Saturday, May 30, 2009

Injecting sanity into the torture/prisoners debate - waterboarding, anyone?

Okay, that was sort of/completely a joke. I am not actually advocating we waterboard Congressional leaders, members of the media, or advocates regarding how ridiculous these discussions have become. At least I won't suggest such measures publicly. Sorry...some more torture humor. But there are a few important points that I think these discussions are just flat-out missing overall. Some folks are raising them, but in general, we don't hear enough about them.

1. Let's drop the moral issue for a second. Not to say that's not important/the most important issue at stake here, but I wonder if we even need to get that far. The question that might make all this debate pointless torture useful? Seriously...can we try to really get a handle on this question? I realize we're not going to get a definitive answer, but I do think we can get a consensus view about how reliable torture actually is. Remember, the whole point is for intelligence, not to break somebody. This is why back-engineering SERE for interrogation seems to be doesn't really seem to serve any intelligence purposes.
If torture makes the suspect say anything to make the pain stop, yeah, sometimes that could lead them to give up important information they weren't willing to disclose before they subjected to torture. But, how many times do they actually say anything you want? There is some discussion now (not enough, in my opinion) that the "enhanced interrogation" techniques were used to elicit links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, even if those links didn't exist. It's what the US wanted to hear, and with enough force, they were able to coerce some statements of the sort from Abu Zubaydah and others. This is a massive problem, and does suggest that, under torture, suspects may reveal what you want to hear, even if that information is false. That this can occur should make us question how useful any of the information obtained through torture is, period. Also, does it actually work better than normal interrogation? From what we've all heard about the waterboarding cases, the suspects gave away the important information through normal interrogation techniques, and were then waterboarded. We need to examine this point more than we have...if normal interrogation is more useful than torture, why are we using it at all? Finally, do people actually even talk during torture? Some historical research suggests this is not quite true, either. Now, before you say I'm stacking everything against torture here, that's not the point...I'm simply saying we need to really probe whether these methods are even useful in the first place. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but this should be the absolute central part of the discussion. But given the drastic (and potentially illegal) nature of torture, the evidence that it is successful is probably going to need to be pretty clear to justify using it.

2. As for morality/legality stuff, we don't need to have pundits and partisan politicians come on and discuss this stuff. In fact, keep them the hell away. There is a pretty clear trail of information about how this all came about. It's not exactly that debatable, irrespective of what people will say. Bill Moyers showed a pretty extensive amount of the documentary, Torturing Democracy, on his show this week [and has a lot of resources up on his website on the topic], and I'd really recommend everyone check it out. It shows the work of John Yoo, etc., as well as the stories of Moazzam Begg and others. You can watch the entire documentary online as well. Point being, this is ugly, and we need to be much better informed about it than we currently are.

3. Who the hell are these people, anyway? This is a really important point for us to know. Instead of being told by Democrats and Republicans that the people being tortured and held in Gitmo, Bagram, etc., are the worst of the worst (this is part of why we apparently can't let them out of Gitmo), how about remembering that very few of them have had any real trials whatsoever, and that most are being held without any charges? You know what that means? It means we have no idea if they are the worst of the worst. In fact, we know some of them certainly aren't. Plenty of prisoners from Gitmo have been released without any charges because...there was no evidence they had any connections to terrorism at all. Instead of assuming everyone being tortured is a hardened al-Qaeda type, we should actually make an effort to figure out if that is true or not at all. Moazzam Begg, for instance, is almost certainly not a terrorist of any kind. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was the case for other prisoners as well. Isn't that kind of a major issue? I'm not saying everyone being held is innocent, but shouldn't we focus a lot of our attention on figuring this out? And isn't that the whole point of real trials, anyway, to figure out if they are actually linked to terrorism? If we oppose that, what are we saying? That we are allowed to capture somebody, hold them for years, and torture them because we think they might be terrorists, without proving any of it? That we can call them "enemy combatants", a made-up term which we concocted to essentially take away all their rights, with no proof of anything? That is an insane argument, the kind Stalin would look fondly upon.

4. Can we get some hard questions of politicians about the safety of super-max prisons? Seriously, what is wrong with some of these people? No congressional leader should be allowed to act so petrified of having a Gitmo prisoner on trial in their state and possibly placed in one of these prisons, and if they do, they should be committed. Like I raised in the previous point, first off, we don't even know if these are the worst of the worst. And even if they are, they're just humans. Our super-max prisons will hold them just fine. Last I checked, we were not holding any prisoners that are able to manipulate magnetic fields like Magneto, transform into jets like Starscream, or have mastery of the dark side of the force like Darth Vader. Super-max prisons will hold them just fine.

5. What about effects of all this on U.S. troops? Very few people bring this point up. That we openly torture prisoners, even those who may not be guilty of anything whatsoever (since we have fought giving them trials) could have a serious effect on U.S. soldiers captured by adversaries. Why wouldn't they just say, screw the Geneva Conventions, we're going to torture the hell out of this soldier, America does much worse? We have literally no credibility making an argument against this. How can we, who have bypassed the Geneva Conventions and define people we capture in a category that is in in the unknown legal ethos (which allow us to subject their treatment to no rules or laws), say anything to anyone about treating our soldiers properly? This has put U.S. troops in much greater danger if they are captured. Yet, we don't hear much about this at all. It's a pretty important point, considering the fact that we're currently involved in 2 official wars (Iraq and Afghanistan), doing our best to start a third (Pakistan), and have a massive military footprint across the globe.

6. Waterboarding is not the only form of torture. We hear about it all the is seemingly the central form of torture we're considering. However, there is a lot of actions the U.S. undertook that we need to think about. For instance, we hung prisoners by handcuffs in their cells at heights where their legs gave out and they were left dangling their entire body weight on their two wrists. That was a form of torture practiced in the Middle Ages. We blasted heavy lights and loud music into their cells for days on end, essentially not allowing them to sleep at all. We put some in tiny cages, barely big enough for them to stand up in, and left them in complete solitude, for days on end. We put some in dark rooms with almost no light whatsoever (many in the CIA black sites in Europe) for months. We put some prisoners in cells in which we blasted the air conditioning and took away most of their clothes so they were freezing cold for days. Begg was shown photos of his family, and then forced to hear a woman nearby scream from being tortured and led to believe it was his wife...this persisted for months, and he has said that that was the first time in his life he wanted to kill somebody. These are all potentially torture. It is a lot more than just waterboarding. By focusing so heavily on waterboarding, we risk blowing it, because, as far as we know, waterboarding was only done to very few prisoners (though it was repeated at an insane level to those few prisoners...if you have to waterboard Abu Zubaydah 83 times in a single month, as was reported, is it really working?), and prisoners whose ties to terrorism are fairly clear. However, the many other potential practices of torture were done to prisoners whose ties to terrorist groups are, at best, unclear, and, at worst, non-existent. Don't become transfixed on waterboarding...though conservative supporters who actually have opted to be waterboarded (like Chistopher Hitchens and Erich "Mancow" Muller) have immediately declared it torture does say something. However, we cannot forget the many other potential forms of torture used on prisoners, and as noted above, recall that we don't know if many of these prisoners have any ties to terrorist organizations at all. Oh, and by the way, even calling it "waterboarding" serves a political sounds much more tame than what it used to be called, water torture, huh?

7. How about an honest discussion of what this all means and what our options are moving forward? Look, plenty of people (some of whom blog on this very site) think, with good reason, that we have to let this go. We have so many other crises that spending time focusing heavily on torture and our prisoners will ultimately hurt the country. They have a point. If we press hard for a detailed investigation of what exactly happened in all this, and possibly opt for prosecutions if it becomes clear that government officials are guilty, there is no doubt that it will set off partisan bedlam, which will almost certainly hurt our opportunities to fix the economy, address health care, figure out a way to stabilize Afghanistan, pull out of Iraq, etc. On the other hand, if we let this go, that could have major repurcusions on the very foundations of our country. Does this set a precedent for how our government can act? If so, that is very dangerous. We opted out of the Geneva Conventions. That is no small thing. And moving f0rward, who's to say any other country will honor them if they capture our troops...or any other troops/civilians, etc.? If we have this kind of discussion about how to deal with the issue, we might actually be able to come to some reasonable conclusion, whatever that might be. Maybe it is that important that we have to go all-out on it...if these actions are that problematic, and some Republicans are willing to be partisan about it, I say screw them, the country's foundations matter a hell of a lot more than some old rich cranky privileged white GOP members being pissy. Maybe it will be enough to do everything possible to ensure (to the best of our ability) that this never happens again, as opposed to going after Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Gonzalez, etc., if it is clear they are all guilty. Whatever the case is, I do think it is pretty clear that we need an investigation of what exactly happened. This doesn't have to be directed by the White House. In fact, I'd keep Obama far away from this. Let DOJ or the AG handle this. Keep it away from politicians for as long as humanly posible. I also do think that, no matter what, it is vitally important to have all the information out there. If Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Gonzalez, etc., are found to be guilty, if they aren't prosecuted, put in jail, tortured (I'm kidding), etc., it is crucial for the well-being of the nation, and the world, truthfully, that all the beans on the architects of this nightmare are spilled. If they don't go to jail, everybody should know exactly what they did. I want them behind bars, sharing a cell with a 6 foot 3, 265 pound, angry dude named Tiny with biceps as big as their waists, but if doing so kills our chances of getting out of the many crises that the Bush administration left this country, then I'm okay with making sure everybody knows what they did, and let everyone know the only reason they aren't in jail is because our political system is so broken that we can't even do the right thing on the most obvious stuff.

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