On torture-5: The effectiveness argument »« On torture-3: What was actually done to detainees by the US

On torture-4: Trying to excuse the inexcusable

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

These arguments that have been made to excuse the torture practices of the US have taken many shifting forms. In the next few posts, I list the top excuses for torture practices, followed by my responses.

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 3: These actions did not violate any laws.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and thus they were merely following orders.

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be “always looking over their shoulders” when conducting interrogations and hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

Excuse 8: If we prosecute those who authorized torture, then this would be for purely partisan reasons for retribution by Democrats against Republicans.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is to invoke the extreme hypothetical: If your child was being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn’t you want any suspects to be tortured if they had information that could save your child?

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

This argument has been put forward in two ways. One is to suggest that what was done to the detainees was mild, even routine. Sleep deprivation? Who of us haven’t had sleepless nights? Forced to stand for hours one end? Donald Rumsfeld used to wonder why the detainees were getting off so easy by being made to stand for only four hours when he often stands for 8-10 hours per day. And so on. The other is to suggest that since these torture techniques were used as part of the SERE program to train US personnel to resist torture, they cannot be torture since we wouldn’t torture our own people, would we?

Do I really need to point out why these arguments cannot be taken seriously? There is a world of difference between experiencing something voluntarily or at the hands of people you know are on your side and do not want to harm you, and having the same thing done to you by your enemies who may want to kill you. To argue otherwise is like saying that since some people voluntarily participate in S&M sexual practices, then assault or rape cannot be crimes.

Torture apologist Charles Krauthammer actually put forward the argument that the above practices could not be torture because they were used to train US troops, to which an officer in the National Guard replied:

I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such ‘enhanced’ techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

But even beyond that, many people have been quite unequivocal about calling these practices torture. As John McCain asserted during the election campaign, the US executed Japanese soldiers in World War II for the same kinds of things that were done by the US interrogators, because they were considered torture and thus war crimes. McCain said “[F]ollowing World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding,”

Gen. Barry McCaffrey has called what was done by the US torture.

Gen Antonio Taguba, who was assigned to investigate the activities following the revelations at Abu Ghraib, has said that what was done by the Bush administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanmo constituted war crimes “when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”

Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret.), former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals said that giving these practices euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” does not make it not torture. What was done was unequivocally torture. “We hear a lot of arguments to try to justify ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ but we know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s torture in different packaging.”

In fact, the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the whole point of the SERE training that led to the abuses was to resist what was clearly identified as torture.

During the resistance phase of SERE training, US military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures…designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is “based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years.”

It is really quite simple. At the very minimum, if something is torture when done by others to you involuntarily, then it is still torture when done by you to others.

Next: More excuses

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart talks with a torture apologist

Clifford May comes out with the usual pathetic excuses for why torture is ok if done by the US. May is the president of something called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and nothing says that you love democracy more than advocating torture practices.

The full and unedited interview is shown below in three parts.

Part 1:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 1
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
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Economic Crisis First 100 Days

Part 2

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 2
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

Part 3:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 3
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis First 100 Days

Comments

  1. says

    Note: This is slightly off-topic “wondering aloud”.

    Obviously Cliff May’s torture apologetics are disgusting. But I think he finally *almost* had a decent point (and I’m extrapolating a WHOLE lot here) when he brought up predator missiles.

    Obviously when the US blows up an enemy tank, it’s destroying armed enemy combatants on the field of war. Unarmed women at the market are civilians. That’s fairly black & white.

    But when we blow up something like a terrorist training facility in Afghanistan, I’m not certain it’s so clear. The soldiers running the facility may be the same ones who have spent time on the battlefield, and thus as sort of sick “fair game” for our missiles. But the young men newly enrolled in the training would likely have a range of experience, some in light/moderate combat and some only in driving vehicles and moving supplies. Does that mean we should label the latter trainees as enemies or as-of-yet innocent civilians? Just because they’re enrolled in such a program and helping the enemy, should we presume them to all be full enemy combatants? What if they started out being paid for their services like ordinary workers? I think there’s some grey area.

    If you’ve seen the film Syriana, two of the characters are brothers who part ways with their father to join a terrorist camp. At first, they aren’t even at a specific facility, and 90% of their days involve religious study, political discourse (well, more like lectures/rants), sports, and friendship with fellow trainees. Are they really enemy combatants at that point? Later it’s more like 40-50% as they spend larger chunks of time learning to smuggle weapons and fashion bombs. Are they guilty enough to be hit with a missile at that point? In the end, they load a small boat with explosives and attempt to kamikaze into a US ship. Surely at that point they are full-blown terrorists, but at exactly what point prior to then did they become such? When specifically did they stop being civilians and become enemy combatants? If their plans were discovered earlier (how much earlier?) would it have been correct to kill them or attempt to capture them and treat them according to Geneva conventions?

    It seems like our government wants to say “screw that sort of nuance” in favor of the efficiency of a quick kill. Is it worth putting our own soldiers at greater risk to try to manage these ethical problems in finer detail? Maybe some would say the boys deserved to die as soon as they chose to help the enemy move supplies. I don’t really agree, since the task *itself* is harmless and they may not have been aware of the bigger picture and their role in a war. But I don’t have a good answer either.

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