Friday, February 08, 2008

More on the Skewed "Torture Debate"

Scott Horton, as always, has another good piece rounding up recent US torture news. [It occurs to me that there's enough daily "torture news" and legal and rhetorical contortions about torture in the US to publish a quotidian newspaper called The Torture News]. He points out again how the "debate" continues to be framed by certain questions that the administration has an interest in maintaining.
Questioning and discussion continues to focus on waterboarding. Alabama’s Jeff Sessions says he just doesn’t understand all this focus on waterboarding since it’s closely controlled and rarely used. The debate focuses on it for a simple reason: if Attorney General Mukasey and his sidekick Steve Bradbury can conclude that waterboarding—which is iconic torture—is lawful, then there is very little that they won’t be able to approve. In effect, the practice of waterboarding is being used to bash through the prohibition against torture altogether. But in another sense, Sessions is right. Other torture practices are far more widespread and therefore arguably still more important. I’d focus on four techniques which are plainly torture and are being used by the CIA today:

• Hypothermia

• Long-time standing

• Sleep deprivation in excess of 2 days

• Psychotropic drugs

In addition to these techniques, there are the almost ubiquitous Kubark techniques, which used a combination of sensory deprivation followed by sensory overload and which can effectively turn their subject into a vegetable. The application of the first four certainly constitute criminal acts under U.S. law. The Kubark process probably does as well. And on these points, a debate has hardly even been engaged.

That's right. The torture issue is a sly one. The administration takes two interrelated tacks: one plays out on specifically legal terrain, the other on conceptual and normative terrain. On one hand, they seek to make as precise as possible the referent of the definition of torture. The more precise or concrete the definition, the more the law might circumscribe a small area of prohibited practices, leaving vast possibilities for other techniques. If "waterboarding" is clearly defined as torture, and is thus illegal (which it is), then try "jello-boarding." The other tack is to allow some success for the administration's opponents on the question. Endless hearings on waterboarding, the slow drip of information about American use of waterboarding, the occasional outlandish claim designed to refocus the public view on a few rhetorical excesses, and a slow, delayed retreat. But then what are we left with? The acknowledgment that the US uses waterboarding? We already knew this.


jenhargis said...

Okay, I am totally against torture, which in my mind, begs the DO we get critical information from people who don't want to talk to us? Are there just some things we aren't supposed to know?

helmut said...

The most expert and experienced interrogators say that their non-torture techniques work better than torture. And as quickly. So... better results and the same amount of time.

That's been part of my point here all along. It is morally and practically incoherent to use torture as an information-gathering means.

Given this, what then is the next question?

jenhargis said...

You'll never get it out of me.

troutsky said...

But is it complete "organ failure" if Dick Cheney's brain stopped working? That would be my test, if Dick can take it, it aint torture.They will, of course, claim to have stopped any number of horrors, and so be placing "real lives" above post- modern theoretical concerns because "everything changed on 9/11".

MT said...

The most expert and experienced interrogators say that their non-torture techniques work better than torture.

These people probably know how to speak Arabic or whatever language the captive speaks. They're probably intimate in the idiom and culture--like an Italian American who's spent a career infiltrating and prosecuting the mafia. Just wait until Al Qaeda is as entrenched in American cities as the mafia. The Feds will be so artful at interrogating them there will be an HBO comedy about it. In the meantime, I suppose term limits, the relative PR cost-benefit of taxing to recruit enemies vs. blowing them to bits on CNN, would discourage officials from showing such patience as prudence might urge. Or the cost-benefit calculation might (less cynically) be like the public-health decision to use a risky vaccine, or like deciding to use aerial spraying of a toxic pesticide to nip in the bud a potentially economic catastrophe to agriculture--where going with a "suboptimal" technique of interrogation would be like going with a suboptimal pesticide, which you do because it's all you have on hand or can afford. If a right to not be poisoned or infected were a human right, arguably we'd be worse off as a society. Maybe we just need international torts, so victims of bad interrogation can sue governments for damages.

helmut said...

I don't think we even have to enter the territory of rights language on this question, though. You know I think there's no moral argument for torture. But, further, there's not much of a practical argument regarding the question of gathering information. It's thus less a matter of a cost-benefit tradeoff and more a matter of obscuring the real costs and benefits. Torture is used for other things besides information-gathering (such as oppression, terrorizing a population, revenge, forced renunciations, etc.). That murky terrain where the true issue lies, and it drastically changes the moral issue at the same time. What if it's not a matter of waterboarding for information, but waterboarding to terrorize a population into submission? Does the utilitarian calculus apply here?

MT said...

Ironically I think at times we've heard something close to approval of the populace-terrorizing application in unison with the disapproval of torture for interrogation--in arguments awhile back that, even though the U.S. ought never to torture, nevertheless one ought to accept the U.S. refusal to officially deny or make explicitly illegal any use of torture, because it's a good thing if people think the U.S. does torture (i.e. "give the benefit of the doubt so that others may have the fear of it").