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Torture? Racism? Genocide? When It Means Everything, It Means Nothing

I intentionally used the word “torture” in the preceding paragraph to include things done to extract information from an unwilling subject as well as things done for other purposes to suggest what I hope is obvious, that there are different contexts and that they should be treated differently. Using the word “torture” indiscriminately in the contexts of interrogation and other activities misses the point, confuses the subject, and leads to worse than silly conclusions. Some of the activities at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were apparently engaged in quite illegitimately and solely for amusement (people sometimes go to jail for doing that sort of thing to non-human animals), but, on other occasions, quite legitimately to extract information. Sometimes the amusement and information extraction may have merged; if so that is very unfortunate.  Many of those complicit in the entertainment were court-martialed and punished when the allegations became matters of public knowledge. It simply was not and should not be the sort of conduct tolerated by the United States. That does not suggest, however, that some “enhanced” interrogation techniques illegitimately used for entertainment must not be used, legitimately, for interrogation.

How about evaluating torture to extract information from an unwilling subject by reference to a three-dimensional spectrum with the following parameters of unknowns: Let (x) be the likely importance of the information sought, (y) the severity of the methods probably necessary to get it, and (z) the time remaining before it becomes too late. This could be difficult for a number of reasons; in addition to being unknown, the parameters may not be linear functions. In addition, all three parameters are somewhat subjective, but that’s true of lots of qualifiers and even some quantifiers -- and that, in turn, is why experienced and skilled personnel, well aware of the constraints under which they are to function, are needed, and why they sometimes have to factor their gut feelings into their calculations. Sometimes they screw up, but holding them liable in light of facts unknown when they acted is likely to increase the likelihood of screw ups.

Never having had to extract information which might or might not be used to prevent multiple deaths or worse from someone unwilling to provide it, and having no training in the process, I wouldn’t know where or how to start or to stop. I probably wouldn’t be able to determine whether someone had the information to be sought, whether it could or couldn’t be obtained through gentle persuasion, or whether such information as he might have would be current or otherwise useful. Any list of things I am incompetent to do would be very long, and among the items on it would be judging -- in advance and on the basis of incomplete and probably inaccurate information -- the propriety of “enhanced information gathering techniques” as proposed to be applied in hypothetical circumstances. If the advance information were complete and accurate, such questions might not even arise. A successful after-the-fact outcome might suggest that it was OK, but how about failure -- no useful information and death or permanent disability of the subject? Should that require that the interrogator be punished? I would probably be incompetent to make that judgment as well.

The bottom line appears to be that abstract speculation and discussion are interesting but don’t necessarily provide satisfactorily useful guidance for specific situations, particularly in the fog of war where they often occur. For example: the jerk’s wife told us that he knows where IEDs are hidden and how and when they will be exploded. He refused to tell us. Should we give him an enema or start pulling fingernails or teeth? Be impolite and suggest that he eats like a pig? How about loud music? How about CSPAN straight at high volume until he cracks? How about starting to burn a Koran? A Bible? Get to work on one of his buddies? His daughter? His wife? His lover? Put him in a room alone with food and drink but no human contact until he cracks? Use for that purpose a room adjacent to one from which recordings of (simulated) weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth and an occasional scream of pain followed by pregnant silence can be heard? The possibilities and permutations of possibilities are probably almost endless. As Mr. Ledeen states, “It’s not a simple matter, not at all.”

Mr. Ledeen concludes,

So I don’t have an easy answer, the best I can do is this: in general, no torture, or anything that comes close to it. Go with other methods. Be willing to pay a price on the battlefield on those (rare) occasions when torture would have worked faster and saved some lives. But in those instances when the stakes are high, when the usual, civilized methods just won’t do, then you have to consider all the options. And be willing to stain your soul. You chose to get into this, after all. That’s part of the price.

I have no basis in personal experiences permitting factual agreement or disagreement with the thesis that there are only rare battlefield occasions when “torture” would (as distinguished from “could”?) have saved the day, but it just seems odd and to require an extraordinary sense of after-the-fact prescience. It seems far odder to accept that even transitory discomfort for an enemy operative undergoing “anything that comes close” to “torture” is worse than the death, injury, and/or capture of members of our military -- for which we should be unwilling to pay the price lest our souls be stained. “We,” of course, or many of us, are at home watching sitcoms or President Obama expound upon his glories. Very few of “we” are out on the field of battle voluntarily taking significant risks of having to pay the price in their own special way. They pay that price on behalf of the ubiquitous “we,” while trying to survive to continue to do the same the next day and the days after.