Wednesday, January 12, 2005


I struggle to combine this post by Jane Galt on bad things you can do to prisoners that is not torture
The reason that we shouldn't do it is not that it doesn't work; it's that it's wrong. The catholic church has a special category of sins called (IIRC) "sins that cry out to heaven for justice", and if torture isn't one of them, it should be. Yes, if there were a nuclear bomb set to go off in midtown Manhattan, and we could find it by torturing a terrorist, I'd probably want the CIA to go ahead and do it. But as Glenn Reynolds once pointed out, no matter what rules we make, if there's a nuclear bomb set to go off in midtown Manhattan, and we can find it by torturing a terrorist, the CIA is going to go ahead and torture him no matter what rules we make. Legitimising torture, morally, legally, or culturally, is not for the extreme cases; it's for the everyday ones. And I don't think America is, or should be, the kind of country that makes everyday use of torture.

But having ruled out torture, we need to set the limits of what we are willing to tolerate in the pursuit of information. Some of the things that MacDonald cites sound perfectly ridiculous: interrogators aren't allowed to bribe captives with chocolate, or a view of the sea, or switch them from hot meals to MREs. Is making people stand up, or kneel, for hours, acceptable? Making them hot or cold for the duration of the interrogation? Putting a Mickey Mouse mask on them and singing "It's a small world after all" for days (although, come to think of it, I'm sure "It's a small world after all" must be banned by the Geneva accords). Many of these things are forbidden by Geneva, but they don't seem to me to obviously fall into the category of grossly inhumane treatment; they fall into the category of "things I'd rather not have happen to me if I'm taken prisoner, and thus will forgo doing to the prisoners I take." But of course, the enemies we are pursuing have no interest in reciprocity, which is the heart of Geneva; if one agrees to behave nicely unilaterally, one has no lever with which to ensure that one's soldiers are treated decently, thus possibly increasing, rather than decreasing, the net amount of suffering in the world. That is before we take into account the fact that some of our captives may have information regarding plans to slaughter innocent civilians (though of course the likelihood of this declines with each passing year).

Where do we draw the line? What are the things we will do only if they're reciprocated, and what are the things we will never do, because they are too horrible?
and this post by her in the comments section:
Second, the issue is not whether each side has rigorously hewed to the letter of the Geneva Convention; in no war in history (nor, I suspect, in the future) has either side gone without violating the conventions, some in fairly horrific ways (civilian bombings, the Bataan death march). But we're fighting an enemy which hasn't signed the damn thing, and whose standards for taking and treating prisoners is not merely well below those of the Geneva accord; not merely well below the standards we are already using; but totally incompatible with basic human decency--in no place is the kidnapping and execution of journalists or humanitarian workers allowed by the law of war or minimal standards of morality. Faced with an enemy who is clearly uninterested in the Geneva accords, it is appropriate to ask which provisions are just basic humanity (don't put their eyes out a la that Byzantine emporer), and which are just nice extras (hot meals). If you think that reciprocity is irrelevant, I suggest you go look at what happens, in either game theory or history, to actors who unilaterally commit to taking certain sanctions off the table. If you can find any left alive.

Yes, I am also advocating unilateral committments to things like not mutilating prisoners. But at least I have the moral courage to recognise that the price of my committment may be lives lost.

Third, there are very, very good reasons that Geneva protections are denied to those who masquerade as civilians, target civilians, use churches and civilian buildings, or civilians, as shields for their military forces, or otherwise violate the definition of lawful combatants in the Geneva accords--and those good reasons are not that I voted for George Bush the second time round. Those provisions are designed to protect civilians, by making it unprofitable to endanger civilians either as camaflouge, or as a propaganda tool through forcing the enemy to target them in order to pursue the battle. While superficial reasoning convinces advocates of a "unilateral Geneva" that they are occupying the high moral ground, it is their position that results in the greatest harm to the greatest number of innocents.
A willingness to unilaterally agree not to do bad things to prisoners because they are too bad makes it easier for prisoners to resist interrogation because they know if they hold out they will be fine. The consequence of this will be the same as the consequence of having poor intelligence, which are visible every morning when we tune into the news in Iraq. The Belmont Club makes the plain statement that America is not out gunned in Iraq, but short on Iraqi speaking spies that can infiltrate local communities. The assertion that I have seen some make ("we need more boots on the ground") smacks of the typical ignorance common on committees and those who have never actually had to do anything.

Given that the violence in Iraq is due to a shortage on human intelligence, limiting intelligence gathering further through banning coercive interrogation techniques (also known as torture) means that American self-image and Iraqi lives have been weighed in the balance and the lives just didn't seem to make the cut after all. This is no skin of my nose since I am not out there personally, but I must admit, the morality of the "no prisoner abuse" position is lost on me even as the ickyness of it all is not.

It's also worth noting that if we currently feel the balance between coercive interrogation and not being mean is OK, that balance will change after the next 9/11, and not in the direction that those concerned about human rights would hope for.


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