Torture Isn't a Laughing Matter--It's Deadly Serious
From this week's Economist (no link avail), a book review:
Reports of the brutality of American interrogators—or their surrogates in Egypt and Uzbekistan—have become commonplace. Still, this book, by an army sergeant who spent six months at the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, has something to add, not because of what it says about the effects of inhumane treatment on suspects, but for what it did to soldiers like himself.
Erik Saar is “every American”. At the age of 22, he had never been outside his own country, had been married for three years and had proudly voted Republican in 2000. Not seeing much future in a marketing job at UPS, he joined the army to pursue a career in intelligence. The army taught him Arabic, and after September 11th, he “couldn't imagine anything more satisfying” than using his training to “flush out the terrorists who wanted to bring on a holy war.”
At Guantánamo, Mr Saar's world crashed. He attended a PowerPoint briefing by an army lawyer on the Geneva Convention, which George Bush decreed did not apply to the men picked up in Afghanistan, or elsewhere, in the “war on terrorism.” It was “nothing but spin,” he says, adding that the administration referred to the men held in Guantánamo as “detainees”, because to call them “prisoners” would have meant regarding them as “prisoners of war”.
As a soldier this bothered Mr Saar. If America ignored the Geneva Convention, “what kind of brutality might we be visiting upon ourselves in the future fight?” Mr Saar had also been taught that torture doesn't work and that it produces less reliable information. When he saw torture being used at Guantánamo, he struggled to “reconcile my beliefs as an American, my conscience, and my religious beliefs with my duty as a soldier.”
The struggle was lost during the interrogation of a 21-year-old Saudi. The man was believed to have taken flight training with two of the September 11th hijackers. Interrogators got nothing from him. After each gruelling session, he returned to his cell and prayed, but a female interrogator sought to break him by making him feel dirty before his God. With the prisoner shackled in an uncomfortable position, she unbuttoned her blouse and began rubbing her breasts against him. “Do you like these big American tits?” she asked. She made another sexually crude remark, then added, “How do you think Allah feels about that?”
The prisoner spat in her face. She grew cruder. She told him she was having her period, unbuttoned her military trousers and wiped what she said was menstrual blood on his face (it wasn't blood; it was from a red magic marker). He screamed but did not break. Outside the room, she began to cry. So too did Mr Saar. “I hated myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. He went home, and took a shower, but “there wasn't enough hot water in all of Cuba to make me feel clean.”. [emphasis added]
The Economist reviewer concludes: "Not a policy to be proud of."
No, it's not. But I guess this is the kind of stuff that leaves tough guys from Ye Stolid Heartland like Lileks supremely Not Giving A Shit (or maybe titillated--it's kinda hard to tell from his sophomoric ditty over at the aptly named screed-blog).
Lileks, detailing a different interrogation than the one mentioned in the Economist, writes:
Invasion of Space by Female: Over the next few days, al-Qahtani is subjected to a drill known as Invasion of Space by a Female
Mind you, this is considered punishment. Right now across America there are guys who are seriously peeved because they ordered “Invasion of Space by a Female IV” on pay-per-view and the cable went out. They’re on the phone admitting they wanted it, and demanding they get IV and V no charge, understood?...
...One suspects it isn’t the presence of a woman that bothers him; it’s the fact that she doesn’t take any guff, looks him in the eye, laughs at him, blows smoke rings in his face and generally fails to behave like one of the 72 docile celestial whores he was promised. In short: he was broken by the concise application of cultural insensitivity.
How witty and whip-smart! Applause all around right blogosphere! He writes like a dream and he's one of our own! Hurrah. Or not. Poor Lileks, no? It looks like he's clicked on the Dominatrix-Spankavision-Pay-for-View-Channel one too many times on his travels around Minnesota motels or such. And so gotten a little carried away with his fantasizing about all those prison warden hotties----sultry vixens who don't take any "guff" from assorted sand-nig&*az--whilst going about the hard, patriotic duty of nobly rubbing America's finest D cups in detainees faces so as to Save the Republic. So let's help him climb back on the clue train, shall we? The real issue here, at least for anyone with half a brain, is that we cannot win a long-term war on terror by being widely seen to denigrate the religion and mores of those we seek to win over to our political model. As Michael Ignatieff writes in the New Republic:
Thinking that torture will help us in a war against terror also falsifies what our problem is. We think that our problem is information, and so we need torture to get the truth. In reality, before September 11 there was plenty of information in the possession of the American authorities (noise, but no signal). No, our problem is not a problem of knowledge. It is a problem of belief. It is not what terrorists know that makes them dangerous; it is what they believe. And beliefs cannot be changed by physical duress. Indeed, they may be reinforced. Those who survive torture become living monuments to the brutality that has been inflicted upon them. If they die under torture, they become martyrs to their cause.
Any counter-terror campaign is a battle to persuade as well as to dissuade. Terrorists do need to know that what they believe about us is false. They believe that we are weak and will not fight; and so we should prove them wrong. They believe that we are hypocrites; and so they need to know that we actually believe in the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. They need to know all this if we are to win. Winning is about not losing our nerve, about not losing control in the face of provocation. The military logic of terror is to provoke us into reciprocal atrocity that will lose us the war for legitimacy and the war for opinion.
The barbarians who kidnapped Daniel Pearl undoubtedly tortured him. He was subjected to indecent abuse, followed by horrifying death, because he was an American and a Jew. It is hard not to want to do the same in return, but it would be a mistake. Torturing his captors would set in motion an escalation of reprisals that would probably end up jeopardizing the life of every American in Pakistan. The people who killed Pearl may have violated all humane norms, but we have strong prudential reasons for holding on to these norms, even when our enemies do not.
Controlling the impulse to escalate in a counter-terror campaign is not easy, but other countries have shown that it can be done. British interrogation techniques in Northern Ireland in the early years of the Troubles did fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights. Then the British realized that their methods were losing them important friends abroad, not to mention the support of the Catholic population in Belfast. Over time, they shifted from interrogation under duress to signal interception and infiltration, and managed to gain the upper hand. Information was never effective enough to prevent all bombings: mistakes and tragedies occurred, but each bombing ended up with the terrorists slowly losing public support.
Also worth noting, of course, in an era of non-stop Internet feeds and 24 hour cable, acts of abuse, felony abuse and torture quickly becomes fodder for our enemies. Perhaps Lileks would have preferred that, as the saying goes--what happens in Abu Ghraib; stays in Abu Ghraib. But as Rumsfeld has awkwardly expressed himself, when he was seemingly dumbfounded that people, you know, have cameras and can jpeg shots of soldiers flashing the thumbs up next to murdered detainees (cool!)--shots that go around the world mighty quickly--well, a big part of this war is going to be making sure such public relations debacles don't occur. One way to help ensure it doesn't is not to have free-ranging improvisation going on in Bagram, in Abu Ghraib, in Gitmo, in other detention centers. We need cohesive top-down directives on what is and isn't permissible. We need real accountability beyond the party line about a few-bad-eggs-on-the-night-crew-at-Abu-Ghraib bullshit (oh, and Colonel Karpinski too, how could I forget?!?). We desparately need some real leadership on this issue (Where are the Wise Men who would step in and intervene as in yester-year? To0 busy making money in Manhattan or just plain extinct, I guess).
Look, I'm not sure Guantanamo needs to be closed down (I'll have more on that topic soon). There has been a huge amount of hyperbole painting Guantanamo as some modern Auschwitz-on-the-Caribbean. The orange jump suits and outdoor cages and shackled detainees being wheel-barrowed around didn't help in the salons of Paris or London or Cairo when the first pics of Gitmo hit the media circus. "Tortured" blared an English tabloid! But, yeah, there are some of the hardest of the hard core al-Qaeda mother fuc*ers in the batch. They have to be somewhere--and that might have to end up being Guantanamo (though shouldn't they be tried, like, some day?). Furthermore, there are strong arguments indeed for why POW status should not extend to al-Qaeda (or even the Taliban) so that the exact letter of the Geneva Convention need not apply (more on this below). But surely the time has comes, as the New Republic editors write, to figure out what the hell is going on in our detention centers worldwide:
More than a year after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, we still lack a sufficient understanding of what goes on in the entire system--from Guantánamo to Afghanistan to the secret facilities run by the CIA--and how well it truly serves the war on terrorism. In order to gain that understanding, rather than simply shutting Guantánamo down, Congress and President Bush should appoint an independent commission of Republican and Democratic security experts to investigate the system and suggest how it should operate.
It's true that the Pentagon has conducted numerous reviews of its detention and interrogation policies and practices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay. But important doubts remain about their independence and thoroughness. Consider the March report of Vice Admiral Albert Church on Defense Department interrogations, which found "no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse." This week, Time published excerpts from the interrogation log of would-be September 11 hijacker Mohammed Al Qahtani, whose resistance to questioning prompted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to expand the list of approved interrogation techniques. That expansion resulted, among other things, in Qahtani being intravenously fed 312 bags of fluid and forced to urinate on himself. With the Pentagon defending his interrogation as taking place under "active supervision and oversight," it's difficult to accept Church's conclusion that official policy was unrelated to Qahtani's clear abuse. Then there's the question of what the abuse gained us. Church refers directly to Qahtani when praising "effective interrogation policy," but Time, citing senior Pentagon officials, reports that true breakthroughs came not from stripping Qahtani nude or intimidating him with dogs, but from confronting him with information gleaned from other detainees--in short, traditional intelligence work.Whatever the problems with the Pentagon's investigations, the CIA hasn't conducted any policy reviews. All we know about its detention facilities comes from press reports: In March, The Washington Post published an account of a CIA-operated prison near Kabul known as the Salt Pit, where an uncooperative inmate was allowed to freeze to death and was buried in an unmarked grave. The CIA contends that it has had legal authority for all its conduct in the war on terrorism--but the administration won't disclose the sources of that authority.
I won't hold my breath for some bipartisan national commission to be appointed. Washington (both parties) has become all about 'stay on message' and political courage and character are often in low reserve indeed. But, who knows? If enough of us clamor for it--and weren't seen as Mooreian types mindlessly trying to turn the torture issue into a political football to hurt Chimpie and BushCo and Big Oil and so on--but instead as allies of this Administration on the War on Terror (I'm thinking of people like Tacitus, Jon Henke, John Cole, Andrew Sullivan), maybe? Well, one can hope at least...
But I digress. Permit me to return to the beginning of this post and the Economist book review. Simulating the slopping of menstrual blood on a detainee's face is repulsive, it is grotesque--it should never have happened in a U.S. run detention center. Period. It also most assuredly constitutes an "outrage(s) upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment"--in contravention of the Third Geneva Convention. (I know, I know--the Geneva Conventions don't apply, but I'm blogging from Geneva, so let's just pretend for a second). And wait, maybe, to a fashion, they do apply somewhat:
On February 7, 2002, President Bush announced that the U.S. government would apply the "principles of the Third Geneva Convention" of 1949 to captured members of the Taliban, but would not consider any of them to be prisoners-of-war (POWs) under that convention. As for captured members of al-Qaeda, he said that the U.S. government considered the Geneva Conventions inapplicable but would nonetheless treat the detainees humanely.
Was the treatment of the detainee Dick Durbin recounted "humane"? Was the sexual degradation involved in the menstrual high jinx in Gitmo "humane"? Is the death of some 108 detainees in U.S. custody "humane"? Well, not from where I'm sitting friends. And at least a quarter of these deaths may have been homicides (I suspect the proportion is actually higher). But, hey, who gives a shit? We didn't put them through some Saddamite-shredder, or pour nitric acid on them, or rape their daughters in front of them for kicks, or hack an arm or tongue off--it's torture lite, the cool, American, Gitmo-way. 'Cept 108 people are dead. A footnote, you might say. Get on board you sap; there's a war on!
I want to make a few additional points here because this is very tricky, sensitive terrain indeed. I'll start by reiterating that I found Lilek's treatment cretinous and infantile. But he did pick an easy example to crack jokes about. The specific interrogation that he wrote of, in my view and all told, was probably handled mostly appropriately. The individual in question, al-Qahtani, was the likely 20th hijacker, had tremendously important intelligence to impart, and clearly was an avowed, deadly enemy of these United States. So I agree with Andrew Sullivan who writes:
It may well be that the important interrogations were indeed professionally handled and that abuse was kept to a minimum, although some of the techniques are still offensive. Perhaps the real story of the last couple of years is how these techniques filtered down the ranks, how unprofessional individuals got the message from above that the gloves were off and went further, with far less significant figures.
I do think that could be a big part of the larger story. After all, of course, Rumsfeld himself wasn't poring over each detainee's approved methods of interrogation regimen (like he did for al-Qahtani's) stating specifically what was and wasn't allowable. He's got a war to run (rather poorly)--and he doubtless only scrutinized the specific interrogation techniques of a handful of detainees. But in an era when 'socialite' Paris Hilton (no Brooke Astor, she!) doesn't care a whit to fellate on camera; or junior high girls in private schools on the Upper East Side jpeg and videotape masturbatory acts to E-mail around so as to egg guys on to date them--we do have a quite sad pornification of the culture. This maybe helps explain why a not insignificant amount of the top-down authorized interrogation procedures involved sexual degradation (and also that Muslims are deemed to be sensitive to such tactics so that intel would get dished out quicker). Guys like Lileks can't resist the 'dude, wouldn't you like to have tits rubbed in your face?' idiocy, which is unfortunate. I guess it's part of the new and exciting, middle-brow porned-out US culture. But don't let these empty screeds divert you from the bigger story. Part of which, at least, is that top-down authorized tactics for specific high-value detainees--like the sexual humiliation tactics used with the presumed 20th hijacker--got transmongrified into more frequent, unapproved techniques used by varied free-lancers from Bagram to Gitmo. Like, say, the simulated menstrual blood smears and such assorted grotesqueries.
Finally, let me close with a little noticed part of Dick Durbin's recent speech that caused so many marathon bloviations like the one about the war effort being imperiled in the Weekly Standard and so on:
Former Congressman Pete Peterson of Florida, a man I call a good friend and a man I served with in the House of Representatives, is a unique individual. He is one of the most cheerful people you would ever want to meet. You would never know, when you meet him, he was an Air Force pilot taken prisoner of war in Vietnam and spent 6 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison. Here is what he said about this issue in a letter that he sent to me.
Pete Peterson wrote:
From my 6 1/2 years of captivity in Vietnam, I know what life in a foreign prison is like. To a large degree, I credit the Geneva Conventions for my survival....This is one reason the United States has led the world in upholding treaties governing the status and care of enemy prisoners: because these standards also protect us....We need absolute clarity that America will continue to set the gold standard in the treatment of prisoners in wartime. Abusive detention and interrogation policies make it much more difficult to win the support of people around the world, particularly those in the Muslim world. The war on terrorism is not a popularity contest, but anti-American sentiment breeds sympathy for anti-American terrorist organizations and makes it far easier for them to recruit young terrorists.
Polls show that Muslims have positive attitudes toward the American people and our values. However, overall, favorable ratings toward the United States and its Government are very low. This is driven largely by the negative attitudes toward the policies of this administration. Muslims respect our values, but we must convince them that our actions reflect these values. That’s why the 9/11 Commission recommended: “We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors.”
No, it's not all Mr. Rogers-in-the-Hood, hunky-dory fare, popularity contests. But our basic values, not least that we will not countenance the torture of detainees in American detention, must be abided by. This must be a red-line for all thinking conservatives. The President says this is our policy. That torture will not be tolerated. But how can we know for sure this is the case now? The dismal record of these past years provides little comfort or confidence on this score, alas. At the end of the day, a not insignificant part of our national greatness stems from America being the 'gold standard' in its respect for its fellow man, in its role as ultimate guarantor of democratic liberties in the international system, on, yes, the standards governing the detention of our detainees and POWs. Sober wisdom and our better angels must prevail as we move forward towards what will doubtless be a difficult, troubled decade ahead. There will likely be more chaos and bloodshed on our shores. What will we do when, say, there is a WMD attack that kills 12,000 in Tulsa or San Diego or Peoria in 2009? Round up the Muslims in our midst and place them in pens governed by Lileks-compliant standards of detainee treatment? No, better that we standardize the rules and have a top-tier, bipartisan outside commission thoroughly look at America's detention facilities and policies from the bottom-up, the inside-out. There's simply too much rot that has been accumulated these past years. And the bright sunlight of judicious, wholly unbiased and serious scrutiny is needed to disinfect it. This will help America re-gain its footing as undisputed avatar of the rule of law and standard-bearer of human rights on the world stage. We owe this to ourselves, to our country, to our grandchildren. It's the right way. And it's not a joke. It's deadly serious.