Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Michael: the torture question

This week's FRONTLINE addressed the use of torture in the "war on terror". It is an eye-opening account of how torture became mainstreamed into military culture over the past 4 years.

Often when addressing torture in the context of terrorism, those who seek to justify its use pose a particular hypothetical to demonstrate the moral neccessity of torture. The scenario is that there is a WMD hidden in a major American city and you have a prisoner who knows where that device is hidden. You are presented with a choice, torture him for the information or let X number of people die. This hypothetical was played out over and over again in the popular television series '24' before millions of viewers. The only right answer is, of course, to torture the bastard and make him talk. The problem is that conclusion is that the hypothetical seeks to generalize a false dichotomy into real world conditions.

The real-world hypothetical, reflecting the real-world intelligence environment, would be that instead of one person who you know has the information you seek, you instead have 10,000 people in custody, one of whom might have the information you seek. Most of the rest, if not all of them, are completely innocent and have no useful information. Now, do you torture all 10,000 on the mere possibility that one or a few of them have actionable intel regarding that WMD? No longer a clear-cut moral choice, is it?

In GITMO, Afghanistan and Iraq our government answered this real-world hypothetical by proceeding to torture those 10,000 for the scraps of intel hidden in that human haystack. Our forces swept up people nearly at random for detention and interrogation. Some were enemies, surely, but many more were just caught up in an indescriminate sweep. The problem, and the worst crimes, came where an indiscriminate policy to use 'harsh' techniques to interrogate prisoners met the chaos, emotions, prejudices, and fear of field conditions. The resulting abuses are so deep, so bad, and so common, that the full story will probably never be compiled by Western media; we simply don't want to know. And when something approximating the full story is told by Al Jazeera or a similar source, we simply won't believe it.

What is already known makes my blood boil when I think about it. If you watch this FRONTLINE, it will have the same effect on you. There are banal little war criminals sitting in our Pentagon and Defense Department as I write this. Honor will not be satisfied until they are instead sitting in a Federal prison for a very long time.

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