Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Devil is in the Details

Thanks for theMemory to Hot Air via Ace of Spades:
I originally posted this on December 7 of last year (interesting choice of dates, eh?). The reason I'm updating it today has to do with new information put out in the above blog entries, and I will address it as an update withing the post:
Thanks for the Memory to Bluto over at Blogfather Rusty's.

MSNBC reports on the interesting results in an AP-Ipsos poll:

Most Americans and a majority of people in Britain, France and South Korea say torturing terrorism suspects is justified at least in rare instances, according to AP-Ipsos polling.

Note the "At Least" part. Of that majority, as Bluto points out, the breakdown is 27%% supporting torture "often", 11% "sometimes", 23% "rarely, and 36% "never".

I've been avoiding commenting on this issue for some time, because I wanted to make sure I was expressing myself clearly when I did, and because the issue is so emotionally charged that most of the traffic regsrding it has far too low a signal to noise ratio. But the results of this poll lead me to believe that perhaps many more of my fellow countrymen feel as I do than I first suspected. Do we support torture? That depends.

Part of the problem I have with the debate, or at least, with one side's argument in the debate, is failure to address what I consider to be some important questions. How do we define torture? Do we delineate between different degrees of coercive techniques that fall short of that definition and true torture? Do we recognize varying extremes even among those measures we do define as such? Do we hold to different standards of treatment based on the status of the individual detainee, particularly their prior actions before capture? Do we hold to different standards of treatment for punitive measures than we do for interrogation? For enforced compliance or subdual of disruptive captives?

My position is one of answering "Yes" to all those questions. It seems, at leat to me, that many on the other side of the debate are inclined to answer "No" to most if not all of them. The extreme of this is the reaction people wo agree with me receive when they point out the difference between much if not all of the treatment for which the US has recveived criticism, and the actions of our enemies (both the former Baathist regimes plastic/people shredders and the current "insurgency's" fondness of beheading). The almost universal and instantaneous response is that such comparisons are nothing more than moral equivalence. The argument goes something along the lines of, "So you're saying that since Saddam tortured people worse than we torture people, then torture's ok?"

No, that's not what we're saying. That's a straw man, and furthermore, it's a hyperbolic oversimplification of the issue that adds nothing to the discussion. Yes, we would argue that because our actions are less extreme, they are less deserving of criticism than Say, Hussein's or Pol Pot's, but it's a little more complex than "He started it, mom!" Let me try to lay it out:

There are a variety of methods that have been and used by governments and other entities to punish individuals, extract information from individuals, for subduing violent or unruly individuals, and for coercing individuals into complying with the will of those employing these methods. These methods range in the amount of force employed and the effects rendered all the way from something as simple as fining an individual for failure to comply with a jaywalking law to killing a criminal who fails to comply with a police officer's order to drop his weapon. Some of these methods can be defined as torture as it is understood by any reasonable person, and some cannot. However, there are some methods whose definition as torture is open to debate among all but those holding extreme views of torture and it is also arguable that even among those methods that clearly fall into the category of torture, there are varying degrees of severity.

It is furthermore my belief and contention that like all other methods of enforcement, the question of whether torture is justifiable or not depends on many factors, including the severity of the torture, the ends of which the torture is being employed as a means, and the identity and status of the subject. Just as it is reasonable to argue that deadly force or incarceration is justified in some cases but not in others, so it is reasonable to argue that the amount of discomfort, displeasure, and even pain and anguish which is justified varies depending on the circumstances. And while I don't believe there is any hard, fast set of criteria, I do believe that some general guidelines can be outlined:

1. I believe that the level of guilt or innocence of the subject of such treatment is the most important underlying factor. The treatment of innocents who find themselves caught up in circumstances not of their own making should be far, far gentler than the handling of a hardened, murderous terrorist. Between the two are shades of gray.

2. With regards to punitive measure, here is where I come closest to agreeing with the other side. I believe that the application of torture for no other purpose than to punish should be very limited in scope at the extreme. That's not to say I don't think that some treatments defined by some people as torture aren't legitimate means of punishment, but my limits here are much stricter than in other cases. However, it is to be remember that the line between punishment as an end in itself and punishment as a means to cause compliance is a blurry one.

3. That brings us to coercion. It is my belief that unpleasant punishment techniques and even some techniques considered torture, when used to force a subject to comply, should vary according to the following criteria: The level of guilt of the subject; the level of resistance of the subject, and the consequences of failing to obtain compliance. If I need someone to move so I can see the stage, I'll say "excuse me. If I need the Al Quaeda member we captured this morning to get in his cell to help quell a riot, I'm going to beat him with my baton. Again, there's a lot of territory to be covered in the middle.

4. Subdual of the unruly or violent I consider to be a subset of coercion, and I have nothing to add.

5. When it comes to interrogation and information extraction, again, I believe that that depends on who has the information, how immediate the need for the information is, what other sources of the information are available, and what the results of failure to obtain that information will be. If Joe (or rather, Muhammed) the Janitor knows where they dumped the documents from a bioweapons program, I'm not going to be as harsh on him as I am on Andy (or Ahmed) Al Quaeda, who knows the time and place of the next IED attack.

There are some who add to their argument against torture the claim that "Torture Doesn't Work". My first response was to reply that that is a separate point from whether or not it is justified. But I have to acknowledge that if torture doesn't work, it goes from being a means of coercion or interrogation and is nothing more than a form of punishment, and that would diminish its justice. I am not advocating vindictive cruelty just for the sake of satisfying one's own lust for vengeance.

Of course, the real problem with that argument is that it is as broad and generalizing as "Torture is wrong". What do you mean, torture doesn't work? Are you saying that no form of torture ever accomplishes any of the ends for which it is intended? That's ridiculous. You might as well say "Force doesn't work". But while it is true that certain forms of torture have been used for certain ends, and failed miserably, there are also stories of certain coercive techniques, of varying levels of severity, accomplishing their intention. I'd argue that the effectiveness of torture, like its morality, is dependent entirely on the situation, the subject, the ends, and the means employed.
UPDATE (as promised): And here's where the latest information is important to consider: In an interview with Bill O'Reilly, ABC Correspondent Brian Ross admits that the interrogation methods used by the U.S. on individuals like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, some of which qualify as "torture" by many definitions of the word, worked.

So if you ask me if I am for torture, my answer is, it depends. Who is being tortured? What do you mean by torture? Why are you torturing them? I've already established that I am not opposed to using force, even violent force, to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Like Churchill, now I'm "just negotiating a price". The Devil is in the Details.

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