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A Man Needs A Fish Like A Woman Needs a Bicycle
Monday, May 03, 2004
TORTURE AND IRAQ--AN UNCOMFORTABLE METAPHOR i have been having a fun time chatting with the people at the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiller. I find the discussion there robust, rough and tumbled, but in a good natured and very passionate way. The torture issue has set many folks there to high levels of anger. Its clear to me that everyone is really angry at the guards. I think one reason for the depth of this emotion is because we all understand that this is not going to help us in Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East, anytime soon.

One thing: calling for Americans to be "executed" makes me very uncomfortable. Maybe someone can call me a liberal, but I do believe in the presumption of innocence, and the need for rational judgement through an examination of the facts. Apart from needing to wait till the whole story is out, there are parts of this story which do not gel, with regards to the guards. When the newspapers talk of "civilian contractors" in charge of interrogation, I thought (naively I realize) that we were talking about the Acme company or a subsidary of Halliburton (or the equivalent of civilian contractors providing security to the central authority--ex special forces types)! I know this was silly, but it took a while for me to realize that this meant-in all likelihood-CIA.

Iwas thinking about the incentives here, and trying to use Occam's Razor to look for the simplest (and thus most likely) answer. Sure--we may have some bad apples here. But isn't it possible, perhaps even likely, that they were "following orders" in order to elicit badly needed information. I am trying to imagine back in the Fall of 2003, when the resistance was really getting started. There is a lot of pressure--both military and political--to find the culprits. Is it hard to imagine that someone, somewhere, did not say:

"Get me that information! Americans are dying and american lives are at risk, and we need to stop these bad people! just get me that info!"?


Do we need explicit orders? I don't think so. Will a general ask where the information came from that saved american lives? Or how it was extracted? Idon't think so, unless they are an extremely moral man.

One could even come to think that these actions themselves as if they were "moral." How? One could make a utilitarian argument along the following lines:

"Hell--when I compare trampling on the "rights" of a few "ragheads" compared to saving American lives and the lives of innocent allied Iraqis--its no contest! Inflict the pain. Lives are at stake!"


On that kind of calculus, it can make all kinds of "sense."

The problem in this calculus is the following: What happens if the public finds out? Then, the downside becomes horrific, as I think we are about to find out. What I think we will find upsetting people in authority is not the torture--though I think the revulsion is genuine--but that there is evidence of it. My guess is that politicians, like generals, are not interested in the dirty little secrets of interrogation. They leave that to the little people who carry out orders--with latitude in interpretation of their instructions. They want results. Can we blame them? That is the question...

As a recent article in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh makes clear, there have been a number of reports concerning this prison, and all of them bad. But until recently, no pictures. Before the pictures, it was just a series of allegations, that could easily be buried as "words." Now--there is a reality to see. And now the words of eyewitnesses take on greater power.

Much comfort has been drawn from the idea that this was the work of a few bad eggs. I don't think it is as simple as that. The reality is that we can do bad things. We tend to embrace our own and fear those who are different. A potent mix of xenophobia and ethnocentrism. If news reports are to be believed concerning US soldiers' attitudes to the local population--we are in bigger trouble. Add in bad situational cues with an ambiguous chain of command, and a process that accelerates the dehumanization and possible social death of the Other, and this is a recipe for abuse.

We probably did these acts--not because of an inherent or pervasive sadism--but because of the unswerving (and perhaps partially misplaced) love of this country, and the understandable desire to keep it safe.

The question remains as to what is happening down in Cuba. Allegations have been made there as well. Is there a basis in fact there? We need pictures to get the full picture...



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