Tortured logic on torture

The McCain amendment (re)codifying prohibitions against torture of prisoners appears close to passage. There are a few last-minute snags, mostly surrounding the Bush Administration’s desire to avoid further criminal liability for anyone who may have tortured prisoners in the last few years. Sen. McCain is correct in refusing to compromise until the White House agrees to the legislation without changes.

Using a bit of choice wording and faulty logic, the editors of the Wall Street Journal further pushed their counter-argument yesterday, determined to see the torture option remain available to any and all U.S. personnel fighting the war against terror. Consider:

Part of the problem with interpreting those words is that they depend on the context. All things being equal, we can’t think of a worse human rights abuse than blowing someone to bits with a Hellfire missile. Yet no one objected when that happened to al Qaeda leader Hamza Rabia in Pakistan two weeks ago. If certain individuals can be ethically targeted for death in a war, then wouldn’t the same hold true for rough interrogation methods? A strange code of morality would allow the killing of Rabia but not his stressful questioning to prevent further murders he might plan against innocent civilians.

Some of the more sophisticated critics recognize this, as well as the possibility of “ticking bomb” scenarios. That includes Senator McCain, who has written in Newsweek that on occasion “an interrogator might well try extreme measures.” But he opposes writing any guidance into law or regulation–the way the Bush Administration has done–suggesting instead that the interrogator should go ahead and do what he thinks is needed and then depend on “authorities and the public” to “take [context] into account when judging his actions.”

I don’t see the direct connection between ethically targeting an individual for death during war and torturing him in captivity. If the individual, in this case Rabia, is free, he’s a danger. The proper intention against an enemy is to stop him from being a threat. Death certainly does that. But if he’s captured, is he a threat any longer? The basic answer is no, although the more complicated answer is presumably yes because he possesses information. Of course, if a target possesses such high value information that torturing him is allegedly justified, targeting him for death seems counter-productive to the larger goal of winning the war. Hellfire missiles and waterboarding aren’t interchangeable in this debate.

That, of course, leads back to the original argument. What is justified? Although specific definitions already exist, and the Bush Administration generated memos designed to pigeon-hole war on terror captives into a small box invented to avoid existing laws and treaties, the editors pretend that torture opponents should justify why current United States policy should be reversed revert back to pre-Bush Administration standards. The argument relies on obfuscation to distract weaker opponents. It’s a fine strategy if they can pull it off. They don’t.

And don’t forget “rendition”–the turning over of captured terrorists–to the likes of Egypt or Syria, the practice favored by the Clinton Administration because it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system. We trust the CIA more than Egyptian intelligence, but where are the “torture” critics on the morality of this practice? The truth is that if the McCain Amendment passes, rendition will almost certainly increase. Perhaps this will be the next liberal target, until every al Qaeda detainee is treated no differently than a common thief.

We realize that our views on this subject won’t carry the day, at least not until the U.S. suffers a more serious attack. The Bush Administration is already backing down from Mr. Cheney’s earlier position, holding out in this week’s negotiations on the McCain Amendment only for immunity for the past actions of U.S. interrogators. We still wish the President would take his case to the public, and perhaps even request hearings next year on Capitol Hill, because Americans are more sophisticated about the reality of what it takes to break these terrorists than are most journalists.

But at least the Administration has been willing to admit that protecting Americans takes more than denouncing “torture” at the top of one’s lungs. Once the McCain Amendment becomes law, perhaps the torture moralists will continue their creeping honesty and let us know what U.S. interrogators can do to break the next Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Of particular offense in that passage is the nonsense questioning the manhood of the Clinton Administration because “it lacked the nerve to handle captured terrorists outside the criminal justice system.” Illegal activity, rendition in Clinton’s case, or torture in Bush’s case, is still illegal activity. It does not matter whether an administration had the balls to do the deed itself. How differently do we treat those who murder and those who hire a murderer in their place? But who has the testicular fortitude to beat the shit out of the bad guys is not all that matters.

Our sense of justice and morals prevent us from allowing or endorsing government-sanctioned torture in America. Whether we call it torture, rugged interrogation, or aggressive coercion, it remains against the law. More importantly, we have a civilian-led military, complete with a Congress and judiciary entrusted with powers to check the executive from abusing and ignoring limits on his powers. When those bodies refuse to act, as they have for the better part of this scandal, we also have the First Amendment. Not to empower individuals to dictate how to break terrorists, but to ensure that limits on military behavior are enforced. The opposite of that is not sophistication, but barbarism.

One thought on “Tortured logic on torture”

  1. WTOP news ran a story that hinted McCain may cave on his torture protest if he gets a pass on his 527 legislation. Does anyone know anymore about this “compromise”?

Comments are closed.