Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bush's Torture and Churchill

George W. Bush said in 2003: "Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere." Nevertheless, he authorized torture in a somewhat undiscriminating fashion. Detainees were tortured before it was known whether they were even likely to have useful information. Some detainees had said a great deal without being tortured, and then were tortured in the hope that they would indicate a link between the 9/11 attacks and Saddam Hussein. There was no such link, and American leaders had good reason to know that. The American torturers learned their techniques from a school that taught how to resist Communist torture--torture that was primarily intended to elicit false, yet somehow plausible, confessions. Was there a point when senior American officials were trying, and knew they were trying, to elicit false confessions?

The old question: lying or clueless? Was there a point when Columbus realized he wasn't in Asia?

It seems to be widely understood that the use and non-use of torture separates liberal democracy from every other regime. That doesn't mean, of course, that liberal democracies never use it. Officials, even senior ones, may decide that the benefits outweigh the costs. The U.S. has trained torturers in Latin America over the years--partly, I think, in the belief that a liberal democracy was not coming to that area soon, so it was best to be just as nasty as the other guys, so as not to show weakness. If a country is fighting for its survival, or the survival of its constitution and way of life, I think sane people would make allowances that would not normally be made.

On 9/11 itself, surely no one knew whether more attacks were coming, or what they might be like. The Bushies speak as though they were so lacking in information, and so desperate for it, that they almost had to torture willy-nilly to find out anything. Their ignorance is presented as an excuse--as in the case of invading Iraq over WMDs. But actions that would otherwise be completely unacceptable do not become acceptable simply by proving that you were completely, almost unbelievably ignorant. It is also hard to believe--an insult to their intelligence with a small "i"--that they were as ignorant as they say--that their Intelligence with a big "I" was such a failure. Also I don't think it is merely easy hindsight to say that the 9/11 bombers never had the means to overthrow the government of the United States, kill or injure a high proportion of the population, or even immobilize a major city.

What did Churchill do when Britain really was at risk of losing her constitution and way of life? One story, which has apparently inspired President Obama, concerns one facility where the commanding officer refused to condone torture. Despite the fact that some prisoners refused to cooperate (and were hanged), this facility was known for the excellent information it generated. Another story concerns a facility in ritzy Kensington, in London, where torture was definitely used.

Perhaps what is most galling about the Bushies is their attempt to come up with a doctrine that excuses them, allows for extreme differences in circumstance, yet has the rigidity of moral dogma. "There was good reason to believe all the people being tortured were evil, even if we had very little idea of what they would tell us." Unlikely. "We don't really torture, because we're boy scouts." False. "OK, we torture, but we do it differently from everyone else because we're Boy Scouts." Unlikely.

Institutional torture probably generates and then multiplies a group of sadists in your midst. They are authorized to torture when information is not forthcoming. As long as there is still something inadequate about the information, the authorization to torture stands. All sense that a human being deserves to be treated like a human being gives way.

Strauss said that Beccaria's recommendation to abolish capital punishment was contrary to the letter of Hobbes, but faithful to his spirit. The whole purpose of liberal government is to protect the bodies and property of ordinary human beings--to recognize the dignity in these material things, or even invest them with dignity. Without denying there is a soul, liberals are somewhat sceptical as to whether the soul can easily be separated from the body. Hobbes actually makes the point that is now often repeated, that a tortured person will say, not something true, but something that is calculated to stop the torture. In a way Hobbes exaggerates the case against torture because he simply doesn't think anyone should be treated that way. (He thinks ordinary people won't consent--won't authorize the sovereign representative which is modern government--unless they have some confidence that they won't be treated that way).

Of course there are people who show themselves to be so dangerous, they remove themselves from the protection of the state. The Bushies are correct that pirates and "armed combatants" have different status than soldiers. Even here, I would think there is a stronger case for summary execution than for either incarceration or, above all, torture.

Here is Churchill on his own fate as prisoner of war--he had recently changed from being a soldier to being a journalist, but he was, as we would say, "embedded" with British forces in South Africa.

I had enough military law to know that a civilian in a half uniform who has taken an active and prominent part in a fight, even if he has not fired a shot himself, is liable to be shot at once by drumhead courtmartial. None of the armies in the Great War would have wasted ten minutes upon the business. I therefore stood solitary in the downpour .... After about a quarter of an hour ... I was much relieved when ... I was curtly told to rejoin the others.... I need really never have been alarmed. The Boers were the most humane people where white men were concerned. Kaffirs were a different story....

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