Wednesday, April 22, 2009

As bad as they are

Guest post by Boatboy

Christopher Buckley wants us to remember that terrorists still don't have our morals:

It is, yes, good that the U.S.A. is not doing this anymore, but let’s not get too sanctimonious about how awful it was that we indulged in these techniques after watching nearly 3000 innocent Americans endure god-awful deaths at the hands of religious fanatics who would happily have detonated a nuclear bomb if they had gotten their mitts on one. And let us move on. There is pressing business...

The operative question becomes: What do we do now with captive bad guys who possess information that could prevent another 9/11? We may have moved on. They, assuredly, have not.

I'll leave issues as to his arithmetic aside for the moment.

Buckley's article speaks loudly of two double standards: that of calling terrorists out as monsters whilst employing their own methods against them, and that of the assumption that torture of detainees is productive for US intelligence services but indoctrinating and corrupting for US citizens subjected to the same treatment. His attempt at levity, first at dismissing the severity of the treatment meted out to detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other sites, then by spotlighting Monty Python ("bring out the Comfy Chair!") and Mel Brooks for their deliberately light-hearted discussion of the Inquisition (exceedingly dark subject matter) as somehow comparative, then by proposing new alternate "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as subjecting detainees to four-hour commute conditions, touch-tone telephone exercises with a rotary phoneset, and exercises with frustrating television programming, are eerily tone-deaf to the current situation.

The problem is not that the U.S. tortured people. The problem is that the U.S. tortured people while insisting it did not, fabricated legal justifications for actions clearly illegal on the U.S.'s own books as well as in violation of multiple international treaties and conventions, and continued to claim the high moral ground in world affairs just as its own morality was being systematically destroyed by those same claimants.

Were the U.S. willing to admit that some people just need to be waterboarded on principle, disavowed the conventions, habeus corpus, reasonable search and seizure, trial by jury, and the countless other conventions of U.S., Parliamentary and Napoleonic law on which its modern jurisprudence is based, the outcry against that particular programme would be much smaller; however, doing so would invalidate whole sections of the Constitution, reams of legal precedent, and a plurality of the concepts on which the nation was built and to which it claims to continue to cling.

Minimising the treatment of detainees does not serve a nation founded on the principles outlined in the formative documents the U.S. has long used, and frequently cited, as reason for the way it deals with foreign powers based on their accpetance of those ideals.

Buckley's counter-assumption, that non-coercive interrogation does not yield actionable intelligence, has equally been found false, and prominent figures within the military and intelligence communities have already made statements to precisely that effect.

Somehow, though, Buckley continues to cling to the assumption that pursuit of international criminals without the ability to employ their methods is unproductive; that recognising that those methods, if used by U.S. questioners, as immoral and illegal is a pointless exercise; and that interrogation, as a practice, needs to be somehow offensive to the senses taken out of the context of intelligence gathering.

His question "What do we do now with captive bad guys who possess information that could prevent another 9/11?" is deliberately misleading in that it assumes a need to do something unpleasant to obtain their cooperation. Information coerced from a detainee may well be of value, but assuming there is no other way to obtain such, and that we must needs behave in borderline inhuman ways towards those we capture, is both contrary to the history of Western law and ethics and the founding principles as elucidated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and countless other documents that have shaped the U.S.


UPDATE: Wolfrum has his own take here.

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