Tortured Logic

The week was dominated by a typically vitriolic, partisan shouting match over a report on torture during the Bush administration. Happy Holidays! Republicans claimed it was a Democratic hatchet job and refused to endorse the report except for a few admirable exceptions. Chief among them was Sen. John McCain who knows first hand what torture looks like when he sees it.

Obviously the Bush people who permitted and justified the practice, and the CIA people who carried it out were loudest in their complaints. Most of their arguments were as tortured as their victims.

That quacking bird is not a duck. It wasn’t torture at all, it was enhanced interrogation techniques. But this is simply semantic obfuscation of the sort mocked 70 years ago by Orwell in “1984” and “Politics and the English Language.” You may call it extraordinary rendition, but it’s still kidnapping. Collateral damage sounds like something in an insurance policy, but if it’s your wife or child smeared over the landscape it’s death. And those subjected to enhanced interrogation are likely to feel just as tortured as people whose torture was called by the right name. This country called the same techniques torture and war crimes when the Germans, Japanese and North Vietnamese did it.

Old News. The foes of releasing the report claimed there was no need for it since it was old news that had all come out before. But the report has a lot more of the unpleasant details than were previously admitted to, not just about the practice but about the mismanagement of it. Illogically enough, the same people argued that making our dirty laundry public would inflame our enemies and put us at risk. But if it’s really old news, why should it change anything? And if it is true and outrages friend and foe alike, isn’t that one of the costs of adopting barbarous behavior? Collateral damage, if you will.

Consider the context. This is the argument of mouthpieces of the powers that be, like Morning Joe. He faults the report for not taking into account the mood of the moment. After the towers came down the country was mad as hell, out for blood, wanted the government to act to keep us safe and punish the malefactors. Quite right. And that’s just when those in power have to keep their heads and do the right thing, not the easy thing. After Pearl Harbor thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans, otherwise known as American citizens, were rounded up and sent to camps. That was wrong then and torture is wrong now. Saying everyone was in favor and the government panicked doesn’t excuse it, it makes it worse.

It worked. That is, the end justifies the means. No, it wasn’t torture and it shouldn’t have been admitted to, but since it was torture and everybody knows it there’s still no reason to be ashamed. It worked. It produced “actionable intelligence.” Thanks to enhanced interrogation we got Osama bin Laden. We couldn’t have done it without.

But this argument has been hedged around with caveats and qualifications. For
starters, CIA apologists admit down in the fine print that only a few crumbs from torture were part of a much larger “matrix” of data that led to bin Laden. And it led by a tortuous route, if you’ll excuse the expression. The torture preceded the bin Laden operation by six or more years. That’s pretty slow-acting actionable intelligence.

And none of that addresses the question of whether we should allow evil means to justify supposedly admirable ends. Nor does it address a real world issue or two.

First, how do you know it works? If we were to subject the former CIA chiefs who are so high on the practices to them, would they think it was enhanced anything or torture? And would they spill their guts or would they say anything they thought the torturer wanted to hear in order to get it to stop? Maybe the former, maybe the latter, maybe both, but far from clean, tidy actionable intelligence.

Furthermore, once torture is permitted, it becomes routine, business as usual. The report admits this actually happened. Many detainees shouldn’t have been detained in the first place and a high percentage of those subjected to enhanced interrogation weren’t thought to actually possess actionable information at all. But as long as we had them and torture was okay, they were given a turn on the spit in the dungeon, just to make sure they didn’t know anything. This is the technique of the Witch Trial and the Inquisition, not a great democracy.

Only following orders. Yes, the last refuge of scoundrels, the Nuremberg Defense, has been invoked. It is argued that publishing a report on this episode is unfair to the perpetrators since they were only following orders. In other words, when torture is allowed, no one is responsible for their own morality.

This also begs the question of whose orders were being followed. Several actors at or near the top claim they didn’t know the gory details. But this is belied by the fact that when the question of whether we were really going to start torturing people came up the chain of command, White House and Justice Department attorneys hopped to it and drafted legal opinions stating that torture was okay despite the Geneva Convention, U.N. Rules against it along with long-standing U.S. Government and legal prohibitions.

Let’s face it, an attorney can always be found to argue that black is white, wrong is right, mob bosses are philanthropists and torture is a patriotic duty. But claiming things in legalese doesn’t make them so. Perhaps the Bush crowd should have viewed a rerun of “Judgement at Nuremberg.”

Near the conclusion of the film, Spencer Tracy as the presiding judge at a war crimes trial has a word with Maximilian Schell as Herr Rolfe, the defense attorney for Nazi judges who have just been convicted of judicial murder. Rolfe predicts that in a few years, despite long sentences, they will be released from prison.

Tracy says, “I have admired your work in the courtroom for many months. You are particularly brilliant in your use of logic. So what you suggest may very well happen. It is logical, in view of the times in which we live. But to be logical is not to be right. And nothing on God’s earth could ever make it right.”

We used to believe that some things, like torture, were just plain wrong. And not just because the other side did them, but because no one should do them.

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