The five millionth attempt to put the ticking time bomb argument out of its misery by mattsteinglass
July 3, 2009, 8:24 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

People seem to have trouble understanding something about the reason why the regimes we think of as extremely evil tortured people. Here’s the thing: they tortured people because they really, honestly believed that those people were mortal threats to the general welfare. So when you, present-day American or anyone else, say “Yes, it’s wrong to torture, but it’s morally excusable if you really believe the victim is a mortal threat to the general welfare…” One sees the problem here.

Why do I bring this up? Because, on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Chris B. recently got himself in trouble by writing:

Khamenei torture is on a different level than Cheney torture. For the crime of getting caught on camera holding a bloody shirt, Ahmand Batebi was whipped with cables, beat in the genitals, and basically waterboarded in human excrement.  But more to the point: he and his fellow students were tortured for their political beliefs, not their perceived ties to terrorism.

A reader countered: “Their perceived ties to terrorism are Cheney’s political beliefs, surely. But that’s beside the point too. Torture is torture is torture is torture.” And Chris responded by digging himself in deeper:

…while I’m firmly anti-torture, I actually think the ticking-time bomb scenario can be justified. But my take is very different from the likes of Krauthammer; I think the TTB scenario can be ethically justified, not legally justified. Torture should always – always – be illegal. But in the infinitesimally small chance that someone is put in the situation where he or she is convinced – convinced – that a captured terrorist will prevent the deaths of countless people, torturing one person would be the lesser of two grave evils.

There are two things to say here. The first is that the Ahmadinejad regime does torture people for “their perceived ties to terrorism”. To them, the demonstrators they face in the streets are traitors, foreign agents, saboteurs, and so forth — mortal threats to the Iranian people. Are such beliefs ludicrous? What then do we call the beliefs of the American officials, up to and including Cheney, who believed that the Uighur detainees at Guantanamo were “tied to terrorism” or in any way posed a threat to the US? More importantly, how can the degree of horror of the act of torture rest on the degree of accuracy of the torturer’s assessments of the victim’s political beliefs? Who is empowered to decide how “convinced — convinced” the torturer is? Do people who are more “convinced” of their own correctness have a greater right to commit acts of violence against others?

The answer is obviously no, which leads us to that second point, which I mentioned earlier: we have to understand that the people we condemn for committing horrific acts usually believed those actions were morally right, and justified in self-defense. Lenin really believed that the tens of thousands of Whites and White sympathizers he and Dzerzhinsky tortured and had put to death during the Civil War were mortal threats to the welfare of Russia and all humankind. Hitler really believed that Jews were parasites who posed a mortal threat to the German people. And many of the police in modern autocracies who proclaim their political opponents to be “terrorists” really believe what they’re saying. That doesn’t give them the right to torture anyone, and no similar reasoning can give us such a right, either.


What Russian literature has to teach us about Guantanamo by mattsteinglass
June 16, 2009, 1:20 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Literature, Russia, United States

With at least a few of the Uighur detainees finally enjoying their well-earned freedom in the very civilized country of Bermuda, reflecting on Guantanamo is feeling at least slightly less morbid than it did for a long time. But during my visit to Finland I got back into Russian literature a little — basically, I dropped by a bookstore and picked up a couple of recent Russian novels for the first time in years — and that has prompted me to reflect once again that the relevant literary referent for the US’s merry adventures in torture and gulags comes from the land of the ice and snow. We’ve already covered Dostoevsky. Today let’s talk Victor Pelevin.

In Helsinki, I picked up Pelevin’s latest, entitled “П5: Прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана,” or “P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan”. (The words for “farewell” and “song” begin with the letter P in Russian, so it’s five P-words in a row, hence the “P5”. The word for “five” also begins with P, extending the alliteration.) The book’s cover is fantastic — on the front, two kitschy fat-faced Chinese manga fairies in Disneyfied Central Asian outfits are embossed in red plastic and gold glitter; on the back is an image of a dead Teletubby with a bullet hole in his forehead, surrounded by a Hallmark wreath (again embossed with gold glitter) and the English legend “Forever Young”. The back cover boasts a banner line (in Russian) “The truth of life in every word!†”, while the cross — a cross, one notes, not an asterisk, with reference to the oleaginous ubiquity of Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Russia — sends us to a footnote at the bottom of the back cover: “This guarantee extends to each word, but does not apply to combinations of words in quantities of two or more, irrespective of parts of speech, components of sentences…” etc.

So far I’m still on Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Singing Karyatids,” which concerns a girl named Lena who is recruited with 11 others to stand for days at a time completely naked, stock-still, and covered with a green paste that makes them appear to be made of malachite, posing as a “karyatid” (the Greek female figures who hold up roofs in the neo-classical eclectic architecture that proliferated in Russia in the late 1800s) in a bunker 300 meters beneath Moscow, waiting for participants in orgies to ask them to sing or otherwise put them to use. Lena and the other girls are aided in this endeavor by doses of a muscle-freezing formula created by Soviet scientists in the 1980s to help snipers remain absolutely still. They are initially recruited by a fat cigar-smoking sleazeball named “Uncle Petya”, who then presents them for an inspirational speech by the real boss, a smooth and clean-cut athletic man in a dark grey suit, a “grey cardinal” (apparently in the KGB or FSB), who explains to them that their mission involves the national defense, and that “despite the superficial…ambiguity, shall we say, of your work, it is every bit as important as that of the sailors of the submarines that carry our country’s nuclear shield. Perhaps even more important — because war today is not what it was half a century ago, and is carried out with completely different means.”

I probably should have written the above paragraph the other way around, because what’s spectacular in Pelevin’s work here, as in his early novel “Omon-Ra”, is the bitter and hilarious contrast between patriotic ideological rhetoric and high technological jargon, and the humiliating and disgusting everyday reality of the human service activities undertaken in the service of these high goals and supposedly sophisticated machinery. In “Omon-Ra”, the hero is recruited into the Soviet unmanned space program only to find that it is not in fact unmanned, and that human volunteers are required to carry out the functions supposedly performed by robots before dying in the vacuum of space. In P5, the reader is equally gob-smacked and horrified both by the atavistic language of patriotic militarism employed by the “grey cardinal” and by the alternating tedium and exuberant sexual degradation of Lena’s actual work. Lena herself, seemingly, couldn’t care less about either one; she is utterly devoid of illusions about the nature of society and is happy to accept any legitimation for work that will earn her good money. The power of the writing comes from the contrast of the “grey cardinal’s” language — “it is a tremendous responsibility, but also a great honor” — and the comic treatment of Lena’s absurd work regimen, standing naked in an underground room, waiting for perversion.

So: Guantanamo. What was the language that echoed in those soldiers’ and interrogators’ heads, when they enlisted? What did they think they would be doing? Defending the nation from nihilistic murderers? Saving innocents? Fighting for democracy? Did they imagine they’d end up doing this by inserting a spider into a cardboard box in which a naked man was confined? By smearing ketchup on someone and pretending it was menstrual blood? By placing their underwear on his head? How did the rhetoric of justice spin itself down to these acts of petty, tedious, absurd cruelty?

It’s always been the Russians’ peculiar fortune to be able more quickly to perceive the gaps between the ideology we create to justify Western society, and the actual activities that constitute that society. In part that’s because in Russia, Western ideology has never fit well, and has tended to quickly collapse or be spun into a caricature of itself. In Russia, the “Washington consensus” rhetoric of privatization and the free market was warped into the absurdities of the oligarchs, just as the Marxist rhetoric of an earlier generation had been warped into the absurdities of Stalin’s show trials. The width of the gap between ideology and reality in Russia fueled the genius of Dostoevsky and, now, Pelevin. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to be so quick to perceive the absurdities of such ideologies that they are unable to take political principles seriously, and they repeatedly end up with societies in which a thin overlay of cynical ideology masks a politics and economy of pure unprincipled force.

That said, Victor Pelevin is fantastic, and everyone should read him.

Peculiar institutions by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2009, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Human Rights and Torture, Religion, United States

Hilzoy asks: “[W]hat sort of person would not only forswear gay marriage for him- or herself, but actively work to deny this kind of happiness to those who do not share his or her religious views?”

I dunno. But as of about 15 years ago, if you’d asked me, I’d probably have said I preferred civil unions with full rights for homosexual couples, rather than “marriage”. I felt this way for conservative aesthetic reasons that are similar to the reasons why people disliked “New Coke”, or why they feel sad when the college they attended renovates an old building they remember fondly. And I think the opposition of cultural conservatives to gay marriage is really rooted in the same kind of conservative and nostalgic aesthetic attachments.

Once the issue became a live one around a decade ago, I realized that the fact that millions of Americans profoundly wanted to be able to marry the people they loved trumped whatever piddling aesthetic or linguistic concerns I might have. And the aesthetic excitement of the new, equal-opportunity vision of marriage overwhelms any sense of aesthetic loss. (I miss the Washington Capitals’ old uniforms too, but let’s face it, the new ones are much better.) What has flummoxed conservatives like Rod Dreher is that they persist in trying to articulate a moral case for their opposition, when there’s simply no moral case to be made; their opposition is really rooted in emotional and aesthetic responses.

But I don’t think those emotional and aesthetic responses should be ridiculed, as liberals like myself tend to do. Many people who support gay marriage like to make fun of opponents’ claims that allowing gays to marry somehow alters or diminishes the marriages of heterosexuals. “How does Portia de Rossi’s marriage to Ellen DeGeneres affect the marriage of Richard Land and his wife in any way?” Such dismissals are deliberately obtuse. In an aesthetic sense, it does make a difference when the set of members of an institution you belong to undergoes a dramatic expansion, and it’s understandable that people’s conservative defense mechanisms are triggered by such a shift.

I’ve spent some time trying to think of an aesthetic conviction I hold that’s analogous to the way religious conservatives feel about gay marriage. The best I’ve come up with is my revulsion towards choirs and organs in synagogues. I feel strongly that choirs and organs have no place in the Jewish faith. And my revulsion is not limited to the synagogues I attend; I am offended by the idea that any Jews anywhere are worshipping in synagogues with choirs and organs. Synagogues should be places where simple melodies are approximately rendered by a few dozen stoop-shouldered men and shawled women in off-key baritones and wavering sopranos. At those few moments in the service of real musical intensity, such as the “Khashivenu l’adonai” in the Ashkenazi rites, the power and resonance should be achieved by the swelling participation of the diffident ignoramuses in the congregation, as those of us who had stood there nodding and mumbling finally join in a prayer we know.

I am exaggerating here for effect, but in all sincerity, when I’m exposed to Jewish congregations that borrow the musical trappings of generic American Protestant Christianity, my reaction isn’t just get me out of here but something closer to this must be stopped! But I recognize that this is a purely aesthetic concern that has no moral grounding. I also recognize that I am wildly unqualified to make any such purist complaint; as someone who married a non-Jewish woman, I’m happily engaging in a violation that any observant Jew would consider infinitely more serious than working out a three-part harmony for the sh’ma.  And I recognize that it would be ludicrous to try and impose my aesthetic preferences on others who disagree. People who oppose gay marriage need to recognize that they consider gay marriage an abomination in the same sense that Van Halen fans considered the Sammy Hagar years an abomination. They’re allowed to hold that aesthetic position. But there is simply no moral ground for them to try and impose their aesthetic position on anyone else. Gay people who want to get married, in contrast, have an extremely strong moral claim for the right to do so.

What’s so hard about trying terrorists? by mattsteinglass
May 27, 2009, 8:40 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Terrorism, United States

Clive Crook is usually a lot smarter than this:

The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects.

This is really dumb. In the near term, there is no risk that “several medium-sized US cities” will be destroyed by terrorists. In the long term, decades and such, the likelihood of a US city being destroyed in a terrorist attack does not depend in any substantial degree on whether or not the particular people currently in custody at Guantanamo and elsewhere in the US’s preventive detention system are released. The risk is that some percentage of same — about 10%, if we actually believe the US Defense Department, and I see no reason to — will “return to the battlefield”. “The battlefield” here is Iraq and Af-Pak.

But here’s my main question: what exactly is so hard about getting terrorists convicted in American courts? Under US law, even “providing material aid” to any “terrorist organization” is a felony. I mean, come on — the US can try university professors for “material aid” to a “terrorist” organization for recruiting donations to a Palestinian political and charity group that was not, at the time, considered a terrorist organization. How hard is it, really, to convict someone picked up “on the battlefield” in Afghanistan of having “provided material support” to the Taliban? This is US Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113B:

§ 2339B. Providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations

(1) Unlawful conduct.— Whoever knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. 

Now, I think this law is overbroad. (Here’s Georgetown constitutional law professor David Cole detailing the reasons he thinks it’s unconstitutional. Cole: “President Clinton used IEEPA to label a U.S. citizen a ‘specially designated terrorist’ without hearing, notice, or trial, and then to subject him to a kind of internal banishment, in which it is a crime for anyone else in the United States to provide him with anything of value.” And so on.) 

But it’s on the books. And are you seriously telling me that the Bush Administration’s torture regime has so thoroughly bolloxed the entirety of the evidence regarding detainees at Gitmo that we can no longer even prove they were doing anything to support any group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations? Any such group whose actions have resulted in “the death of any person”? If we can’t prove that about these guys, what are they doing in prison?

The ticking bong scenario by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Drugs, Human Rights and Torture, Terrorism

Josh Marshall writes:

Question of the Day: If a government informant gives a would-be jihadist bags and bags of weed to entice him to join his jihad, where does he get the weed?

But he’s wrong; that’s not the question of the day.

The question of the day is: if by giving a terrorist bags and bags of weed, you could save the lives of hundreds or even trillions of Americans, wouldn’t you choose to give him the weed? And given this sobering moral dilemma, do we really have the luxury of outlawing weed? Isn’t that just naive? What if your son or daughter was killed by a terrorist who an FBI agent had failed to entrap in a sting operation because of an inability to offer him sufficiently copious bags of weed? We are a nation at war, people.

Failure of waterboarding empathy by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture

Ezra Klein can’t understand how, at this point, someone could hold the conviction that waterboarding isn’t torture: “If the CIA has decided to waterboard terrorists, they probably have a good reason to think that waterboarding is a pretty unpleasant thing for a terrorist to go through.”

I think it’s basically a failure of empathy. It’s pretty well accepted that conservatives tend to be less empathetic, and indeed empathy is a quality many conservatives explicitly ridicule. My sense is that some pro-“enhanced interrogation” conservatives have thought of waterboarding as something that may be painful or unpleasant, like getting your head repeatedly and forcefully dunked in cold water — which, after all, isn’t very fun — but that does no long-term damage. This seems to them much less serious than other old-fashioned techniques of administering pain. You’ll often find “enhanced interrogation” conservatives contrasting waterboarding to things like thumbscrews, breaking on the rack, and so forth.

The reason waterboarding is actually much more horrible, for the victim, than thumbscrews is that it taps straight into the mind’s “terror” mainline by triggering a hard-wired response to the experience of drowning. But imagining why that experience is so awful requires taking a moment to empathize with someone who’s being waterboarded, and conservatives started rejecting the idea of seeing anything from the point of view of “the terrorists” around September 12, 2001.

Human faculty of reason scores rare minor victory by mattsteinglass
May 23, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Human Rights and Torture

Congratulations go out to conservative radio host Eric “Mancow” Muller, who yesterday had himself waterboarded in order to prove the technique does not constitute torture, but, in light of the evidence of his senses, decided to revise his opinion.

It’s hard to overcome one’s partisan convictions on hot-button questions.