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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Torture Garden 

In the March Harper's (cover story: "The Case for Impeachment," by Lewis Lapham, about which more soon) is a revised version of an essay from the Virginia Law Review entitled "Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb," by David Luban, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University. Mr. Luban begins with a Foucaultian analysis of societal prohibitions against cruelty (which he finds to be a relatively recent historical phenomenon: while pride, gluttony and sloth are counted among the seven deadly sins, sadism is conspicuously absent from the list); moves to a discussion of an 1995 incident in which information "tortured out of a Pakistani bomb maker by the Philippine police" supposedly helped thwart an Al Qaeda plot to bomb U.S. jetliners and assassinate the Pope; and arrives, finally, at a discussion of torture institutionalized as policy, a development he sees as inevitable once the notion of torture becomes even marginally acceptable. "Of course, you won't know until you try whether torturing his child will break the suspect. But that just changes the odds . . . once you accept that only the numbers count, then anything, no matter how gruesome, becomes possible":
A second, insidious error built into the ticking-bomb hypothesis is that it assumes a single, ad hoc decision about whether to torture, by officials who ordinariy would only do so in a desperate emergency. But the real world is a world of policies, guidelines and directives, not of ad hoc emergency measures. We would much rather talk about the ticking bomb than about torture as an organized social practice, which would mean asking questions like these: Should we create a professional cadre of trained torturers? Do we want federal grants for research to devise new and better techniques? Patents issued on high-tech torture devices? Trade conventions in Las Vegas? Should there be a medical sub-specialty of torture doctors, who ensure that captives do not die before they talk? The fiction must also presume that the interrogator operates only under the strictest supervision, in a chain of command where his every move is vetted and controlled by superiors who are actually doing the deliberating. This assumption flies in the face of everything we know about how organizations work. The basic rule in every bureaucratic organization is that operational details and the guilty knowledge that goes with them get pushed down the chain of command as far as possible. We saw this phenomenon at Abu Ghraib, where military intelligence officers gave military police vague orders like: "Loosen this guy up for us"; "Make sure he has a bad night"; "Make sure he gets the treatment."

Who guarantees that case-hardened torturers, inured to levels of violence and pain that would make ordinary people vomit at the sight, will know where to draw the line on when torture should be used? They rarely have in the past. They didn't in Algeria. They didn't in Israel, where, in 1999, the Supreme Court backpedaled from an earlier consent to harsh interrogation practices because the interrogators were running amok and torturing two thirds of their Palestinian captives. Mark Osiel, who studied the Argentinian military in the Dirty War, reports that many of the torturers had qualms about what they were doing until priests reassured them that they were fighting God's fight. By the end of the Dirty War, the Qualms were gone, and, as John Simpson and Jana Bennett report, officers were placing bets on who could kidnap the prettiest girl to rape and torture . . . .

The liberal ideology of torture, which assumes that torture can be neatly confined to exceptional ticking-bomb cases and surgically severed from cruelty and tyranny, represents a dangerous delusion. It becomes more dangerous still coupled with an endless war on terror, a permanent emergency in which the White House insists that its emergency powers rise above the limiting powers of statutes and treaties. Claims to long-term emergency powers that entail the power to torture should send chills through liberals of the right as well as the left, and no one should still think that liberal torture has nothing to do with tyranny.
UPDATE (via Zemblan patriot M.F.): Results of the Pentagon's latest cost-benefit analysis are in:
The longest sentence for any member of the American military linked to a torture-related death of a detainee in Iraq or Afghanistan has been five months, a human rights group reported Wednesday.

In only 12 of 34 cases has anyone been punished for the confirmed or suspected killings, said the group, Human Rights First, which is based in New York and Washington.

Beyond those cases, in almost half of 98 known detainee deaths since 2002, the cause was never announced or was reported as undetermined.

"In dozens of cases documented here, grossly inadequate reporting, investigation and follow-through have left no one at all responsible for homicides and other unexplained deaths," it said in the report, based on military court records, news reports and other sources.

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