Torture

(Editor’s note: I put up the title “Torture” as a place-holder until I thought of a better one, then forgot to actually do that. I’d go back and fix it, but apparently changing titles messes up the site something fierce. My apologies for such a bland title.)

Yesterday, the folks at Wizbang Blue tossed up a link and excerpted Glenn Greenwald’s latest discussion of torture. I was annoyed at the Sockmaster’s piece, but didn’t have time to properly eviscerate it before I had to scamper off to The Day Job, so I just did a bit of spoofing of his past transgressions.

But I didn’t put the whole thing behind me.

Greenwald (or whatever name he’s calling himself these days) manages to capture a couple of common bogus notions in his discussion of “torture.” I think it’s high time someone rebutted them.

1) Torture is torture.

To many people, any sort of coercion or use of force is “torture.” Abu Ghraib is often cited as the classic example of US torture.

I have a stricter definition of torture. To me, it involves severe pain, physical injury, maiming. In fact, here’s a pretty good definition:

The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.

The United States does not torture. We do not condone torture, we do not sanction it, we do not order it, we do not tolerate it.

But we do interrogate. We do question. And we do use less than pleasant techniques. Ones we developed that are not nice, but fall short of “torture.”

“Waterboarding” is one of them. It inflicts no physical injuries. It produces severe emotional stress and terror, bypassing the intellect and assailing the survival instinct. And it has no long-term consequences. Hell, I’ve seen TV reporters get themselves waterboarded as a ratings stunt.

Most importantly, it works. Witness Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That son of a bitch lasted about as long as a kitten in a pit bull fight once we used that on him. And the only harm was to his fragile self-esteem, as this mighty terrorist found himself giving up all his secrets after a somewhat forceful bath.

We also use other less than chivalrous techniques. We deprive them of sleep. We inflict bad music on them — loudly. We find their social, cultural, and religious “hot buttons” and push them. We lie to them. We confuse them. We, in brief, screw with their heads in any way we can to get them and keep them off balance to get them to reveal what we want.

But we do not torture.

Torture, as I will repeat, is “inflicting excruciating pain.” That often involves injury, sometimes permanent, and occasionally death. If you need a refresher on what torture involves, go see what some expert practitioners recommend. But not if you have a weak stomach.

2) Torture is torture.

To the uninitiated, that might seem very similar to point 1, but they are missing the subtle difference. They are missing that “torture must be condemned equally, no matter who practices it” interpretation.

Here is where I tend to part company with Mr. Greenwald and his compatriots again. Their position seems to be “torture is always wrong, and we must strongly condemn it whenever it happens.” That’s a fine, noble sentiment, but it tends to have somewhat unbalanced results.

When someone condemns the actions of a government, especially a democracy, it can have a decided effect of the conduct of that government. Public opinion can be swayed by such actions, and public opinion can be a potent weapon against a government.

When one condemns the actions of a non-government organization, especially a largely covert one like Al Qaeda or shadowy “insurgents,” though, it achieves absolutely nothing. The standard discussion when their acts of torture are brought up — such as in the case of the raid on the “torture chambers” Al Qaeda was running in Iraq, the liberation of 42 Iraqis, and the capture of their torture manuals — the discussion tends to run somewhat like this:

“Did you hear coalition forces captured an Al Qaeda torture base?”

“Yes, I did.”

“And do you condemn Al Qaeda’s use of torture?”

“What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I do!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you say that before.”

“That’s because I don’t say it every time.”

“Why not?”

“What would be the point? My condemning it won’t have any effect. I got tired of mouthing it over and over again.”

To one side, the condemnation of terrorist acts is redundant — it simply ought to be presumed, as no reasonable person would do otherwise. But complaints about government deeds has a possibility of achieving results, so it’s a better use of their time.

To the other, though, the steady stream of protests against the government’s actions while studious silence about the similar, but far more heinous, deeds of the other side represent a hypocrisy, a double standard, a decision to hold the government to a high standard while ignoring (and, tacitly, endorsing or at least accepting) the far worse actions of the other.

I don’t think that either argument is ideal. I find myself thinking that while the actions of the government might be questionable, the ones being done by the terrorists are far, far worse — and need to be stopped faster. And, historically, there has been only one solution to reforming such groups’ actions. Humanitarian appeals, concessions, negotiations, sanctions, pressures, protests, and the like tend to be largely useless; only force seems to work.

And that’s what we are doing in Iraq.

The United States does not, as a rule, practice torture. Yes, there have been exceptions, but as a general rule we do not. And in many of those exceptions, those that committed torture have been punished. Further, when we do, it is almost always in the aim of saving lives, of preventing attacks, of protecting the innucent.

Our enemy, as a rule, does torture. They terrorize, they inflict great pain and grievous injury, they maim, they cripple, and they kill. And their motives are considerably less benign: they wish to terrorize, to make examples, to punish, or simply to slake their own bloodlust and thirst for carnage.

And now, a final point:

3) Torture is torture.

Again, this might sound like the previous points, but there is a subtle difference. The government — the part that makes rules and sets policies — has stated that the United States will not commit torture. Another part of the government — the part that carries out policy set by that first part — comes back with the very natural followup question: “could you please define what you mean by ‘torture,’ so we can make sure we don’t do it?”

The response has been less than clear, but certain elements have been espoused: no lasting physical harm. No serious injury. No severe pain. No killing. No direct threats of same.

So the people from the second group looked at their responsibilities — obtaining information from people who had absolutely no interest in providing it — and started working out techniques and methods that were not forbidden. Waterboarding was probably the most famous one. Another — “extraordinary rendition” — was also used. In that one, we told the captives that if they did not prove themselves worthy of remaining in our custody, we would turn them over to another government that had a claim to their person — and that government didn’t play by the same rules we did. It was an indirect threat of real torture, but not a direct one.

But torture — real, actual torture, the sort that we ended in that charnel house in Iraq — is right out. We don’t do that. We fight, we imprison, we kill those that do it.

But that sort of point escapes Mr. Greenwald and his kind. They know that they are impotent to stop real torture, so they sop their consciences by trying to do what they can. If they can’t fight real torture, then they’ll find something that they can define as “torture” and stop that.

If, it turns out, that they end up tying the hands of our intelligence people and keep them from uncovering vital information that would save lives from future terrorist attacks, that’s merely the price to be paid for keeping our hands squeaky-clean.

It’s a cheap price, for them. They’re seldom the ones that pay it. These days, it’s being paid by Iraqi civilians and US troops, not pampered, elitist, sock-puppeteering, self-aggrandizing political hacks like Greenwald.

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