Monday, March 29, 2010

Painting, broad brush, etc.

Here's an interesting look at the drafter of the Bush torture memos, John Yoo:
Reporting from Berkeley - In his slate-blue suit and Republican-red tie, John Yoo stands out as discordantly formal among the denim- and turtleneck-clad faculty at Boalt Hall School of Law. Never mind how his politics play in what he derides as "the People's Republic of Berkeley."

The former Bush administration lawyer who drafted what his critics call the "torture memos" is reviled by many in this liberal East Bay academic enclave, a feeling that is mutual though not, Yoo insists, wholly unpleasant.

"I think of myself as being West Berlin during the Cold War, a shining beacon of capitalism and democracy surrounded by a sea of Marxism," Yoo observes, sipping iced tea in the faculty club lounge, a wan smile registering the discomfort of colleagues walking by en route to the bar.

He sees his neighbors as the human figures of "a natural history museum of the 1960s," the Telegraph Avenue tableau of a graying, long-haired, pot-smoking counterculture stuck in the ideology's half-century-old heyday.

"It's like looking at the panoramic displays of troglodytes sitting around the campfire with their clubs. Here, it's tie-dye and marijuana. It's just like the 1960s, with the Vietnam War still to protest."

Yoo, 42, is unrepentant about his role in providing the CIA and other agencies with legal cover to conduct harsh interrogation of terror suspects with techniques such as water-boarding, which simulates drowning. In legal guidance he provided to the past administration, Yoo redefined torture as pain resulting in organ failure or death.
It can be dangerous to be caught up in an ideological echo chamber. None of us grows as human beings if our only encounters are with people who agree with us in every respect. In suggesting what's wrong with Berkeley, Yoo has a point.

Unfortunately, the flip side of this is also true--it may be easier for someone like Yoo to dismiss torture critics as being essentially of the same mindset as the "troglodytes" of liberalism he sees every day. We've seen that before here, on this blog, when commenters have assumed that anyone who opposes torture must not only be politically liberal, but accept a liberal agenda on moral issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc. as part of the "package deal" one buys if one is a torture opponent.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. It is possible to oppose torture simply on the grounds that it is morally evil, and to oppose abortion and gay marriage as well on the same grounds.

When we paint our political opponents with such a broad brush, we may miss the fact that even among our allies criticisms of our ideas may flourish, and that these criticisms can't be dismissed as "Marxism," with an urbane smile and a sip of civilized tea.

And should someone who is often on our side, politically, point out that Yoo's definition of torture is what the law tends to define as either "attempted murder" or "murder," and is far too narrow to encompass things that really do rise to the level of torture (do you notice, for instance, that Yoo's definition would permit broken bones, fingernails being pulled out, being burned with hot irons, being scourged with a cat o' nine tails, and similar horrors?), does it really help if one is predisposed to see all such criticism as "liberal" and thus fundamentally unsound?

Friday, March 26, 2010

But where will torture-defenders get their TTB scenarios now?

"24" is canceled. This, of course, threatens our safety as Americans and opens our broadcast viewing hours to the threat of terrorism. Because if Jack Bauer's not in charge, then the terrorists win.

Unintended consequences

File this one under the unintended consequences of torture:
Critics are already chiding the federal court judge for granting Slahi's petition for habeas corpus and using it to argue the merits of military commissions rather than civilian trials for suspected terrorists.

But the government had already tried and failed to prosecute Slahi in a military commission for what's likely the same reason Judge Robinson ordered him freed: Slahi was tortured in US custody.

US District Judge James Robinson's order was filed under seal and an unclassified version is not yet available. But Slahi's lawyers argued to the court that his torture tainted his confession. The judge appears to have determined that any other evidence against him was equally unreliable or insufficient.

Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, the military commission prosecutor assigned to Slahi's case, came to exactly that conclusion six years ago. Reviewing the classified evidence in the case, Couch concluded that Slahi, who turned himself in for questioning in Mauritania before being transferred to Jordan, Afghanistan and finally Guantanamo Bay, had been mentally and physically tortured in order to induce a confession. In addition to threatening Slahi's life, Couch said in an interview last year, US interrogators threatened to bring his mother to the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where, they implied, she would be gang-raped. To Couch, "that was just over the top. For lack of a better term, that's just un-American." [...]

And Mohamedou Ould Slahi isn't the only prisoner we've been unable to prosecute due to torture. From the same source:
That problem has now come to a head. More than 180 detainees remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without charge, many after having been incarcerated for more than seven years. In 34 of 45 cases, independent federal judges, some of whom were appointed by President George W. Bush, have determined that the government lacks sufficient evidence to justify continuing to imprison the men. At least one other military commission case – the case of Mohammed al-Qatani - had to be dropped altogether because the suspect had been tortured. In another case, the suspect's statements were all suppressed for the same reason. His petition for release was granted.
Note that some of the judges making the determination about insufficient evidence were George W. Bush appointees; this isn't a "liberal vs. conservative judge" debate. The bottom line is that our use of torture on detainees weakens our ability to prosecute them for crimes of terrorism.

Which is something we ought to keep in mind, when insisting that torture keeps us safe.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fact-checking Thiessen's book

As Robert mentions in his post below, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker has an interesting article up which fact-checks Marc Thiessen's book, Courting Disaster. Mayer finds a lot of holes in Thiessen's theories:

Yet Thiessen is better at conveying fear than at relaying the facts. His account of the foiled Heathrow plot, for example, is “completely and utterly wrong,” according to Peter Clarke, who was the head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism branch in 2006. “The deduction that what was being planned was an attack against airliners was entirely based upon intelligence gathered in the U.K.,” Clarke said, adding that Thiessen’s “version of events is simply not recognized by those who were intimately involved in the airlines investigation in 2006.” Nor did Scotland Yard need to be told about the perils of terrorists using liquid explosives. The bombers who attacked London’s public-transportation system in 2005, Clarke pointed out, “used exactly the same materials.”

Thiessen’s claim about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed looks equally shaky. The Bush interrogation program hardly discovered the Philippine airlines plot: in 1995, police in Manila stopped it from proceeding and, later, confiscated a computer filled with incriminating details. By 2003, when Mohammed was detained, hundreds of news reports about the plot had been published. If Mohammed provided the C.I.A. with critical new clues—details unknown to the Philippine police, or anyone else—Thiessen doesn’t supply the evidence.

Something besides health care to talk about

The Pew Forum's survey from last year shows why some people suspect standing against torture to be an anti-Catholic or anti-religious attitude: statistically, it is.

But thank God we're not bound by statistics. Instead, we're bound to seek the truth and to pursue the good.

Jane Mayer of The New Yorker takes apart Marc Thiessen's arguments. Scott Horton of Harper's concurs.

Meanwhile, blogger Fabius Maximus gives a long list of readings about torture, and explains why it depresses him so.

And, across the pond, the U.K. continues to investigate their soldiers' "complicity in torture" that was carried out by U.S. soldiers. The Times of India alleges that the U.K. actually has been torturing prisoners directly. I haven't seen any corroboration of this allegation, though.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Numbers, significance, action

Just finished reading John Allen's recent article on Pope Benedict's former and current activity with regard to the clerical abuse of children.

The article is well worth reading in its own right. But I was struck by a couple of the comments, which put forth the arguement that at most clergy abuse children at about the same rate as the rest of society. In other words, the clerical abuse problem is small in the context of the larger sexual abuse problem in Western (at least) society.

Which made me think of the comments on this blog that the torture problem is tiny compared to the problem of abortion in our country.

Yet, even given that sexual abuse by clergy is numerically smaller than sexual abuse by relatives or schoolteachers or other sections of society - this is no reason to pretend that sexual abuse by clergy is in any way tolerable or easily ignored. Rather, we pray that progress in bringing justice to pedophile priests and healing to victims of their abuse will lead to progress in bringing all abusers to justice and all victims to healing.

Likewise, my own personal hope (and, I think, the hope of the members of our little Coalition) is that by working for the recognition of the inherent dignity even of enemies and terrorists we can bring to light the dignity of the unborn, the elderly, the infirm and handicapped, and so on. In other words, my hope is that by not denying the problems that are small, we can stand more firm in the face of problems that are large.

No one denies that there are more abortions in this country than there are incidents of torture. Yet this does not make torture tolerable or easily ignored. Indeed, by ignoring torture, we tear apart the thread of logic that allows us to speak of the dignity of the unborn, or the dignity of the elderly, or the dignity of any vulnerable person anywhere. Our goal is to uphold that dignity and to say with our Lord, "Behold, it is very good!"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Torture: the game show

This is absolutely appalling:

PARIS — Game show contestants turn torturers in a new psychological experiment for French television, zapping a man with electricity until he cries for mercy -- then zapping him again until he seems to drop dead.

"The Game of Death" has all the trappings of a traditional television quiz show, with a roaring crowd and a glamorous and well-known hostess urging the players on under gaudy studio lights.

But the contestants did not know they were taking part in an experiment to find out whether television could push them to outrageous lengths, and which has prompted comparisons with the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

"We were amazed to find that 81 percent of the participants obeyed" the sadistic orders of the television presenter, said Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary for the state-owned France 2 channel which airs Wednesday.

"They are not equipped to disobey," he added. "They don't want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don't manage to," he told AFP.

Nick and a team of psychologists recruited 80 volunteers, telling them they were taking part in a pilot for a new television show.

The game: posing questions to another "player" and punishing him with up to 460 volts of electricity when he gets them wrong -- even until his cries of "Let me go!" fall silent and he appears to have died.

Not knowing that the screaming victim is really an actor, the apparently reluctant contestants yield to the orders of the presenter and chants of "Punishment!" from a studio audience who also believed the game was real.

Nick said 80 percent of the contestants went all the way, zapping the victim with the maximum 460 volts until he appeared to die. Out of 80 players, just 16 walked out.

Not only the contestants, but the studio audience, believed that the actor screaming was a real victim being tortured to death. Yet, manipulated by the lights, the cameras, the presenter of the show, and the pressure to conform to what others were doing, they overwhelmingly chose to continue the torture--the audience shouting along.

Read the whole article; especially interesting are the comments from a female contestant who went along with the "torture" despite knowing her own grandparents had been persecuted by the Nazis.

I think this experiment shows how easily people can be manipulated to approve of torture, not only by "24"-style dramas, but by urbane commentary from respected political figures laughing to scorn the idea that "a little water on the face" means that someone is suffering the pains of drowning and could even die. This experiment shows that even if the death of the victim seems immanent, enough people will rationalize that it ought to happen purely for entertainment to make our emotions dangerous guides in these murky realms.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Father Brian Harrison's clarification

On Mark Shea's blog, a rather extraordinary missive has been posted--a clarification from Father Brian Harrison as to his opinions on the torture issue. Excerpt:
The central point of my present statement is as follows. A friend has pointed out to me today that in a speech of 6 September 2007 on Catholic prisons ministry, Pope Benedict XVI personally endorsed a statement against torture found in the 2005 Vatican Compendium of the Church's Social Teaching. Citing article 404 of this document, the Holy Father said, "In this regard, I reiterate that the prohibition against torture 'cannot be contravened under any circumstances'".

In my 2005 Living Tradition article on the development of Church teaching regarding torture and corporal punishment (cf. www.rtforum/lt/lt118.html) I had cited and discussed, in my section A13 and footnote 27, this article 404 of the Compendium, which is a publication of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. I pointed out then that this and other statements authored by the Commission itself - as distinct from the statements of Popes and Councils which it cites abundantly throughout the Compendium - does not possess magisterial authority; for the various Vatican commissions, unlike the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are not in themselves arms of the Church's magisterium (teaching authority).

However, having now become aware that Pope Benedict himself has personally reiterated this particular statement of the Compendium, I wish to state that I accept the Holy Father's judgement on this matter, and so would not defend any proposal, under any circumstances, to use torture for any purpose whatsoever - not even to gain potentially life-saving information from known terrorists.
You'll have to go and read the whole thing; Father Harrison believes that the question as to whether waterboarding is torture is still an open one, and says that it is unjust to accuse Marc Thiessen of consequentialism (while pointing out that Thiessen makes some particular errors in his arguments).

There is much to say about Father Harrison's statement, but as he's addressed his letter to Mark Shea, and Mark is presently unable because of other obligations to make a thorough reply, I will refrain from commenting at the present time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stuff from around the web

Just a bunch of links of interest:

On President Obama, and his continuation of Bush policies in everything but name, we have Andy Worthington noting that the president continues to stand by his commitment to protect those who enacted and authorized torture in previous years. And this from the administration that claims transparency is its hallmark! Such policies continue to make friends abroad ... um, or not.

On the up side, Federal Judge Wayne Andersen is allowing a lawsuit against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, agreeing that he is not above the law.

And here's another former CIA agent (retired in 2004) who acknowledges that waterboarding (along with other "enhanced interrogation" techniques) is both torture and wrong.

Also, film reviewer and columnist Steve Greydanus agrees that torture is a sin, and should be condemned even when our own country does it. Welcome to the Coalition, Steve!

Something of a tangent from the focus of this site: John C. Wright notes that a major vote on health care reform will take place today. While the U.S. Bishops have strongly supported a reform of our health care system, they note that the current legislation makes abortion a federally funded activity. Write, call, text your elected officials! Let them know that abortion is not health care. Let them know that a "right to choose" doesn't imply a "right to have other people pay for my abortion".

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Proud" of waterboarding?

Karl Rove thinks America should be proud of waterboarding:

The man known for much of his career as “Bush’s brain” has caused a storm of protest by saying that he is proud of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on prisoners by the US and internationally condemned as torture. Karl Rove said that the Administration “broke the will of these terrorists and gave us valuable information”.

In a new memoir of his years as President Bush’s chief political strategist, Mr Rove says that he was not told at the time of the President’s decision to authorise waterboarding — which feels to its victims like drowning — but he defends the move, claims that senior Democrats “were complicit in its use” and denies that it amounts to torture. [...]

Pressed on his personal view of waterboarding, Mr Rove told the BBC: “I’m proud that we kept the world safer than it was, by the use of these techniques. They’re appropriate, they’re in conformity with our international requirements and with US law.”

What do we even say to this?

If we could make the world a safer place by dropping nuclear bombs on random targets in the Mideast, would that make it right--something to be proud of?

If we could make the world a safer place by carrying on a program of genocide against the Islamic peoples of the world, would that make it right--something to be proud of?

Saying we should be proud that the world is "safer" because of waterboarding isn't much different than saying we should be proud that health care is "cheaper" because of all those babies who were aborted before their health care could cost us any real money. We condemn the one without hesitation. So ought we condemn the other.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Marc Thiessen Daily Show interview

The following links will take you to the extended interview with Marc Thiessen by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show:

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

There's a lot of material here, and a lot of questions, ranging from how we ought to detain enemy combatants and habeas corpus matters, to the idea that safety depends on our use of "enhanced interrogation," to whether or not our methods involved torture, and so forth. The clips are lengthy, but thought-provoking to listen to. Thiessen does repeat his claim that terrorists thanked interrogators for waterboarding him, but the audience, and Mr. Stewart, are not quite as passive about that claim as Raymond Arroyo was on EWTN.

One thing that strikes me--Thiessen says the purpose of interrogation is to "break" the person being interrogated. Is that already a step to far in the direction of dehumanizing the prisoner? What do you think?

Another thing--Thiessen swears waterboarding isn't torture when we do it (especially to our own troops) but that it is if others do it to Americans. How is that possible?

By the third part of the interview, Stewart's frustration is evident. He wants to know what would have happened if KSM had resisted waterboarding--Thiessen refuses to answer, and he refuses to contemplate that anything but waterboarding would have worked. It gets interesting.

The interview is well worth watching, and if you do watch, I'd love to hear your comments below. Many thanks to the reader who sent it to me!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Yes, waterboarding IS torture

You really must read this post by Mark Shea in which the CIA's waterboarding technique is discussed. Then you must go and read the whole article that Mark is quoting from:

Interrogators pumped detainees full of so much water that the CIA turned to a special saline solution to minimize the risk of death, the documents show. The agency used a gurney "specially designed" to tilt backwards at a perfect angle to maximize the water entering the prisoner's nose and mouth, intensifying the sense of choking – and to be lifted upright quickly in the event that a prisoner stopped breathing.

The documents also lay out, in chilling detail, exactly what should occur in each two-hour waterboarding "session." Interrogators were instructed to start pouring water right after a detainee exhaled, to ensure he inhaled water, not air, in his next breath. They could use their hands to "dam the runoff" and prevent water from spilling out of a detainee's mouth. They were allowed six separate 40-second "applications" of liquid in each two-hour session – and could dump water over a detainee's nose and mouth for a total of 12 minutes a day. Finally, to keep detainees alive even if they inhaled their own vomit during a session – a not-uncommon side effect of waterboarding – the prisoners were kept on a liquid diet. The agency recommended Ensure Plus.

Marc Thiessen has been saying everywhere that "our" kind of waterboarding isn't torture at all, that "our" kind of waterboarding is merely "enhanced interrogation," that "our" kind of waterboarding fits perfectly well with Catholic teaching and that Catholics can approve of it in good conscience. After all, we waterboarded our own troops in training, right?

Let's see about that:

Though public, the hundreds of pages of documents authorizing or later reviewing the agency's "enhanced interrogation program" haven't been mined for waterboarding details until now. While Bush-Cheney officials defended the legality and safety of waterboarding by noting the practice has been used to train U.S. service members to resist torture, the documents show that the agency's methods went far beyond anything ever done to a soldier during training. U.S. soldiers, for example, were generally waterboarded with a cloth over their face one time, never more than twice, for about 20 seconds, the CIA admits in its own documents.

These memos show the CIA went much further than that with terror suspects, using huge and dangerous quantities of liquid over long periods of time. The CIA's waterboarding was "different" from training for elite soldiers, according to the Justice Department document released last month. "The difference was in the manner in which the detainee's breathing was obstructed," the document notes. In soldier training, "The interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth (on a soldier's face) in a controlled manner," DOJ wrote. "By contrast, the agency interrogator ... continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee's mouth and nose."

Please go and read the whole article. If you still think waterboarding isn't torture, I think the burden of proof that it somehow isn't, is on you.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tom asks a good question

In a comment, Tom (of Disputations fame) asks:
Let me ask a question, one that is a genuine question and not a rhetorical one, and also a question I think the Coalition for Clarity should have an answer to:

How do we discuss torture with someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook?

I'm not asking how we debate such a person. To win a debate, all we need to do is make sure he states his opinion clearly.

I'm asking how we engage him in a way that we may together arrive at the truth, to use an expression I like.

In other words, Tom is asking how we can achieve the clarity of communication, the genuine connection, that this blog has set as its goal.

He points out a specific obstacle a little further down in the conversation:
So maybe a sub-question is, how do we get someone who thinks opposing torture makes you a left-wing kook to understand that people can and do oppose both torture and abortion? As Scott's comment most recently demonstrates, it's not enough to point out to such a person that he is wrong on the facts.

I think this question deserves a post of its own. And perhaps it can develop into a practical discussion of strategies to promote real awareness, and hopefully real change, in the social and political environment that is so hostile to Catholic moral teaching and to the dignity of the human person.

Just to start off with, maybe, I'd invite commentators such as @jasper, @love the girls, @greta, to describe what exactly the foundations are for their approach to Catholic moral teaching.

And, since I don't believe in asking of another what I'm unwilling to do myself, here is my answer:

As far as I see it, the foundation of all Catholic teaching is Jesus Christ himself. In terms of morality, we are to follow him, meaning to imitate his way of life. He has described his way of life to us in his "new" commandment, to love one another as he has loved us.

From this is derived our goals as individuals to convey the love of Christ to all who we meet, whether by doing good for them directly or by calling them to repentance so that they become able to receive the love of God.

Moreover, even the powers and goals of the State are founded in the command of love. The State cannot make one person love one another, but it can remove obstacles to love (and, since they are related to love, all the other virtues), as well as establish obstacles to vice and sin, and punish those who harm society. The State has the power and the authority to defend the community against aggression in order to preserve the community's ability to follow Christ.

In short, as far as I see it, all Catholic moral teaching is rooted in our Lord's command to love as he has loved us.

Okay, your turn.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A military investigator takes on Thiessen

A fascinating essay in which a military investigator points out Marc Thiessen's errors is here; excerpt:

Thiessen also argues that we will never know what other information we would have gotten out of KSM had we not used torture and abuse. But we do know. We need only examine the success of numerous professional interrogators against high-ranking members of al-Qaida. There is Eric Maddox, the U.S. Army interrogator who located Saddam Hussein (as told in his excellent book Mission: Black List #1).There is also Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who successfully interrogated Abu Zubaydah. In Iraq, my own team successfully interrogated many mid- and high-level leaders of al-Qaida while hunting Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Serious interrogators have little doubt that we would have gotten better information from KSM, and sooner, had the interrogations been conducted by professional interrogators using noncoercive techniques.

Another mischaracterization in Courting Disaster is Thiessen's claim that CIA water-boarding is identical to the water-boarding given American troops in training. Thiessen calls it "absurd" to believe we would torture our own troops. But if it were the same as the training given American troops, detainees would be told beforehand that it's temporary and voluntary; they'd have a codeword to make it stop at any time; and be reassured that it would not harm them permanently. Real water-boarding—unlike resistance training—exploits the real fear of death. The detainee does not know when, or if, it will stop. This is no different than charging the slide of a pistol and pointing it at a prisoner's head. The soldier holding the pistol may have taken precautions (removing the bullets from the magazine and/or getting the Justice Department to produce memos calling it legal), but it's still illegal, as the military courts determined when an American soldier did just this in Afghanistan. Threatening prisoners with death or physical harm is torture. That's precisely why the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Conventions Against Torture, U.S. law, and military regulations prohibit it.

The many omissions from Thiessen's book are also telling. For instance, in citing case law regarding water-boarding as torture, he fails to mention the case of a Texas sheriff and his deputies who were convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for water-boarding prisoners. (The John Yoo torture memos conveniently disregarded this precedent as well.) Thiessen states that water-boarding depicted at Tuol Sleng Prison in Cambodia is different because it involved dunking a prisoner's head in a tub of water. But there is a painting at Tuol Sleng of a victim being tortured in the same position CIA interrogators used. For a man so obsessed with tiny details that define away and excuse torture, Thiessen should have caught a large detail that spotlights it.

As I read this essay, I kept thinking that Marc Thiessen's biggest gamble all along has been to count on the silence of those in the military who are in a position to object to "enhanced interrogation." This piece does a good job of showing the weakness of Thiessen's arguments, especially as viewed by people who are in a position to know better.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Jen on Hannah Arendt on torture - UPDATED

Just Jen has a couple of posts, forming a kind of dialogue with Big Think writer Robert de Neufville, on Hannah Arendt's articulation of torture as a kind of bully weakness.

"I can't get what I want, so I'll hurt you instead!"

But this is a thin mask for not being able to get what one wants.

So, in the U.S. today, we haven't captured Osama bin Laden, and we don't have a 100% certainty of safety from future terrorist attacks, so torture is one of the ways we satisfy our need to appear strong in the face of our weakness.

But, as St. Paul reminds us, when we are weak it is then that we are strong in God.

UPDATE: It occured to me while re-reading this post that it may be taken as an accusation of ill-will or weakness on the part of torture supporters. Since my own motives are mixed, this probably was some part of my intent, so I apologize and repent. The will and moral status of another is not mine to judge.

I let it stand, though, with this clarification: we all of us are weak by our fallen human nature, and fear drives us all. I admit in myself a vengefulness, too, that I have to resist. When I discover a weakness in myself, I do my best to hide it and to cover it over with strength; but this effort is always doomed to failure. I cannot deny the fact of my weakness, my vulnerability.

Instead, the answer is to offer my weakness to the One who is Strength. I do this far too rarely.

As they say, the preacher preaches first to himself.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Can torture victims sue their torturers?

Here's an interesting case, that might eventually have some repercussions for the whole torture debate:

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices on Wednesday questioned whether a former prime minister of Somalia can be sued in U.S. courts over claims that he oversaw killings and torture in his home country.

At issue is whether foreign officials, not just countries and their agencies, receive immunity in federal court from being sued for their actions while in power.

Mohamed Ali Samantar was defense minister and prime minister of Somalia in the 1980s and early 1990s under dictator Siad Barre. He now lives in Virginia and is being sued by victims who say he was responsible for killings, rapes and torture, including waterboarding.

The court's decision could have broad foreign policy implications. Allowing lawsuits against former foreign officials living in the United States could increase the likelihood that U.S. officials would be sued in overseas courts. An increase in the number of U.S. lawsuits dealing with past actions in foreign countries could also affect the United States' current ties with those countries.

But a decision granting immunity could prevent torture victims from getting their day in U.S. courts when their oppressors have emigrated to the United States, advocates said.

At issue is not whether Samantar is responsible for torture; at issue is whether he was acting in an official government capacity as the agent of a foreign government, and is thus entitled to the same immunity his country has against being sued in a United States court.

Clearly, a decision allowing Samantar to be sued by his victims would be viewed with trepidation by those who have authorized torture by United States agencies. It's pretty unlikely that a "Marc Thiessen defense" which claimed that waterboarding isn't torture and that the victims of it thank their tormentors would fly in any foreign courts.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A depressing quote

In a Wall Street Journal piece about John Yoo's missing emails on the subjects like waterboarding, we find this rather depressing quote:

The panel's ranking Republican, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, said continuing controversy over interrogation and detention practices was being stoked by those opposed to military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Every time you're in a conflict, the antiwar groups always find something to complain about," he said.

Talk about painting with a broad brush.

Quite a lot of us who oppose torture are not in any sense of the word "antiwar." For instance, I'm against unjust wars, in favor of just ones, and inclined to listen to many different people as I determine which are which. I'm not automatically in favor of any war my country decides to get involved in; history alone ought to show us that's not a safe "default" position for a sincere Christian to take, as not all American involvement in war has been just.

What's really depressing, to me, is Sen. Sessions' idea that torture is just "something to complain about," something that's not really worth discussing unless you really are one of those antiwar zealots carrying protests signs and tattooing the peace symbol on your forehead, or something. America went almost overnight from being a nation too honorable ever to consider torture, to being a nation where having the gumption to support "enhanced interrogation" was somehow a test of one's red-blooded patriotic American bona fides; the question "Ought we do any such thing?" was brushed aside in favor of a rhetorical plastic bracelet which reads WWJBD--or "What would Jack Bauer Do?"

I've never been antiwar, I've never voted for a Democrat, I've voted for Republicans for president except when they ran Bob Dole (and I voted for an independent that year)--but somehow my objection to making our troops inflict the pains of drowning on prisoners to get them to talk makes me, in Senator Sessions' way of thinking, a hippie peacenik who just wants to stoke controversy to mask opposition to war. Because it couldn't be that there's actually anything wrong with torture, now, could it?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Zippy on torture: it's about the action, not the effect

Zippy has an excellent post on his blog that walks through the reasons that torture is still torture, even if the prisoner doesn't "break."

This is, of course, a great example of why consequentialism is bogus reasoning: if what really matters is the effect or the outcome, then there's no such thing as "attempted murder" or other such crimes. There's no reason for security at airports, because there's no consequence to carrying a weapon onto an airplane - until someone uses it!

Ironically, the reasoning used to justify torture is exactly the reasoning that would undermine all the legitimate security and defense measures this country (and most others) have put into place.