Thursday, April 23, 2009
Yesterday's Houston Chronicle seemed chock full of thought-provoking items as I read it on the first leg of my flight. One of them was this AP piece by Matt Apuzzo, which purports to be about the effectiveness of torture, but clearly is intended to leave the reader with the impression that it is ineffective as an intelligence-gathering technique, and should be scrapped.
In short: Slam someone up against the wall, keep him awake for days, lock him naked in a cell and slap his face enough, and he will probably say something. That doesn't necessarily make it true.The confessions of torture victims aren't always true?!? Who says there aren't bloodhounds in the media anymore?
Later on, Matthew "Sherlock" Apuzzo notes that:
The British claimed that tough interrogation of Irish Republican Army suspects thwarted dozens of terrorist attacks, Rejali said, but evidence later proved the intelligence was often useless.This follows shortly after an instance -- treated as if it were some freak exception -- of useful intelligence gathered by CIA waterboarding and leads to the article's conclusion (at least in yesterday's print edition of the Chronicle) that:
"The correct answer for a bureaucrat is always to torture, even if you know it doesn't work," Rejali said. "Nobody wants to be the guy who could have done something and then didn't do it."Apuzzo follows Darius Rejali's lead -- Rejali is a "Reed College political scientist who studies torture" -- from this to the conclusion that torture "doesn't work" in a few short paragraphs, so that to read this article, one would think that intelligence gatherers are all sadistic idiots who take torture victims at their word, and that sometimes they'll hit he jackpot, but "often," not. But this is not the case. Anything gathered from a tortured prisoner must be weighed against other evidence.
Furthermore, slamming torturers as mindless bureaucrats is disingenuous. Just remember that detectives aren't always successful at lifting fingerprints at the scene of a crime (and that often, these won't be prints from the criminal), then replace "torture" with "fingerprint" in the above excerpt, and you'll see what I mean.
Hell, one could re-write this entire piece easily enough around the term "fingerprinting" to make that technique sound like it ought to be relegated to the same dustbin that palmistry has been and human sacrifice ought to be. Criminalists don't just lift the first fingerprint they can get and run with the assumption that they'll catch a crook. They integrate what it and other prints from the crime scene say with all the other evidence, even if that means simply recording them for future reference days, weeks, years, or even decades later. The same holds true for intelligence gatherers. Torture "works" in the same way that fingerprinting does, but usually with one difference.
That difference, of course, is that torture involves the forcible restraint and threat of another human being with harm, while fingerprinting may sometimes involve forcibly extracting the compliance of a criminal suspect with a request for his prints. In each case, our government, whose sole proper purpose -- is Barack Obama paying attention? -- is the protection of individual rights, must go out of its way to ensure that its use of force serves only that end. That is why a court order is required before the police can get someone's fingerprints, and that is why we are debating whether the government ought to torture prisoners of war at all.
And speaking of war, the Bush Administration muddied this debate in two ways: (1) by failing to declare war, and, more importantly, (2) by failing to note that its proper purpose is the protection of the rights of its citizens, which, in foreign policy terms means, protecting America's interests. We are at war -- remember? -- with an enemy that has no compunction about slaughtering us at least until we kowtow to Allah. We aren't torturing gratuitously and when (and whom) our government could employ torture would be well-defined were we officially at war.
But these are the kinds of concerns someone genuinely concerned with individual rights and proper government would voice, not someone for whom a major priority is to ban torture, and that's what makes this whole piece interesting. Apuzzo never goes right out and says, "Torture is always wrong, and the government of a civilized country should never employ it," or even, "We must be exceedingly careful about how our government uses torture during wartime." (And, incidentally, a piece about whether it is effective would have at least touched on how torture confessions are used as evidence.)
No. Like today's craven conservatives, who tout their conception of capitalism as practical (but think it evil), he avoids making a moral argument altogether and appeals to "practicality." Apuzzo thinks torture is wrong, but fears that it might be effective. He hopes to cash in on America's collective lobotomization by pragmatism and appeal to readers too concrete-bound to consider just what it would mean (or take) for torture to "work" (or for what purpose), and too long-convinced that morality has nothing to do with life to care about why he might be so opposed to our nation acting to protect itself.
On the flip side, he probably also senses that few will attempt to make a moral defense of torture anyway. For those of us who are paying attention and care, this is a big problem. If torture is assumed to be amoral at best, what of taking lives? A nation at war must sometimes do that, too.
Will the ineffectiveness of Bush's "'War' on Terror" next be taken as an argument against us even raising a hand the next time we are attacked? It is bad enough when no one will morally defend what is right and practical, but when the whole standard of practicality is set to some magical, Platonic ideal of "works at once, completely and independently of all other means, and every single time," our goose is cooked.
Definitions of terms like "war"; moral problems, like whether a nation ought to torture prisoners of war; and even keeping a full context regarding questions one is not intimately familiar with, are not just academic classroom exercises. They clearly have life-and-death implications, and are practical matters of the highest order, self-congratulatory pragmatists to the contrary be damned.