Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Torture and War

Hey, so sorry to be bumming y'all out with all this talk of torture and all, but it IS being done in our name and paid for with our tax dollars. There are so many ways to address this particular case--let me see if I can articulate some of them.

Torture is wrong. We might think we agree on this, but at least three exceptions have been posed to this general principle.

Some are willing to defend it in "ticking time bomb" cases--i.e., in situations where a person is known to have vital information and, if that information is obtained, many other lives can be saved. I'm not convinced that even that situation is adequate justification--here's where I'd want to consult with, say, Gandhi (yes, I know he's dead) and the Dalai Lama on the question. In any case, such cases are extremely rare, and, as such, it is worthwhile to eliminate those cases from consideration of the activities taking place in Guantanamo and Iraq.

Some people, including George W. Bush, have declared that people who are "unlawful combatants" rather than prisoners of war are not covered by the Geneva Convention. Specifically, individuals who are members of Al Qaeda, for example, are not covered, in part because they do not themselves adhere to the Geneva Convention. There are two worthwhile points here. One is that at least some important historical figures have enjoined us to turn the other cheek--to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. This alone would suggest that we should treat our enemies better than they treat us. It is difficult, surpassingly so, but that does not mean we can ignore the suggestion. Second, however, if you are going to create a category called "unlawful combatants," in order that you may explicitly ignore the "torture is wrong" rule, then you'd better have a damned good way of discerning who actually falls into that category. Mistakes, particularly reasonably forseeable mistakes, are a violation of human rights and simple decency.

The third exception is more of a weasel than an exception. That is, the first two exceptions make claims about people whose status, in terms of what they know or the activities in which they normally engage, is such that torture is permissable. The third exception says that certain actions, while extremely unpleasant or painful or even dangerous, aren't "really" torture and therefore are permissable. And, really, I have to call bullshit on that one. If you were subjected to those activities, would you regard them as torture, or merely a little unpleasant? Do you think being sodomized is torture, or merely inconvenient? Do you think being threatened with death--and subjected to activities that lead you to believe that you might, in fact die--is torture, or do you think that it's acceptable? If someone you love were subjected to those things, would you regard it as torture? Yes, I thought you might.

Thus, if you accept the premise that torture is wrong--and I surely hope that you do--then you have several grounds for complaint regarding Guantanamo and Iraq.

First, many, or even most, of the people who have been rounded up and imprisoned are innocent. They do not know about any ticking time bombs. They are not unlawful combatants. They are not even lawful combatants. They are your neighbors, your relatives, who happen to have been in the wrong place when a sweep was being conducted.

Second, the chain of command was apparently aware of these activities, and, in some cases at least, tried to make the case that these activities were acceptable. The nominee for Attorney General, for example, was part of the group that tried to define away torture, tried to say that particular activities didn't count as torture, and, plus, these people weren't covered by the Geneva Convention anyway.

We rounded up the wrong people, and then we tortured them, with the knowledge and approval of supervisors, and with the complicity of the people who tried to justify it on a legal basis. And, so far as I can tell, we're still doing at least some of it. We are certainly holding people against their will without any kind of due process whatsoever. Part of the justification for invading Iraq was to "liberate" it--to save the Iraqi people from the capricious behavior of Saddam Hussein and his minions. I'm trying to see how someone whose husband, brother, son, grandfather, mother, sister, whatever was imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib is going to see a difference between Hussein and the American military.

That's the torture part of our program; now on to the war.

Many people opposed the invasion of Iraq. My personal objections to the war were (1) the weapons inspectors had not found convincing evidence that WMDs existed in Iraq--and, you may remember, the threat of those weapons being used against the US was an explicit justification for the urgency of the invasion, even though the Bush administration was not giving the weapons inspectors time to complete their inspections, (2) the world community opposed the invasion, meaning whatever goodwill the US had earned was likely to be squandered, (3) invading Iraq would distract tremendous resources from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who had already attacked us, repeatedly, and (4) the planning and execution of the war were likely to be completely incompetent.

Let's score this one, shall we?

There are no WMDs. All the crap we now hear about freedom and liberty? That's ass-covering. The explicit justification for the invasion was that WMDs were pointed at us and Saddam Hussein was likely to begin using them soon. (The fact that we supplied the weaponry to him, at a profit for selected US companies, does not appear to affect the stance of the war supporters.) That's the reason that Rice and Powell and Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld all gave: there are weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein is going to use them on us any day now. They lied. It is possible that they were misinformed, or stupid--in which case heads should have rolled and massive apologies should have been delivered--but it certainly appears that they lied. It is also likely that we would have found out about the lack of WMDs if we had allowed inspectors to complete their job.

The world community regards us as a bunch of bozos--especially since a bare majority of people reelected the puppet heading this project. (I do believe that this whole adventure was cooked up by Cheney--so Halliburton could profit mightily--and the PNAC crowd, and that it was easy to manipulate Bush into supporting it. Plus, he gets to wear all kinds of cool uniforms and fly planes and stuff!)

The Taliban is flourishing in Afghanistan. And that bin Laden guy is still around. Oh, wait, according to Bush he's "on the run." Yeah. I feel safer now. And, really, this invasion wouldn't have helped Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts, would it?

Finally, this war has been prosecuted so incompetently it boggles the mind. And it's on this last point, the incompetence, that I want to dwell.

We have betrayed the men and women who joined the military and offered to serve this country. We have sent them off to death and maiming, not in the name of freedom or liberty, but because of a threat--WMDs--that did not exist and that could have been shown did not exist. We have not provided enough body armor. We have not provided sufficient armor for vehicles. We have fired people who could interpret the language because the interpreters might have loved someone of the same sex. We had no plan for protecting the resources of the country we were invading--except for the oil. We have taken no steps to reduce our dependence on oil. We have no plan for the occupation we now have on our hands, and our actions have allowed "insurgents" to gain a foothold that I doubt will be dislodged in the foreseeable future. (I put that in quotes, because i can imagine being extremely pissed off that people have invaded and occupied my country, and, while much of the violence seems pointless to us--why are they killing so many Iraqis? how is that supposed to help?--I suspect we are not getting all of the facts that would be useful.) If you want to go to war, you'd better have a damned good reason for doing it, and you'd better have a plan for carrying it out. This administration had neither of those things.

And this leads me to Andrew Sullivan's review of two books about Abu Ghraib. Sullivan makes two egregious points. The first is that "The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a sign of both freedom's endurance in America [because the dirty laundry was aired as part of a free press] and also, in certain dark corners, its demise." Well, we might get away with the first claim if, and only if, we were actually doing something about these discoveries. Instead, what we have is a couple of books. Very good, very well-documented accounts, by the looks of it, but what, really, is being done? The administration continues to argue that it was only a couple of bad apples; the public, by and large, has moved on to other things, and is generally willing to accept that explanation; the participation of the Attorney General-elect in propogating the conditions that allowed these atrocities to occur is apparently no bar to his confirmation by the Senate; the media, particularly the visual media, have all but dropped it. How is this evidence of the endurance of freedom in America? Because I'm so not seeing the connection. We do not get to pat ourselves on the back just because two books have been published that detail the horrors that have been committed in our names.

Second, near the end, Sullivan criticizes Bush for the mess, even though Sullivan was an avid supporter of the war. Notes Sullivan (and I quote at length):
But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naive in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

See, those of us who foresaw this, who said it was a bad idea, who didn't want to go to war and who now know that our objections were justified, well, because we were "polarizing," we contributed to the conditions that led to the torture. Uh, no. We did not and do not point out these abuses because they "promote our agenda." It's as though Sullivan is saying, well, since you just happened to be right, and we happened to be wrong, you don't get to say "I told you so." Because, you know, you could have been wrong, too! Well, yes, I supppose that's possible. But, for example, if we'd given the inspectors time to search for those WMDs, we might have had actual facts on which to base our decisions. Or, for another wild example, if we had any evidence that the war was both justified and well-planned, and we still opposed it, then the case might be different somehow. But predictions of incompetence were precisely one of the objections to the whole war. Sullivan goes on to blame John Kerry, too:
I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ''heroic'' protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

I'm not even sure how to respond to that. Surely you all remember how Kerry was excoriated by the Swift Boat Liars, who were, in turn, funded and supported by people with ties to the Bush campaign? Surely you remember that the Liars hate Kerry precisely because he came to oppose the war in Viet Nam? Surely you remember that Bush's own desertion has been glossed over in two consecutive elections?

Ah, I can't even go on with this any longer. It's not clear to me that the war supporters and warbloggers (what tbogg calls the 101st Fighting Keyboarders) are even willing to listen to reason.

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