Join 3,433 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Torture is a blunt instrument
February 20, 2008 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Five myths about torture In a Washington Post column, Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, explains why five beliefs about torture are wrong. In a Harper's interview, he answers six questions. "Yes, torture does migrate, and there are some good examples of it both in American and French history. The basic idea here is that soldiers who get ahead torturing come back and take jobs as policemen, and private security, and they get ahead doing the same things they did in the army. And so torture comes home. Everyone knows waterboarding, but no one remembers that it was American soldiers coming back from the Philippines that introduced it to police in the early twentieth century."

"The historical record is clear. Waterboarding is torture, and yes focusing on just waterboarding is a distraction. Waterboarding is serious, but only the tip of the iceberg. There have only been three documented cases of waterboarding, but the CIA has subjected at least 30 others to “enhanced interrogation” as Director Hayden says, so there are other kinds of techniques as well. And there are unaccounted prisoners last seen in US custody as well as secret prisons out there where these things continue to happen."
posted by Kirth Gerson (54 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, good. We'll be getting cops that know how to torture just in time to deal with the gang members who are coming back as experts in urban warfare. You really couldn't fuck things up worse if you tried.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:50 AM on February 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wasn't John McCain's Grandfather a commander in the Phillipines war?
posted by cell divide at 11:00 AM on February 20, 2008


"The larger problem here, I think," one active CIA officer observed in 2005, "is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work."

The Bush Administration The US Government American society in a nutshell.
posted by Avenger at 11:04 AM on February 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


"And let’s remember, torturers aren’t chosen for intelligence; they are chosen for devotion and loyalty, and they are terrible at spotting the truth when they see it. "

Replace the word "torturers" with "Bush appointees" and the sentence still makes sense.
posted by zerobyproxy at 11:13 AM on February 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Replace the word "torturers" with "Bush appointees" and the sentence still makes sense.

Or replace it with "everyone in politics," and you'll be on to something.
posted by The World Famous at 11:17 AM on February 20, 2008


Wasn't John McCain's Grandfather a commander in the Phillipines war?
posted by cell divide at 2:00 PM on February 20


His grandfather commanded all of the carrier forces in the Pacific in WW2, so technically yes, but it's a little silly to imply that he had something to do with this.

However, I'd like to raise a tangentially related point. Are John McCain's positions on torture more or less morally valid, or are they to be given more or less weight than that of other politicians, considering that he has been horribly tortured as a POW?I don't know what his position is on it (I assume he's against it) but it's an interesting question to consider.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:23 AM on February 20, 2008


I'm not sure if there are levels of moral validity (a question for philosophers, I suppose.) Once one accepts the basic concept of human rights it just follows that torture is wrong. The immorality of torture is independent of those who oppose or support it.

However, McCain has an interesting rhetorical position on torture, and the power of his experiences should not be discounted.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:31 AM on February 20, 2008


Ah, I reread you comment, PastaBagel, and you don't imply levels of moral validity, just that one's ideas have "more or less weight" because of one's experiences.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:35 AM on February 20, 2008


But no gang has infiltrated the armed forces as deeply as the Gangster Disciples, a 100,000-member Chicago-based syndicate that has been linked to an assortment of crimes ranging from murder to mortgage fraud.

"There's no doubt about it—the Gangster Disciples are the biggest [gang] in the Army," says Chicago Police Lieutenant Robert Stasch, who has spent 30 years tracking the group's rise from a handful of street-corner hoodlums to what he calls "the most sophisticated criminal enterprise in the United States."
You gotta be kidding me. With 100K members it would have more political power than the IRA.
posted by elpapacito at 12:01 PM on February 20, 2008


@pastabagel--here is what McCain believes today. "McCain voted against the bill, which would restrict the CIA to using only the 19 interrogation techniques listed in the Army field manual."
posted by zerobyproxy at 12:02 PM on February 20, 2008


You gotta be kidding me. With 100K members it would have more political power than the IRA.

True, but what would be its political agenda?
posted by The World Famous at 12:09 PM on February 20, 2008


greed and weed
posted by trondant at 12:16 PM on February 20, 2008


You gotta be kidding me. With 100K members it would have more political power than the IRA.

In many states, felons lose the right to vote. Assuming RADAR's sources are correct about those numbers; you're right, that's a significant number of individuals.

The article also says this:

Founded three decades ago by Larry Hoover, the Gangster Disciples have worked to burnish their image, says Stasch. They have courted politicians and sought to enhance their legitimacy. At one point Hoover changed the group's name to "Growth and Development" and tried to portray himself as the leader of a community organization. According to Stasch, "They even set up a political action committee ... that would actually go to various cities and states, and even to the federal level, in an attempt to get gang-friendly legislation enacted."

Not entirely certain what constitutes "gang-friendly legislation"...

Wasn't there some news a whlie back about white supremacists also "infiltrating" the armed forces in order to gain training in urban combat, etc etc?

A troubling thought, definitely - perhaps the US should worry more about when these soldiers with ulterior motives come home than fearing radicalized Islamist youth.
posted by dubold at 12:18 PM on February 20, 2008


Allowing the propaganda machine in DC to shift the debate over to only waterboarding is just what they want. Nobody is talking about beatings, burnings, rapings, child raping to make the parents talk, freezing, boiling.............just where does all the blood come from in the pictures if waterboarding is the only thing we do or have done? Does anyone think the survivors of our beatings don't have cameras and can't be documented? And what about contractors beating prisoners? Philosophers here and elsewhere can postulate all they want.......... I want to know who is acting in my name using a club and what possible reason can we come up with to argue that revenge against us is not fair???

3 waterboardings my ass.

War crimes are coming.
posted by Freedomboy at 12:20 PM on February 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wow. Depressing, but phenomenally informative and interesting post. Thank ya muchly.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 12:24 PM on February 20, 2008


Great links. Thanks.
posted by weathermachine at 12:25 PM on February 20, 2008


sixth myth about torture: "America cares"
posted by matteo at 12:47 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the post. Rejali is a superb analyst of torture and torturers; I've recommended his work here and here (the latter with useful links including his home page).

And matteo, thanks for providing your usual unique insight into these things. Clearly, the answer to everything is "America sucks."
posted by languagehat at 1:07 PM on February 20, 2008


Rejali talks about 'clean' torture, that doesn't leave marks, as being favored by governments that are aware of being scrutinized:
The good news here is that liberal democratic leaders actually care enough about legitimacy that they fear clear outrages will cause people, the voters, to do something about it. If they didn’t, scarring tortures would still be common. So when we watch them, they get sneaky.
Our making it clear we don't want people tortured in our name has at least that effect. I am appalled that McCain can betray his own experience to the extent that he voted against banning torture. Civilized governments and the people who seek to lead them should go on the record as rejecting any use of torture, ever.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:09 PM on February 20, 2008


That torture (waterboarding etc) was used years ago in the Phillipines does not mean that it ought or ought not be used today. We have perhaps come some way from what was. After all, the Allies as well as the enemy used poison gas in WWI and we no longer do today. We segregated troops in WWII but no longer do today etc.

That McCain might have been subjected to torture tells us only that he was subjected to torture. That does not make him an expert on whether it should be permitted or not. If it does, then only women ahving abortions should be asked for opinions on allowing or disallowing abortions.
posted by Postroad at 1:15 PM on February 20, 2008


Amen, Postroad.
posted by Mister_A at 1:27 PM on February 20, 2008


That McCain might have been subjected to torture tells us only that he was subjected to torture. That does not make him an expert on whether it should be permitted or not.

Hear, hear.
Is child abuse ok as long as the perpetrators were abused when they were young?
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:27 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gangster Disciples are smart mother fuckers. I just saw a PBS documentary about them. What is amazing is the leadership, most are inside prison and know they will never get out. Think about that. What motivates these guys is not material shit. Because they can't even HAVE any of that. Prisons are like home offices to these guys with the government supplying a ready made infrastructure, personal pool, and a social network. For Chrst sake they were investing in real estate from inside prison.
posted by tkchrist at 1:33 PM on February 20, 2008


From zerobyproxy’s link:
“(McCain’s) vote was controversial because the manual prohibits waterboarding — a simulated drowning technique that McCain also opposes — yet McCain doesn't want the CIA bound by the manual and its prohibitions”

I thought the charges that McCain was mentally off balance levied at him in the last election cycle were unfair. But now, perhaps they were understated.
I oppose torture but the gloves are off, we should not torture except for waterboarding, beatings, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation... I was tortured in Vietnam but it’s ok to do it to other people now
Honestly, where, if at all, does he stand?
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 1:40 PM on February 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


> That McCain might have been subjected to torture tells us only that he was subjected to torture. That does not make him an expert on whether it should be permitted or not.

I'm not sure that's entirely true, or at least I don't buy it. That he's been subjected to torture gives him a certain amount of authority on the subject; an ability, at the very least, to call people on bald-faced lies that they might otherwise make about the topic.

While it doesn't mean that anyone who hasn't been tortured isn't entitled to an opinion, it's foolish not to give his somewhat greater weight. Likewise, I think someone who's had an abortion has somewhat greater weight on the effect and consequences of the abortion decision than someone who's never had one or can never have one. I don't think that's in the least bit unreasonable.

Neither torture or abortion are abstract topics. This isn't geometry or mathematics; it's an endlessly debatable, inherently subjective decision. Some people have experience that makes their testimony and opinions more valuable than others. Everybody's opinion is equally valid within the confines of their own head, but that doesn't mean they're equally valid to outsiders.

As it happens, John McCain has said publicly that he's pretty flatly against torture (although exactly how he defines 'torture,' I'm not sure). As he's the only politician I'm aware of who's been tortured in anything but a relatively safe, simulated setting, I think anyone else's views on the matter -- especially those who haven't been tortured and yet endorse or refuse to condemn the practice -- take a definite back seat.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:47 PM on February 20, 2008


The Bush Administration The US Government American society Human nature in a nutshell.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:53 PM on February 20, 2008


Clearly, the answer to everything is "America sucks."

so you got to the point where those you don't agree with "hate America"? sad, sad man. the anarchist-to-neocon circle is complete.

show me they do care when they go to the polls (because they don't, they've shown they don't) or, for once in your life, keep your arrogance (with very little foundation in reality) to yourself.
posted by matteo at 1:56 PM on February 20, 2008


Wasn't John McCain's Grandfather a commander in the Phillipines war?

John McCain, Sr. was either at Ole Miss or the Naval Academy during the Philippine-American War (the one in question), which officially ended in 1902. He wasn't commissioned until 1906. He did, however, command naval forces against the Japanese in the Philippine theatre of WWII.

The majority of US forces fighting the Philippine "Insurrection" were Marines.
posted by dhartung at 1:58 PM on February 20, 2008


HVAC: I don't think that's totally fair. Although I can't believe I'm defending John McCain, not being a real fan of the guy, voting against limiting interrogation to a set of 16 methods is not necessarily an endorsement of torture. It's dishonest to imply that, and I'm irritated that some of the Democrats and the Daily Kos crowd have tried.

It's quite possible to be both against torture, while also being against limiting interrogation techniques to a very short list or menu. I'm sure there are lots of methods of interrogation that are 'not torture,' but which are also not contained in the Army Field Manual. Just because you're against torture doesn't mean that you think the Army has the final word on questioning suspects or prisoners and eliminate the possibility of developing better non-torture methods of interrogation.

I suspect -- although I don't know for sure -- that McCain's stance is probably something like that. Voting against the bill doesn't necessarily imply that he's "for" torture, in any situation, it just means he was against the bill as written.

More broadly, I think it produces crappy legislation when we paint politicians into corners like that. Bad laws are almost always worse than no law at all, and I'd rather have a politician -- of either party -- vote against a bill and kill it or send it back to committee for a re-draft than pass something that's poorly crafted and might have unintended consequences.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:01 PM on February 20, 2008


"...McCain believes that waterboarding is already banned by the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which includes an amendment he wrote barring inhumane treatment of prisoners. The act prohibited cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for all detainees in U.S. custody, including CIA prisoners." *
posted by Floydd at 2:05 PM on February 20, 2008



If he believes that it is already banned, why vote against making the ban more explicit? He's just weaseling to try to appease conservatives.
posted by Maias at 2:25 PM on February 20, 2008


"...McCain is trying to have it both ways. He claims the CIA should not use 'cruel' or 'unusual' interrogations, but he is defending Bush’s veto, a clear approval of waterboarding." *
posted by ericb at 2:29 PM on February 20, 2008


zerobyproxy: "McCain voted against the bill, which would restrict the CIA to using only the 19 interrogation techniques listed in the Army field manual."

Reading the piece, it seems evident that McCain is more trying to keep interrogators' hands from being tied in regard to whatever techniques they use. I still think he's opposed to torture, but the bill restricts interrogators from using -any- means not in the field manual, whether it be torture or not. He probably thinks this is too broad.

This is giving McCain a bit of the benefit of the doubt, which I think he deserves.
posted by JHarris at 2:33 PM on February 20, 2008


The Water Cure looks at waterboarding in the Phillipines. From the Feb 25th New Yorker.
posted by timsteil at 2:51 PM on February 20, 2008


McCain also wants to cut taxes and give everyone a pony. Let's hear him out.

Frankly, that's retarded. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Appease the bloodlust of some torture-hungry wingnuts but appeal to moderates.

F that. He needs to be exposed for the far right lunatic he is.

The linked article explains pretty eloquently why such a "two track" system is a Bad Idea.
posted by kableh at 2:52 PM on February 20, 2008


John McCain, Sr. was either at Ole Miss or the Naval Academy during the Philippine-American War (the one in question), which officially ended in 1902. He wasn't commissioned until 1906. He did, however, command naval forces against the Japanese in the Philippine theatre of WWII.

This doesn't contradict the gist of your response, but I just wanted to point out that, while the Philippine-American War officially ended in 1902, hostilities continued there for at least a decade.
posted by cobra libre at 2:52 PM on February 20, 2008


kableh: "Frankly, that's retarded. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Appease the bloodlust of some torture-hungry wingnuts but appeal to moderates. … The linked article explains pretty eloquently why such a "two track" system is a Bad Idea."

A 'two track' system would be a terrible idea, but nothing McCain has said seems to indicate that he favors or in any way supports such a scheme. It's dishonest to imply that he does, regardless of what you think of his other policies.

You can be against torture and also feel that a different approach (like enforcing a strict interpretation of the law as it already exists) is more desirable than the bill that came up for a vote. The stances are not mutually exclusive or hypocritical.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:07 PM on February 20, 2008


so you got to the point where those you don't agree with "hate America"? sad, sad man. the anarchist-to-neocon circle is complete.

Huh? As an anarchist, I refuse to equate governments with people. I hate the "elected" government of this country at least as much as you do. If by "America cares" you meant "the government of America cares," then I apologize and beg your pardon. I don't think that's a very obvious reading, though. It seems to me that in "America cares" and "hate America" you're using "America" in the obvious sense of "Americans collectively," and to that I object.
posted by languagehat at 3:17 PM on February 20, 2008


It seems to me that in "America cares" and "hate America" you're using "America" in the obvious sense of "Americans collectively," and to that I object.

Me too. And when folks make those kind of blanket condemnations, so cavalierly reducing everything to such depressing finality and hopelessness, they are contributing nothing to the conversation. With their attitude of total cynicism and blackheartedness, they simply make the world a little more bleak.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:46 PM on February 20, 2008


"I'm sure there are lots of methods of interrogation that are 'not torture,' but which are also not contained in the Army Field Manual."

For instance?

For things like torture "enhanced interrogation techniques" the only sane way is to define very clearly and explicitly what the torturer interrogator is allowed to do. You simply can't leave something like that to the "judgment" of a semi-trained youth under the most stressful conditions imaginable (war).

So if there are additional techniques that actually work, why not add them to the list? That way there's never any doubt: if you're working under the aegis of "The U.S.", there is exactly one place to look. Anything else is illegal, and that's the end of it, no wriggle-room.

The "good guys" must be, like Caesar's wife, beyond reproach.
posted by phliar at 4:06 PM on February 20, 2008 [3 favorites]



The "good guys" must be, like Caesar's wife, beyond reproach.
posted by phliar at 4:06 PM on February 20 [+] [!]


your comment reminds me of a recent report I heard on NPR about a U.S. military "detainment camp" in Iraq that is trying to reach out the local population and allows 'humane' visitation in the effort to improve our image in Iraq. the idea that a prison camp in iraq could be an instrument for improving relations strikes me as indicative of some sort of psychotic break in our culture... how could any sane persone write a news story with that as it's topic, much less actually come up with the idea....

and let's not get started about caesar's wife...
posted by geos at 4:27 PM on February 20, 2008


“...voting against limiting interrogation to a set of 16 methods is not necessarily an endorsement of torture. It's dishonest to imply that, and I'm irritated that some of the Democrats and the Daily Kos crowd have tried.” posted by Kadin2048

I’m not being fair. I’m being confused. He’s stated he’s against waterboarding. The bill would have ruled out waterboarding. He voted against the bill.
Perhaps there is more nuance to this. Perhaps the article was poorly written. I would grant McCain some leeway.
But there are a number of positions McCain has ceded in act but not advocation and a great many of his formerly solid, clearly spoken talking points have become opaque.

What the “Democrats and Daily Kos” say or do does not concern me. In fact, the strongest opposition to McCain comes in many ways from conservatives and talk radio heads.

My statement is based on a simple analysis of what he has said and what he has done. He is either equivocating or he has changed his position. If it is the latter it is going to hurt his campaign. If it is the former, he is sabotaging his strongest asset: “Straight Talk”.
I don’t accept that he is unintelligent. Therefore I must, albeit in jest, question his sanity.
Perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing. I don’t.
There is a good deal to admire about the man. It does not mean I have to agree with him or simply assume, absent clear direct position statements, where it is he stands. As you say, how DOES he define torture?
President Bush opposes torture as well. I don’t know what he means by that either.

And I do disagree with what we might assume is his position: without clear, explicit rules and guidelines, I doubt interrogators do either. Army manuals generally constrain actions such that anything not forbidden is compulsory.
Why military interrogation should be any different, or there should be any ambiguity in, or lack of reflection of, the laws of war and treaty obligations in a manual I do not know.
He simply made a general statement about where he stands and getting flak for it which could mean any number of things.

“I think anyone else's views on the matter -- especially those who haven't been tortured and yet endorse or refuse to condemn the practice -- take a definite back seat.” - posted by Kadin2048

I think you are right that McCain has strong experiance on these matters. Were it a matter of experience we were contesting, what occurs under such stress, what one feels, what one might reveal, the methods themselves and so forth that might be so.
But the debate is a matter of principle and policy and how we interpret and execute power while protecting human rights.
McCain seems like a good man. But we should make decisions for our system such that an evil man could gain power and our rights would remain.
Any ambiguity in the exercise of power could lead to an abuse. Such a thing need not be McCain’s design to occur.

Furthermore, that one might have experienced torture does not mean one is less likely to use it on others. And in addition, one must weigh McCain’s opinion, or at least his exposition of it, or at least what we can discern, against his desire to gain office.
posted by HVAC Guerilla at 4:34 PM on February 20, 2008


For about 40 years, psychologists have been testing police officers as well as normal people [...]

Comedy gold!
posted by oncogenesis at 4:51 PM on February 20, 2008


He's just kowtowing to the right. Here's McCain from a republican debate, saying that the Army field manual is good enough:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vLKSV5pJBBw

Of course, the backstory is almost irrelevant. What he's said in the past, or what has been done to him must give way to what we've learned from history and psychology:
It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Stanford prison experiment (or Abu Ghraib) that failing to strictly limit interrogation (and all authority-prisoner interactions) is essentially a recipee for guaranteeing almost unlimited depravity. There is no such thing as "creative" interrogation that is not ultimately torture.
posted by Humanzee at 5:42 PM on February 20, 2008


God, I can't believe that it's 2008 and we're still having this debate. Just goes to show that all the technology in the world won't make us any smarter or better as people.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:44 PM on February 20, 2008


So the police waterboard. Remember, CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE IS STILL DISOBEDIENCE.
posted by vsync at 6:01 PM on February 20, 2008


I hate the name Waterboarding. It makes torture sound like "surfboarding".
posted by hadjiboy at 1:17 AM on February 21, 2008


posted by hadjiboy at 1:19 AM on February 21, 2008


"I hate the name Waterboarding."

Yeah. Chinese Water torture is more apt (although perhaps 'Chinese' is not the prefered nomenclature there. Can drop that)
I agree with Nance, it's pretty much drowning.
What pisses me off, and I see it in SOF and some other media, is that people say ok what is that compared to cutting someone's throat or chopping their head off, stuff like that.
Thing is, I don't have a problem with killing an enemy. Someone wants to kill thousands of people, I have no moral issue in taking that shot. My beef is, in good part, with what torture does to the operators. The people executing the commands. The FPP does a good job in outlining the slackening of discipline involved. But there's a loss of humanity there as well that someone might never recover from. When someone tortures someone else, there are two victims there. Granted one is in more pain right now. But you can't do something like that and not pay for it later. Whether you feel it or not isn't the issue. It's going to f'up your life. Your wife ain't going to want to kiss you when you come back because 'you've changed.'
Stuff like that.
It's not just short hatting in the name, it's a whole package of avoidance thinking there.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:26 PM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


HBO Agrees To Air ‘Taxi To The Dark Side’ After Discovery Drops It For Being Too ‘Controversial’
posted by homunculus at 2:03 PM on February 22, 2008


Congratulations On the Oscar, Sidney and Rob
posted by homunculus at 12:26 AM on February 25, 2008


Three Torture Myths: Former FBI Interrogator Jack Cloonan explains that regular interrogation tactics work well on even the worst terrorists, that there's no such thing as a "ticking timebomb" scenario, and that waterboarding has done much more harm than good. You can also see interviews with Jack Cloonan in the Oscar award-winning documentary, "Taxi to the Darkside."
posted by homunculus at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2008


More Tortured Reasoning
posted by homunculus at 10:01 AM on March 16, 2008


NO MORE. No Torture. No Exceptions.
posted by homunculus at 10:35 AM on March 19, 2008


« Older Food with Eyes....  |  "Iron Chef America is more bog... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments