Thursday, July 08, 2010

How torture became okay

Some researchers argue that there's no consensus in favor of torture, with only 30% of Americans opposed to torture and another 20% or so accepting it only "rarely."

Try this sentence out: "I think rape is rarely acceptable." You see the problem.

Yet they write:
Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack… .But this view was a misperception.
Really? I would think that torturing someone to prevent a terrorist attack would seem "rare" to most people.

Andrew Sullivan notes that whereas the way to support torture under Bush was to pretend it's not torture, the NKVD fan club has become more bold under Obama. He quotes Jonathan Bernstein:
... after the election, the emphasis shifted again, and while few have explicitly said that "torture" per se is good, the disclaimers are increasingly, as far as I can see, less and less prominent. The old debate about whether the revelations were true, a very live debate through the middle of Bush's second term, is long gone, and explicit torture supporters (explicit in supporting everything but the actual word) dominate conservative discussion of the issue.
Sullivan, as much an Obama supporter as anyone, doesn't confine the blame to the GOP:
President Obama signaled as much by his actions, if not his words. By declining to initiate prosecution of indisputable war crimes, he tacitly endorsed them as not that serious, and continued America's withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions (it is a breach of the conventions not to prosecute clear instances of war crimes).
The notion was that enforcing the laws against torture would jeopardize his domestic agenda. But how many Republicans voted for anything Obama's done?

It's the Democrats who have failed us here the most, with Obama leading them. And as Sullivan predicts, torture is now a partisan issue: a Republican president in 2013 would be likely to resume the use of torture, if only to prove he's tougher than those pansy-ass Democrats.

What rankles me most here, I guess, is that a crusade against torture is a really easy crusade to win. People's tolerance of torture (I judge from numerous internet threads) rests upon not understanding that sleep deprivation, forced standing, etc. really *are* torture, and not understanding that professional interrogators consider torture a mug's game. It would be really easy to marshal public opinion against torture -- TORTURE, fer chrissake. That is, if Obama cared to do so.


  1. The Geneva Convention was only supposed to apply to nations, not members of terrorist cells. Furthermore, when fighting another nation that is not a signator of the Geneva Convention, the signator nation is obliged to follow the Convention only if the other non-signator nation "accepts and applies" the conditions of the Convention. As such, actions against Al Qaeda terrorists do not violate the Convention because they are not done against soldiers of a nation, but rather against terrorists.

    Now we could have a completely different argument, one which I would mostly or totally agree with you on, about Abu Grahib and similar, where I do believe war crimes were committed (most of the prisoners were not terrorists, but civilians who had committed some type of crime or had participated in national self-defense). And I think torture is usually counter-productive, even when used against terrorists. As a practical matter it is something that our nation either should never do, or else it should happen so rarely in a Spy vs. Spy kind of way that no one ever finds out about it.

    BUT, based on the provisions of the Geneva Convention, the use of torture against a terrorist is not a war crime. And I'm not willing to say it is absolutely wrong in every instance.

  2. Rebelyell, your belief about the Geneva Conventions is common, but incorrect. Partisans and other insurgents were a vexing issue in WW2 -- and routinely labeled "terrorists" by their enemies -- so the 1949 Conventions addressed such instances.

    See Hamdan v. Rumsfeld:

    Article 3, often referred to as Common Article 3 because, like Article 2, it appears in all four Geneva Conventions, provides that in a “conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party62 to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum,” certain provisions protecting “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by … detention.” Id., at 3318. One such provision prohibits “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” Ibid.

    The Court of Appeals thought, and the Government asserts, that Common Article 3 does not apply to Hamdan because the conflict with al Qaeda, being “ ‘international in scope,’ ” does not qualify as a “ ‘conflict not of an international character.’ ” 415 F. 3d, at 41. That reasoning is erroneous. The term “conflict not of an international character” is used here in contradistinction to a conflict between nations.

    As for your view that torture is morally acceptable, if you don't understand why torturing a person is evil, then I am not sure how to explain it to you.

  3. I've thought better of my copout, as you can see from the next successive post, "Why Torture Is Wrong."