Friday, March 08, 2013

What's so bad about a bit of torture?

"... The Guardian newspaper unveiled the results of a year-long investigation purporting to show that U.S. military advisers, with the knowledge and support of many senior officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and disgraced Gen. David Petraeus, oversaw a vast program of torture inside Iraqi prisons..

..Col. James Steele and Col. James H Coffman, ran a high-level secret program inside Iraqi prisons to extract information from alleged insurgents and Al Qaeda terrorists...." (10 Years After the Invasion of Iraq, a World of Hurt )

I run into Republicans on occasion. There's my beloved Uncle D for one, and there are some at work and in my Facebook feed.

I run into them, but we don't discuss politics. Similarly I don't consume any GOP media; neither Murdoch's nor talk radio nor right wing blogs. So what I know of Republican thinking is filtered by the NYT, NPR, Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman and the rest of my 400 feeds.

Except for That's the one place where I get to correspond with intellectual Republicans. It was there that some of us worked through a discussion on the role of torture in modern warfare. During our conversation, I was challenged to defend my scorn for the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld (BCR) torture program. I was surprised -- it's been a long time since I've had to think about why the BCR program was a terrible idea.

It's good to have surprises like that, and good to use this blog to think through my position, starting with a contrary "pro-torture" perspective of my own. (I'm not trying to represent my correspondent's position, I'd likely distort it unfairly.)

My pro-torture argument has nothing to do with whether torture is effective or not. That's a red herring; for the sake of argument let us assume that a skilled torturer always breaks any resistance and hears whatever the victim believes to be true.

Instead I, playing the role of Dick Cheney, will argue that torture isn't so bad. After all, we Americans routinely kill combatants and civilians in our many wars, not to mention our domestic execution chambers. We, more than most nations, sentence vast numbers of citizens to particularly nasty prisons.

Those are nasty fates. Given the choice, many of us might opt instead for a bit of sensory deprivation, flogging, waterboarding, electric shocks, and thumbscrews.

So then why should we be particularly averse to torture? If torture is no worse than routine warfare, shouldn't we retroactively pardon the torturers we imprisoned after World War II? Should we apologize to North Korea and North Vietnam for the mean names we called them; and discard our meager loyalty to the Geneva Conventions once and for all?

These are strong arguments, but history tells me they are misguided. There's a reason that torture was slowly removed from the legal code, and that 'cruel and unusual punishment' was a part of the English Bill of Rights in 1689.

One reason is that people who inflict torment on prisoners, who are by definition helpless, are changed by their experience. Some are repelled by the work, but some are attracted to it. The historical record tells us the practice spreads quickly, from special circumstances to general circumstances. From a few isolated rooms to a vast network of American supported Iraqi torture chambers. From the battlefield to Homeland Defense, and from Homeland Defense to the Ultra-security prison, from the Ultra-security prison to the routine prison, from the prison to the streets ...

Torture, history suggests, is habit forming. If humans were machines we might be able to manage torture as readily as we manage prison sentences. We're not though. Our culture fares badly when we make torture acceptable.

Our military knew that in 2005.

We should remember that now.

See also

Gordon's Notes


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