Friday, May 09, 2008

Ignoring the Indefensible — Torture


As a boomer, I grew up knowing Americans were supposed to be the good guys. Oh, yeah, and that we cherished our liberties, models for the world. So, how is it that got to the point that we actively torture people and take the most basic freedoms from our citizens?

At the seminar/panel on torture last weekend, several speakers dealt with just those questions. The answers were not satisfying, but not hopeless either.

An overview of the session is here. A post on the central role of psychologists working with interrogators is here. The two panelists who dealt most with the now-what aspects were:
  • Eric Fair, a former contract interrogator who has gone public with what he did, how it works, and what we should do about it. (Shown below right.)
  • Leonard Rubenstein, a lawyer who is president of Physicians for Human Rights. (Shown above right.)
Rubenstein has clear ideas how we got into this state. It's partly as simple as 9/11 and yet predictable from other national crisis periods.

This is like anything else, business or personal. Management is easy when things go along as planned. You find out what you're really like when things fall apart.

For torture and squashing liberties, Rubenstein noted, "Ethical standards turn out not to be much of a brake on behavior when the most is at stake." That took me back to my boomer upbringing, and even the movies with good and bad guys, and simple morals — post-WWII idealism.

In this case, Americans did not torture; totalitarian governments and armies did. Americans loved freedom and guaranteed rights to all citizens; other countries had privileged elite groups and ordinary citizens were at the mercy of those in charge. As Rubenstein put it, "Other people are entitled to use coercion, but we are not," adding, "How did that break down?"


You find out what you're really like when things fall apart.



Yet, the current period is not the first one where we reacted to real or perceived threats in ways that strongly rejected those American values, putting in with the bad guys. As a couple on the panel noted, this is not the first era we have disgracefully turned on our values when times were scary.

For example, in the last century, we were fresh from saving democracy in WWII, only to let our fears of communism lead to us McCarthyism, black lists, and highly questionable prosecutions of citizens. During the war, we put many thousands of American citizens, mostly of Japanese descent with some Italian-Americans and German-Americans thrown in just because we were terrified that badly. Many were incarcerated for years, stripped of all their possessions...and their futures.

Rubenstein drew a parallel to the current situation with McCarthyism, spy trials and the unfettered growth of clandestine services performing those unreasonable searches and seizures, and robbing citizens of their freedoms, including speech. The head of the FBI, our Presidents, local police and others used the perceived threats as excuses to act in the most anti-American ways.

The less explicable aspect of all this was the compliance of the alleged liberty loving citizenry. Emotional and irrational justifications abound. "If you have nothing to hide, why would you object?" "If giving up our rights can prevent another 9/11, isn't that worth it?" "Of course, they can't tell us what attacks they've saved us from, but I'm sure the torture has done that." "Extreme times call for extreme measures."

Of course back in the real world, the more we cede that historically distinguished us as Americans, the less we protect and the more we turn ourselves into the others we disdained only seven years ago. Without a fully functioning bill of rights, we are far less free than we were on September 10, 2001.

A fundamental question here remains how anyone could try to justify or excuse torture. The denials are astonishing...still. Many in the Bush Administration and military are shameless in their support for torture. Many of the public don't want to know what is happening in the prisons and black sites or they reflexively think necessary evil in war conditions. Rubenstein noted that "these breaks (in our ethics and humanity) are really quite common."

Our own President has no compunction about openly lying either. Consider one of his many denials that our brutal interrogations are even torture — "I've said to the people that we don't torture, and we don't."


Without a fully functioning bill of rights, we are far less free than we were on September 10, 2001.



The reply is a bit different when filtered through health professionals. The psychologists bemoan complicity among their ranks and Rubenstein referred to a few decades ago when physicians aided such efforts. "How easy it was for the medical profession to absorb the values of the larger culture," he said. "People do so because they feel they need to advance popular values."

As in earlier moral breaks, we got there in no small part due to exploitation by the Administration, military, clandestine services and others. At this particular time, we also have an Administration that is actively sacrificing our citizen's rights to expand the power of the Executive Branch.

According to Rubenstein, in the past seven years, "we're part of new world of complicity." As a nation, following the attacks on the World Trade Towers, "all of us felt a tremendous sense of obligation" and unity of purpose. The Administration jumped on that to marginalize dissent as it as it stripped us of the rights we allegedly cherish. The effort, in effect, was to elevate patriotism to be an ethical value.

Moreover, we are increasingly recognized as the rogue nation that alone among democracies does not follow the Geneva Convention. For a reflective example, consider some of the torture wording that civilized nations subscribe to:
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture

No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.

Collective punishment for individual acts, corporal punishments, imprisonment in premises without daylight and, in general, any form of torture or cruelty, are forbidden.

Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the Convention: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, compelling a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of the hostile Power, or wilfully depriving a prisoner of war of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in this Convention.
I believe even someone as incurious as our current President can understand such direct concepts and expression. When his cabinet members sat in repeated meetings to micromanage and enable torture, could there be any doubt what we have been about?

"Ethical standards turn out not to be much of a brake on behavior when the most is at stake."


In the present, we have lost all standing to claim we want to bring democracy to others. We rip our guarantees of liberties and rights found in our constitution and its amendments from even our own citizens. Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure? You can forget it, in the name of protection. We must ask whether this is that freedom and democracy we want to offer and want others to emulate.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of all this is that coerced intelligence is a near worthless and often negative value commodity. As a project manager I would look at the torture-extracted information as likely meaningless.
According to ex-interrogators Fair and Tony Lagouranis, and others, the vast majority, likely over 90% of those interrogated, have nothing worthwhile. They are either innocent or ignorant of terrorism.
If a name or snippet is forced out, it almost certainly is no longer timely or accurate, thus useless.
More likely, coercion will extract false information just to get the torture to stop.

In the last case, my management experience wonders what the devil we'd be doing with it. If we then apply scarce human, military and financial resources to pursuing take leads, we are worse than inefficient and stupid.

We just keep shooting up the drug of torture. We pretend every time that it will make and keep us safe. We keep shooting up a fantasy of necessity.

Yet, here in the United States and more obviously in Iraq and the rest of that region, our military, our contractors, and the citizens are no safer than they were when we started.

Torture doesn't work. The information we get is suspect at best and generally worthless. Moreover, brutalizing others is a failure of freedom, of democracy and of American values.


"No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever."



I confess to doubts about Fair. He was just too high profile. In fact, when I went looking for him the net and in libraries for his and torture, he was ubiquitous. I didn't even get citations of fellow ex-interrogator Lagouranis. I was ignorant, despite reading hundreds of pages on the topic.

Not only did I think Fair was the only one tell his story openly, but I thought he might be a publicity hound, albeit for a solid cause. Much to my surprise when I squirreled up with him in the same room where we hold our religious-education meetings (I'm youth liaison to the committee), I found a reluctant crusader.

I said he must speak once or twice a week on torture and interrogation. He replied that he and his family (wife and six-month-old son) have received physical threats. A minority of people seem to blame him 1) for what he did and 2) for revealing that American is about the business of torture. However, the vast majority of the comments he has received in the past year after going public has been very positive.

Fair may be on his way to becoming a Presbyterian minister, but he is like a UU in many ways. He is a social activist and he notes the ambiguity of issues when most people want simple-minded descriptions and judgment. For example, "I assure you if you come to this issue knowing exactly what it is that you think with firm convictions whether in support of my position or opposed, you have not grasped the complexity of this issue."

He said he willing went to Iraq and became an interrogator "as a well-intentioned supporter of the use of tactics." Yet, his experiences there have turned him into "an unbending opponent of all forms of coercion."

He entered understanding how the fear of terrorist attacks here and the intensity of the conflict there drove those involved as well as U.S. citizens domestically. He came to see how such pressure "serves to justify the erosion of the very values for which so many of us have fought."

He has some pretty grim tales of his own experiences. Specifically for the use of sleep deprivation:
Sleep deprivation involved taking a prisoner of war and stripping away what little sense of hope he or she may have left. The prisoner has no way of knowing when or if he will ever sleep again. Life suddenly has no future. A day never ends, which is to say there is never a tomorrow. One does not go to sleep. One does not wake up. Time essentially stands still, and a man who can see no future can be stripped of hope.

Once a man is stripped of hope, his mind can torture him more than any stress position, any police working dog or any enhanced tactic ever can...(stripped of clothes, forced to stand in the cold) which only increased his sense of despair.

I had crossed the line. The experience shook me to the core. I was overtaken not only by a sense of moral outrage, but by an intoxicating feeling of power. I controlled this man’s entire life his body, his emotions, his mind, and his spirit. His entire life rested in my hands and I could manipulate it however I saw fit.
Fair's tale reinforces what the health professionals say of how interrogators slip into such abuses. Moreover, Fair still thinks highly of the military, but poorly of those who do not control such environments. As he puts it:
Discipline is an army’s greatest attribute. Soldiers with clear directives based on firm and uncompromising chain of command will wield violence in a controlled manner in order to accomplish the most heroic of tasks. But take those same soldiers, deprive them of clear directives, remove discipline and then toss them in the complex world of human conflict, to say nothing of the chaos of Abu Ghraib, and they will wield that same violence in the most irresponsible of ways, to the shame of the very cause they swore to defend.

"We must not send (our forces) into the chaos of war armed with ambiguity."



Fair states that the current Administration has "an obligation to reserve aggressive techniques for the most frightening of scenarios. But it is this very lack of courageous leadership that leaves open a door that should have been closed long ago. We claim a moral high ground based only on convenience. "

Many of us, including me, like to point to the White House for resolution. With his UU-style sense of questioning, Fair is more comprehensive —"In the United States, the chain of command does not end at the feet of a uniformed general nor does it end at the feet of the President of the United States. It ends squarely at the feet of the American people. We must not send (our forces) into the chaos of war armed with ambiguity. "

The consensus of the panel was clearly that we are overdue for stopping and decrying torture. Rubenstein perhaps summed up the view of the health professionals with the simple but strong, "The best way to end complicity in torture is to end torture."

He added that we must "focus on prevention. We can't insist that people become heroes." It may take the next Administration, headed by a more moral and honest President. His call though is for specific rules, a bright line that excludes cruelty, coercion and torture.


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