Tag Archives: Torture

What You Can Say While Being Objective

What would an objective article on waterboarding have looked like during the Bush administration? A history of the practice would have to state that the US government considered it torture for several decades and that this status was essentially unquestioned until after September 11th. It would also record that the US had hanged Japanese soldiers for waterboarding US POWs, and perhaps that as Governor of Texas, Bush had imprisoned a sheriff for waterboarding a prisoner. It would describe the experience of being waterboarded as essentially like the experience of being drowned, and record that there were often lingering psychological effects. Against that, such an article would have to report that legal memoranda had argued that waterboarding was not torture and was legal. It might also report that some people responded to the September 11th attacks by arguing that even torture should be justified as a response to terrorism.

That article would have been objective in even the restrictive sense that the American media uses. Every claim is not only true, but unambiguous and part of the public record.

And I don’t recall seeing anything like that during the Bush era. Individual claims might appear in an article about the waterboarding debate, but I never remember seeing a single article that would give the  full picture. 

Journalists are sometimes criticized for treating both sides of any disagreement as equally respectable, even if the facts are squarely on one side. But we can see that it’s not just that–the media won’t even collect and report facts that aren’t in dispute, if the net effect would be to undermine the claims of one side.


Quote of the Day

Every tyrant can point to real and legitimate threats that they feared.

Ask supporters of Fidel Castro why he imprisoned dissidents and created a police state and they’ll tell you — accurately — that he was the head of a small, defenseless island situated 90 miles away from a huge superpower that repeatedly tried to overthrow his government and replace it with something it preferred. Ask Hugo Chavez why he rails against the U.S. and has shut down opposition media stations and he’ll point out — truthfully — that the U.S. participated to some extent in a coup attempt to overthrow his democratically elected government and that internal factions inside Venezuela have done the same. (Glenn Greenwald)

Human Rights Speculation

As a candidate, Mr. Obama said the CIA’s interrogation program should adhere to the same rules that apply to the military, which would prohibit the use of techniques such as waterboarding. He has also said the program should be investigated.

The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight. (WSJ, h/t Jamelle).

One probably shouldn’t leap to conclusions based on unsourced reports about what a president who has yet to be inaugurated might do, based on his choice of people in a transition team.  So I won’t use this moment to speculate about whether that decision would merit a protest vote in 2012, etc.

But torture is the type of issue that a good administration would never consider compromising on.  And if you want to defend these tactics, and claim they’re not torture, make the case upfront, instead of the two sets of rules cop out (and leave waterboarding off the table–I have zero doubt that it’s categorically unacceptable). 

Talk is cheap, but here’s an Amnesty International Petition to call on Obama to close Guantanamo, ban harsh interrogation tactics and establish a commission to investigate previous human rights abuses in the war on terror, and to do those things in the first 100 days.  There are worse things you could ineffectually vent about.

Sleep Deprivation and False Memories

Neurophilosophy, a psychology blog I’ve followed for some time, posted about recent research that ought to heighten concerns that our nations policy of torturing detainees doesn’t actually do anything to get us valuable information.  The research suggests that the production of false memories may become more common when subjects are sleep deprived.  Sleep deprivation is, of course, officially one of the least questionable aspects of our treatment of detainees–waterboarding and stress positions receive the greatest scrutiny.

I do admit, based on his summary, I’m not 100% convinced it would be relevant to the treatment of detainees.  The task in the experiment involved discriminating between words with similar meanings, some of which had been part of a presented stimulus, and some which hadn’t.  One wonders whether that sort of memory failure extends to contaminating the sort of information that we’d look for from terrorists.  Nonetheless, it’s not as if this effect couldn’t lead to false memories, and there’s already reason to worry about any information we do get.

Schmabeus Corpus

McCain often gets credit for having opposed torture, though he never really put his money where his mouth was.  However, it doesn’t look like he opposes torture for any reason beyond being grouchy.  After all, he doesn’t seem to think there’s any reason to treat people justly in general:

We are now going to have the courts flooded with so-called, quote, Habeas Corpus suits against the government, whether it be about the diet, whether it be about the reading material.

The context makes it clear that he doesn’t know what habeus corpus is, but that didn’t stop him from sounding off against the decision.

In further news, he claims in the long quote that he worked hard to make sure they didn’t torture detainees, but as a matter of fact, he voted against the most recent anti-torture bill.

McCain on Waterboarding

John McCain has been taking a lot of flak for voting against the Senate’s anti-torture bill. Since McCain is known for straight-talk, let’s see what he has to say:

“I made it very clear that I think that water-boarding is torture and illegal, but I will not restrict the CIA to only the Army field manual,”

Well, that sorta sounds like straight-talk, but it’s completely crazy. Some issues are kind of a careful balancing of competing concerns. It doesn’t really seem like torture is one of them. Once you sign up for the claim that it’s torture, it’s pretty hard not to vote against it. Perhaps if it were the “establishment of a dictatorship but an anti-torture dictatorship” Bill, that might be a competing consideration, but this looks like a pretty lame reason. Of the techniques in the Army Field Manual, only one seems like it might be worth keeping:

[The Army Field Manual] outlaws sleep deprivation and the practice of putting prisoners in stress positions designed to cause pain. It also bans unwarranted touching of detainees, the use of dogs to intimidate, and imposition of temperature extremes.

Update: It looks as if McCain isn’t even being straight with us. An excerpt of his comment on the legislation makes it sound as if current law already prevents the CIA from using waterboarding. His remarks are a bit unclear, but if that’s what he means, he’s being extremely disingenuous. As it stands, nothing in the law clearly directly prohibits waterboarding, and the people in charge of assessing its legal status have been evasive. Perhaps the existing laws could be read to prevent it (I wouldn’t doubt that, actually), but so long as they’re not being read that way, we need legislation to outlaw waterboarding.

Update Redux: I missed that the CIA is currently allowed to threaten the family of a detainee, while the Army is not.  That’s obviously a crucial interrogation tactic.

Censorship and Torture

Taxi to the Dark Side is a documentary concerning the United States’ path towards the regular use of torture. I haven’t heard a ton about it, and I doubt I’ll see it–I’m not sure I can handle feeling that sort of fear and hatred. That’s definitely a dodge, since I think we all need to confront the evil our nation has been responsible for in the past years. For that reason, it’s really unfortunate that an exceptionally mild poster for the movie was blocked by the MPAA as not G-rated. The poster isn’t graphic or profane, but it is unsettling. Even though it ought to be unsettling, that’s too much for the MPAA.

Update: I removed the word censorship from the post body after the first comment because it’s the application of a preexisting rule with no particular political import.