A conservatory of Ldotter blogs.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A recent email exchange. . .

. . .got me thinking about the accusations of prisoner mistreatment and torture at Abu Ghraib and GITMO. That's nothing new, since the story has been blog fodder for months. I'm a relative johnny-come-lately to just about any subject in the news these days. While I was away, Dick Durbin equated US policy with that of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Karl Rove rope-a-doped a bunch of self-declared centrists into rising up in indignation before realizing that they were outing themselves as liberals, we've celebrated another Independence Day, and our staunchest ally in the Global War on Terror was attacked. Needless to say, I can't fall back on the "slow news day" excuse for not blogging lately.

The email exchange took place between myself and a vocal critic of the military's treatment of detainees, and it was surprisingly civil. Some of the replies I got were rather terse, but always respectful -- which is a rarity when it comes to email exchanges over such contentious issues. Hell, these days, you have to expect death threats whenever you write teasingly about dogs and cats. So, if you can rationally discuss something that strikes at the very heart of the issue of human rights, you've accomplished something that can't even be done in the hallowed halls of that most august body -- the single greatest deliberative body on the face of the earth -- the United States Senate. I consider it a badge of honor.

One of the big problems I have with critics of detainee treatment is that among them there seems to be a rush to accept the stories of abuse at face value. Whether or not they actually do accept these tales, I don't know. What I do know is that there seems to be a complete lack of urgency to disprove or debunk any of the claims, nor any apparent desire to factor in the known fact that many of the people in custody have been specifically trained to use international aid groups as a conduit for propaganda to put pressure on the respective governments of the coalition forces in order to weaken their resolve. This is no small thing, and should be included in any report that emanates from an investigation into human rights violations against detainees.

The person with whom I had this exchange is keen to point out that he doesn't rely on the questionable and unproven claims, but rather focuses on the claims of abuse that we know are true to a reasonable degree of certainty. This is all well and good, but often there's a rhetorical trick (or is it a misstep?) employed when discussing those few confirmed instances. What happens is, these instances are highlighted and discussed, the details laid out in vivid color, and then placed alongside the proverbial "hundreds and thousands" of claims that haven't been confirmed to anyone's satisfaction. The effect is essentially to conflate several blood curdling tales of inhumane treatment and outright torture with thousands of accusations of varying brutality for which there is no evidence to back them up.

Also, there seems to be no willingness to take into account the fact that at least one of the accusations of mistreatment made by a leading news publication turned out to have no basis in fact, and would eventually lead to several civilian deaths as a protest centered around the allegations spun out of control and led to a full-scale riot. In this case, it wasn't actual prisoner abuse that led to the riot. Rather, it was a supposed (and apparently fictional) instance of mistreatment of the Koran that infuriated the prostesters. Is there any real doubt that the people who led this protest had been treated to analysis of the reports from international aid groups which suggest that there have been hundreds and thousands of instances of abuse and mistreatment?

Granted, the administration has done little to curry favor with journalists, often frustrating them with its characteristic reticence and secretiveness. But, the fact remains that the reason that the administration takes such a tack with the press is that the administration has a somewhat justifiable (and healthy) paranoia toward it. And, if you need an object lesson as to why it's justifiable, all you need to do is look at the treatment given to both Karl Rove and Dick Durbin by the mainstream media outlets following their recent provocative statements.

But, beyond the questions of veracity regarding both the administration's explanations and the claims collected by international aid groups, there's a larger question as to the basic morality and immorality of torture itself. My counterpart in the exchange holds that under no circumstances can torture be morally justified. And, it is on that very basic point where I part company with him. I happen to think that torture can be justified given the proper set of circumstances. Whether or not that happens to be the case in this situation doesn't go directly to the question of whether or not it's universally true that infliction of unbearable pain and suffering on a person is justifiable.

For instance, suppose you've been tipped off that there is a bomb hidden in an elementary school located in a densely populated area, and that it is set to go off in one hour. You have in custody a person who knows the exact location of the bomb, but he is uncooperative. Is it moral to use torture to extract information from that person so bomb squads can defuse the explosives?

That's just one of many instances one can invision where, to my mind at least, torture is not only justifiable, but a moral imperative. Whether or not any of the detainees who are known to have been tortured were done so in an effort to save lives from an immediate threat, I don't know. But, I do know that torture is not universally wrong.

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