Friday, September 15, 2006

More on torture 
Hmmm...maybe now we know how Chief Wiggles got his nickname!

Here's Mark Bowden commenting on Abu Ghraib:

The Bush Administration has tried to walk a dangerous line in these matters. The President has spoken out against torture, but his equivocations on the terms of the Geneva Convention suggest that he perceives wiggle room between ideal and practice.

Mmmmmkayyyy...so perceiving wiggle room is a bad thing? Ok, I'll buy that as far as it goes. I'm enough of an idealist to be suspicious of 'the end justifies the means' logic.

Ironically, though, elsewhere in the column, Bowden finds an even more wiggle room than the President does:

By all accounts, military and CIA interrogators at the prison were using coercive tactics—sleep deprivation, deception, fear, or drugs—on large numbers of prisoners, and even recruiting prison guards to assist them. I have written in this magazine about the moral imperative for using these methods on uncooperative individuals withholding critical, life-saving information. No doubt there are some imprisoned in Iraq who fall into that category. But such instances are rare.

The only way to prevent interrogators from feeling licensed to abuse is to make them individually responsible for their actions. If I lean on an insurgent leader who knows where surface-to-air missiles are stockpiled, then I can offer the defense of necessity if charges are brought against me. I might be able to persuade the court or tribunal that my ugly choice was justified.

Ok, Mark--you might be able to persuade the court. If you wanted to argue that there actually is wiggle room between theory and practice.

But then, you already did.

Mark has a luxury available to him that the President does not: the luxury of the hypothetical case.

It's very easily for Mark to say that there is a moral imperative to use aggressive interrogation techniques in certain cases--for example, to get vital, life-saving information. Because when Mark says it, it doesn't mean anything. Mark's not having to set policy for thousands of intelligence specialists, interrogators, and military policemen.

The President has only two reasonable choices:

1.) Allow the use of questionable techniques in certain high value cases, either overtly or tacetly--and thereby risk compromising the integrity of the Geneva Conventions, or...

2.) Consistently prohibit any aggressive questioning altogether, and thereby ignore the very moral imperative to save lives that Bowden himself recognizes.

Neither are very palatable. But such is life in the real world, where real people have to navigate between two conflicting and important priorities.

Bowden is trying to have it both ways. One cannot recognize a moral imperative to torture in the reasonable certainty it will save lives, and then criticize a leader for coming to the same conclusion.

Sure, one can say that Bowden is not criticizing the use of torture per se--only that we allowed it to get out of hand.

But I'm not sure even Bowden would be comfortable with that argument.

At any rate, the risk that the use of questionable interrogation techniques would get out of hand is already factored into the decision to allow using them at all. As Mark Bowden states, it is almost inevitable that, having allowed them, some one, somewhere, could be reasonably predicted to cross the line.

If Bowden is aware of this, yet still recognizes his moral imperative to dispense with the kid gloves if it means saving lives, then he has already deemed the risk worth the reward.

The elephant in the room nobody's talking about right now is that this question has an urgent moral context, which I can only illustrate through the flawed lens of hindsight:

Last month, Jordanian authorities announced they had thwarted a massive chemical attack that could have killed 20,000 people.

The information that led to the intelligence breakthrough didn't come to Queen Noor in a dream. Chances are good that it came from the careful exploitation of human intelligence from detainees.

And if it came from detainees, then chances are pretty good Abu Ghraib or Camp Bucca had something to do with it.

If you have three or four Al Qaeda guys all independently yapping about an imminent large scale chemical attack in Jordan, and they're all spilling their guts that Ahmad Muhammad Thamir, Jr. knows the whereabouts of the chemical stores and can put together the missing links, and you have Ahmad, but he's not cooperating, and you don't do what you have to do to convince him to cooperate, can you really say you have taken the moral choice?

And if someone makes the choice to err on the side of saving lives, is it really so noble on our part to criticize Rumsfeld--a man who knows what the tradeoffs are--for not being sufficiently "shocked?"

Knowledge can be a heavy burden. Should we recognize the Bowden moral imperative or not?

One choice leads to the confrontation with a jury. The other choice leads an eternal confrontation with oneself and one's culpability in the deaths of thousands of innocents.

The law, of course, recognizes no legal distinction between forceful interrogation to save the lives of innocents and forceful interrogation out of sadism.

Well, that's a pretty curious law. And it takes a pretty curious moral sense to take a strict constructionist view of things.

Can we really say it's fair to lay these questions on pfc's and sergeants? Can they expect no moral guidance on navigating these moral shoals from the chain of command?

Can we expect them to operate amidst a conspiracy of official silence?

Is this the abortion "gag order" all over again?

Those responsible for Abu Ghraib are being investigated. Some are already being prosecuted. They are being held accountable for their crimes as individuals, as Bowden says they should be. They will face juries, and will have to justify their actions, or fail in the attempt.

The message is clear: we'll prosecute. You'd better be able to justify your decision. It was clear when Lt. Col. West was hauled before the man, and it's clear now.

Which, again, is just what Bowden wanted all along.

Splash, out


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