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Monday, April 27, 2009

Torture: what's the answer?

CC Matthew Bradley,
Last week President Obama spoke before employees of the CIA [video] and touched upon the current controversies regarding certain interrogation techniques, namely the matter of torture. In noting his decision to release the memos on the past use of waterboarding - the Office of Legal Council (OLC) memos - Obama said this:

"I believe that our nation is stronger and more secure when we deploy the full measure of both our power and the power of our values..."

Values, of course, are what we are interested in here, so let's talk about torture, and consult a little ancient philosophy along the way.

Part of the question centers on whether or not waterboarding is torture. Two days after his inauguration, President Obama issued executive order 13491 which restricted the CIA to the same standards of prisoner treatment outlined in the Army Field Manual 2 22.3 and the Geneva Conventions. By those standards, waterboarding is torture. But even before George W. Bush's administration in 1988, the U.S. is had signed the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which defines torture in Article 1.1 as:

"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession..."

[explore further: see PBS' FAQ on torture]

Not only do these definitions clearly include waterboarding, but the United States tried and executed Japanese personnel after World War II for war crimes, specifically including waterboarding. This poignant point so clearly marks the distance we have strayed as a nation, that when Paul Begala made it to the normally talkative Ari Fleischer on CNN, it produced one of the longest and most uncomfortable silences in cable news this week [see the video, namely beginning at 3:00 minutes].

That being said, I'm going to proceed with the position that waterboarding is torture - period. What's worse is that documents so far destroyed by the CIA may have contained even harsher methods. So, the key question is: should we torture and, if so, how much?

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has said that he 'played a role' in deciding whether to waterboard and that he didn't think it went too far. He noted that 'the results speak for themselves' and that it was effective. His daughter and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Liz Cheney defended him recently in a somewhat combative interview on MSNBC. Again, hitting on the 'ends over means' angle, she wondered if anyone had reviewed the effectiveness of the program before releasing information on the techniques used.

On the matter of whether or not waterboarding was torture, she answered in part by pointing out that we perform many of these techniques on our own people (referring to those we train to endure such treatment if captured). People such as former Assistant Attorney General Daniel Levin and columnist/writer Christopher Hitchens have both subjected themselves to a form of waterboarding resulting in opposite conclusions.

Many of us remember Admiral James Stockdale from his bid for office as Ross Perot's running mate in the 1992 U.S. presidential race. At the time, those who hadn't already heard of him were learning about how he had been taken prisoner during the Vietnamese War in 1965, and about how he had relied on Stoic philosophy to cope with the torture and captivity. Stoicism is something that I have become a follower of for unrelated reasons, and a big part of the writing I do in the future will look at what it has to offer us all.

While the Stoics do not claim we can avoid physical suffering, what Stoicism can provide is relief from mental anguish. For instance, you might imagine yourself lying on a bed being cut upon. In one case this might be the result of torture and in another, a necessary medical procedure to which you assented. While both could conceivably result in similar physical pain and outcomes, the torture is by far a worse experience due to our knowledge and judgments about the situations. I think most people would appreciate the difference between the experience in controlled circumstances with an aware subject and the situation in a true interrogation context - even were all of the physical actions identical.

Liz Cheney also seems to believe that our measure of behavior should be based on the al-Qaeda training manual when she criticizes 'this idea that somehow al-Qaeda abides by the Geneva Conventions' - as if our commitment to the standards of the Geneva Conventions were contingent upon enemy behavior. The point is not who al-Qaeda is - it is who we are. People often say, "the enemy doesn't care, they do a lot worse" and that's just as it should be. The reason they are our enemy is because "they are a lot worse". May we all shun the day when that complaint can no longer be made. Liz Cheney nears the end of this display of her astoundingly misguided value system by saying "It's very important for us to take a step back from the emotion of this". Ironically, it is the position that seeks to torture when under danger because its seen as 'effective' and because our enemies will do the same to us that is the emotional position. That emotion, by the way, is fear.

But has torture even been effective?

Former CIA officer Bob Baer said recently on several outlets that torture has never worked, which is why even the Israelis (under a great deal more threat than ourselves) don't torture. He said that most of the CIA agrees on this and that the singular 'ticking time bomb' scenario often used to argue for torture is outlandish, nearly impossible, and has not been shown to have happened. I believe Baer's position to have been (and still be) the overall professional consensus on torture for some time. Subjects will say what they think the torturer wants to hear, and the information is unreliable. He also notes that if a single case of this being directly responsible for the saving of lives had existed, it would have come to light by now to defend those responsible.

In any case, I think whether its Liz Cheney suggesting it was effective or Bob Baer saying it isn't, both sides are off base. This approach comes out of a shallow version of consequentialism - which is unfortunately very rampant in Western ethical thought these days. Consequentialism judges the moral value of actions by their results. However, this way of thinking about ethics has several shortcomings. It can result in unfairly blaming people for results beyond their choice or control. In this case, it has resulted in an 'ends justifies the means' value system. On the whole, it comes out of the delusion that we have more control than we actually do in manipulating world events and our environment to ensure 'good results'.

Instead, philosophies such as Buddhism look at inner motivation, personal virtues, and character development. This is seen as the path to happiness in life. The Stoics too saw the link, stating that virtue alone is both necessary and sufficient for happiness. Stoics knew that the results of our attempts are not truly within our control, but that our choices and values are. So they didn't focus on consequentialism, but on building virtue of character - on our inner motivations.

The world is a scary and unpredictable place. The United States has been in a constant effort to gain more and more control over the globe as a means of making itself feel safe. But this is a fool's errand - it's like chasing a rainbow because that kind of control is impossible. So, as we travel further and further down that path, we find ourselves less happy and even less safe as a result. Instead, as the Buddha and as the Stoic Epictetus would advise, we should focus on being virtuous first, because that is something we can control.

It doesn't matter how effective or ineffective torture is. The question itself is vulgar. Consider why targeting soldiers in war versus targeting busloads of children must be kept categorically separate, regardless of the cause or the ends. It doesn't have to do with the fact that the children are innocent. Innocent children die in legitimate war actions too, but it is unintentional. The allied soldiers in WWII fighting against Nazi and Imperial Japan attacks were innocent too, yet they were legitimate war targets - so innocence isn't the point when it comes to terrorism. The point is this: a standard that accepts terrorism is a lower one that has a big impact on what kind of people we become and what kind of world we live in.

This is why terrorism is bad and, ironically, terrorism is the very thing involved in the hypothetical "ticking time bomb" scenario which seeks to justify torture. A world full of human beings who see terrorism as a legitimate war tactic is a darker world that we can't allow. If torture is ok then so is terrorism, they are both just tactics working toward an end. Will we eventually be debating about how effective terrorism is so that we might entertain using it ourselves?

What matters is, what kind of people we wish to be. What kind of 'national character' do we wish to build, and are we willing to do the hard work and pay the price for being that kind of people?

The Buddhist notion of cause and effect recognizes that when we perform certain acts they have an effect on us besides the mere consequences of the act. They shape us, form our character, and make us who we are when it comes time to make future decisions. This works the same for a nation as it does a person.

Let's not overlook the role of mass media in directing our attentions and effecting the relative weight we give to threats. Three thousand died in the 9/11 attacks, certainly a tragedy that should not be minimized, but tens of thousands die each and every year in the U.S. alone from automobile accidents. This is a sacrifice we make, not for our principles of decency or even for our freedom, but for convenience of travel. So, let's make sure we are looking at this without being alarmist or disproportionate. Are we willing to sacrifice who we wish to be as a people and risk our own freedoms out of a frenzied response to only those deaths to which the media have called our attention?

[Go deeper: "Debating Torture"]

I was disappointed to learn of a recent poll in which almost half of Americans say that torture may be justified in certain circumstances. At some point we need to ask the question, in defending the United States as a nation, just what are we protecting?

In his CIA presentation, Obama also noted that al-Qaeda is not constrained by a constitution, and how that makes their job harder. He rejected the notion that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive, adding:

"What makes the United States special... is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and ideals even when it's hard; not just when it's easy."

We've already determined as Americans that some values and principles are worth fighting for, and worth dying for. Being the kind of people that don't torture is a worthy value so why should we so easily run in fear at the prospect that principle may cost us lives? Since when has being a noble and good people not been worth that sacrifice? In his position, Obama can't tell you this as such, but I can: lives are worth risking or even losing for certain principles - not being torturers is a principle too.

U.N. representative Manfred Nowak has said that the U.S. is obligated under the U.N. Convention against torture to prosecute Bush administration lawyers involved in policies approving these interrogation techniques. However, I hope we won't get too much into this sort of thing. I believe we shouldn't prosecute Bush administration officials for the same reason I support a moratorium on capital punishment - our system is so convoluted with conflicts of interest and inefficiencies right now that accuracy, fairness, and justice are not even close to being assured. When these matters get going, they become very political, with many people getting involved simply to bring down their political opponents regardless of the facts or principles involved. More importantly, it focuses our national energies and attention in places they should not be: on divisiveness, on retribution, and on the past. What's important now is that we find our moral bearings and move forward a better nation for it.

As for the question of torture, we are at a crossroads and we must decide who will be in control of our actions; our enemies or ourselves.

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