Friday, May 19, 2006

Torture: the last superstition?

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Looking at all the hand wringing over alleged torture by our troops makes me want to pull my hair out. Nothing better can be expected of liberals, whose hatred of America trumps common sense, but I am surprised with the pussyfooting and appeasement being adopted by Republicans and conservatives on the issue. Why does no one have the courage to stand behind an obvious principle – we need torture to win the war on terror?

Qualitatively speaking, torture is no different from bombing. Both inflict pain, and in some cases death, on enemy combatants and civilians alike. The distinction is often made that in torturing captives, we are inflicting pain deliberately, while the collateral damage from our bombing campaigns are unintended side effects which we try to minimize. This argument turns out to be bogus if you so much as scratch its surface.

As far as enemy soldiers are concerned, our objectives are no different across the two methods. In fact, torture is usually more humane, because we control the process and stop short of maiming or killing in most cases. For civilians caught up in the mess, I don't see why narrow interpretations of intentionality should be considered more important than effect. ...more »When our military launches massive strikes against densely populated cities like Baghdad or Falluja, it is a statistical certainty that thousands of civilians will be killed as a result, and many more horribly injured. It is utterly na├»ve, and in fact dangerous, to say that we make these decisions without fore-knowledge of such consequences. In any event, if we could separate the innocent from the rogue among detainees, we would target our torture with precision just as we would eliminate collateral damage from our bombs if we could. We are not God, so we do the best we can.

The only difference between bombing and torture, as far as I can see, is that we can put a face on the people we torture, while those who are affected by the fury of our missiles remain anonymous. However, ask yourself this – is it any consolation to our victims that we got to know them before breaking their limbs or burning their skin? Or that we made sure to draw lots before unleashing our awesome power on their bodies? I don't think so. If they don't care, why should we?

I know at this point even my conservative brethren will step in to say that our bombs are directed at armed combatants on the ground, who are still fighting, while torture victims being disarmed prisoners, are no longer a danger to us. This is precisely the kind of obtuseness which drives me up the wall.

Nobody, least of all President Bush or Secretary Rumsfeld, is advocating torture for retributive or sadistic purposes. Its potential usefulness is as an information gathering tool – valuable information that may help us win the war. Tactical decisions in warfare are not made based on situational cost-benefit calculations, but in terms of the broader objective. Of course the threat from captured enemy has already been diffused, but their comrades are still out there plotting more 9/11's against us, and torture is aimed at reducing that outstanding threat. If we are so often willing to accept grave injuries and loss of lives on both sides to secure a bridge, why is it wrong to impose pain on some of those scoundrels for the sake of securing our cities and troops?

There is the pragmatic counter-argument that torture simply isn't effective as a method, that the tortured will tell you whatever you want to hear. This is typical liberal tripe, dreamt up in Manhattan cocktail parties. First, a bunch of false leads bundled with some genuine ones is still better than no leads at all. More importantly, relative to military hardware, our torture techniques have suffered due to neglect and having to operate under a cloak of secrecy. If we honestly acknowledged its importance, I'm sure the Pentagon has the resources to come up with more effective ways of extracting information. The lack of potency argument is far from empirically established, and we'll never know until we really try.

There is also the view that stuff like the Geneva Convention confers reciprocal benefits, which we stand to lose if we unilaterally violate its provisions. If you believe that, I have a deal on the Statue of Liberty just for you. People who are willing to blow themselves up to bring down our buildings and kill women and children are not going to be deterred in their treatment of captive soldiers, no matter what we do. The argument may have applied to more conventional armies and governments in the Cold War era, but in this unipolar world, we have plenty of other means to make sure our POWs are not abused. Case in point – captured American soldiers were well treated in Gulf War I, but it's absurd to suggest that Saddam worried about the health of his Republican Guards who fell into our hands. No, he worried about Baghdad being sent back to the stone age, along with himself.

Finally, there is the New Age mumbo-jumbo that opening the door to torture will corrupt our souls and sully our greatness as a nation. To these folks, I say: put down the bong and find a job. Our souls survived deep frying Dresden or flattening the Vietnamese countryside, and it can survive some regulated electric shocks sent through a few genitals.

There is the (slightly) more sophisticated argument that revulsion to torture is a psychological state which provides useful restraint in our internal affairs. If we lose it, the cops will start routinely torturing suspects, men will start beating their wives, parents will resort to corporal punishments, and all hell will break loose, generally speaking. One should know better than to pay heed to the cataclysmic nightmare scenarios the left regularly dreams up. In the past, we have had to do some nasty things in the defense of freedom, and we have survived spiritually each time.

What troubles me when I read the typical defense of the administration on the Fray and elsewhere is the apologetic, conciliatory tone that has crept into the ranks. It's only accusations, it wasn't really torture, a few bad apples, the orders didn't come from the top, blah, blah, blah. Gimme a break. The picture you're painting of the world's greatest military is one of a chaotic organization run amock, over which its top brass has scant control, and which is rife with unprofessional excess while fighting a war, such as sophomoric hazing rituals and near fraternization with the enemy. I refuse to believe that the brave men and women who put their lives on line for our sake have lapsed into such hedonistic decadence. I'd like to think our government has the right plan to make us safe, and it is being executed professionally. If it's only panties-over-heads, the problem isn't that it's disrespectful, but that it's ineffective.

Our enemy in the war on terror is a clandestine, underground network spanning many countries. As the difficulties in Iraq have shown, traditional firepower and "clean" war is of limited value in this conflict – we cannot invade Syria, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan one after the other and diffuse the problem through military occupation. We have to sniff out the network from one node to the next, and burn its tentacles as we move along. Torture and intelligence-gathering, much more than explosive force, will be our best aid in this task.

If that ruffles your feathers, shut the fuck up or move to Canada. Don't worry, we'll protect your ass anyway. We always have.

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