers and their TV program Dateline of more graphic photos of Abu Ghraib abuses may be part of this suppressed information, though we cannot be sure.

In a recent report we learn:

The ACLU, on behalf of several human rights groups, has been trying to obtain additional evidence of misconduct in US-run prisons worldwide. In September 2005, a federal district judge ordered the government to turn over all evidence of abuse to the group, including photographs and videos, but so far, Washington has stalled the ruling with an appeal.

In a press release yesterday, the ACLU said it does not know whether the images released by Dateline are among those sought in its court battle.

This is where we end up when we allow torture under any circumstances. It is interesting that most of the reports I have read come from the overseas media or from the reports of private watchdog groups like the ACLU or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. It is as if the allegations are too sensitive for the mainstream US media to publicize. This silence enables people like Krauthammer and Dershowitz to wallow in their delusions that torture is something that can be done in very rare situations under clinical conditions by humane people, where we know for sure who is guilty, and are certain that they have exactly the information we seek.

Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia division in the agency’s Operations Directorate, the clandestine service, also worried about what the brutality does to those who carry it out. Anderson said “I will rebel against anyone who wants my son to torture, because it won’t ever heal.”

The reality is that once you open the gates for torture, it becomes ever more routine and ghastly, implemented by people who become more and more vicious and cruel as their efforts fail to produce results and the norms of civilized behavior become compromised, brutalizing those who are tortured as well as those who do the torturing.

There is no “right” way to torture. It is barbarism pure and simple. It must be banned.

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