American Torture: Reality Check

I spent the better part of two days reading the Wall Street Journal and listening to commentaries on the Senate report on “enhanced interrogation” (torture). I listened to Rush Limbaugh, of course but also to National Public Radio, and to Pacifica Radio (a left-wing organ that’s often well informed). On TV, I watched FOX, as much MSNBC as I could stand (the falseness there almost makes me gag), and especially, CNN. The latter because I take CNN to be television for moderate liberals. I believe both that it forms their views and it expresses them well. Some of the commentaries came on the air before the report was made available; they were commentaries on hearsay, you might say.

I don’t need to read the report because I know it’s trash. I base my judgment on two things:

1 Those who prepared the report did not interview a single high CIA official.

Of course, this shows a lack of intellectual honesty, a shortage of integrity, indifference to any mission to find the relevant facts. If a Republican congressional report had been guilty of the same omission, I would have passed the same judgment. Some principles are immutable.

2 Senior Senator Diane Feinstein is the person who made the report happen. She is the person who could have stopped it single-handedly. If anyone could have taken the nameless staffers who prepared it behind the barn* to teach them to act right, it was she. The same Senator Feinstein was quoted yesterday as stating that the interrogations methods that she reproves produced not a single piece of useful information, not one.

Simple logic will tell you that if it were the case – in reality- that the said interrogation methods produced nothing, there is no way, she, the Senator, or anyone else at all would know it to be true. Ms Feinstein is presenting as hard fact what can only be her fervent wish. She is confused or she is lying. I suspect the former. Senator Feinstein is one of the few Democratic politicians I respected. I began respecting her when she was mayor of San Francisco while I live there. I thought what she wanted for us was wrong but I believed she sought it honestly. No more unless a retraction comes soon.

A detour: I am not sure what happened to Diane Feinstein. My wife declared on talk-show radio that it must be a bout of craziness in the aftermath of menopause. Myself, if I had to dig, I would go into her Jewishness which, in America, induces increasing numbers of positions of misplaced sympathy for the declared enemy. (Under Barack Obama, American Jews’ abandonment of the democratic, legitimate government of Israel has been spectacular.)

In brief: The Senate report is about as credible as the recent gang rape story published and then retracted by the magazine Rolling Stone.

First thing: There have been many allegations, including Senator Feinstein’s, that brutal interrogation techniques don’t work. That’s important because, if they don’t work, there is no debate. We should just not use them if that’s the case. However, the view that they don’t work at all- well expressed by Senator Feinstein – is absurd on its face. Perhaps they produce much garbage. This does not exclude the possibility that a real pearl comes out of them every so often. People who maintain that they don’t work ever are simply confused. They confuse “Don’t work as well as….” with “Don’t work.” Ideological passion and the fear to face reality habitually makes intelligent people think and say stupid things. The topic is not worth my time.

In the discussion below, I put myself squarely in the situation where there are reasons to believe that the person being interrogated possesses information the knowledge of which can save lives, American lives or others. Any form of torture used for any other purpose is unacceptable, I believe strongly.

The non-credible Senate report had the merit of reviving three serious issues. The first issue is that of adequate civilian/political control of intelligence agencies. I don’t treat it lightly. If intelligence agencies do their job properly, they should go overboard often. After all, they are in not in charge of America’s collective morality but of its safety. Zeal for that mission is to be expected and even encouraged. So, there is a potential problem there, a constant one. Oversight is required.

The second issue is how far we are willing to go on the path of cruelty for the sake of safety. This question is completely separate from that of the effectiveness of extreme interrogation measures with.
which I dealt summarily above.

The CIA insists that political leaders in Congress were well, frequently and abundantly briefed. Some congressional leaders including Committee head Diane Feinstein insist they were not. It seems obvious to me that ranking Congressional leaders who did not know enough about interrogation techniques in use in the aftermath of 9/11 just did not want to know. Not many CIA officials would have just refused to respond if they had been questioned openly and directly by the relevant committee of congress. Not would they have lied publicly. Furthermore, even in fairly tight-knit organizations such as the CIA, it’s not difficult to trigger whistle-blowers. The complaining congresspeople are in bad faith or they have faulty memories. (Happens all the time.)

Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder is a practicing leftist and, as such, he has and had not soft spot in his heart for the CIA. Several years ago, he had his Department of Justice gopher-attorneys look into prosecuting CIA operatives practicing torture on our behalf. None was indicted. I trust the Attorney General to have acted on the slightest, flimsiest piece of evidence he would have found that the said operatives had exceeded their authority. Case closed – this time – I think. See below for a solution to this potential first problem

The second issue is determining how far we are willing to go, collectively to insure our safety. (This second issue overlaps with a third issue that I deal with below.) If you run it around in your head as a mental experiment, you will soon find that the simple question, “How far,” is inadequate because you are not facing one ethical path but several. Here are two illustrations.

Many tender-hearted Americans would draw the line at physical aggression against those being interrogated. This seems clear. But, between ages 7 and 11, my own mother beat me pretty much every Thursday. She did not torture me in order to get information from me – a sound kind of justification – she did it because she was furious I had not made my bed as instructed. (She stopped when I was about 11 because beating me ended up hurting her. The story is in my book; you should get it: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from isuedtobefrench@gmail.com) So, I was scarred for life, right? That’s what made me a monster? Or did it? Either thing? Yes, she did not pull my fingernails. Unwanted physical contact is just not a good defining feature for what’s morally acceptable.

Here is another example. Two days ago, CNN put up five bullet points to exemplify morally outrageous interrogation techniques allegedly used by the CIA. The fifth was that some detainees had been threatened with anal rape with a broomstick, threatened! I am sorry but this sounds to me like legitimate, intelligent pressure with a sound cultural base. I think it’s pretty much the equivalent of threatening say, French detainees, with feeding them nothing but Velveeta cheese.

Admittedly, it’s a complex issue that deserves to be debated. Yet, there is a solution to it that I describe below. In the meantime, if it were my decision, I would not hesitate to rule that nothing that our Special Forces can endure during their training and that does not leave permanent physical sequels is out of bounds. This would include water-boarding, obviously.

The third issue is one that I have not heard or seen discussed much in the current brouhaha. The question is: Who merits harsh interrogation, I mean torture. It matters because if self-confessed mass murderer, the late Osama Bin Laden, fell into my hands and I suspected he possessed important information about future acts of terrorism, I wouldn’t mind pulling his gut out of his body one inch at a time to make him talk. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, I would hate to see even a head slap land on some poor shepherd who had merely taken a wrong turn in a mountain path. I am very concerned about this question from a moral standpoint. I don’t know why everyone else isn’t. Hurting the certified bad guy who may know something is completely different from hurting the innocent who knows nothing. I wonder if the public and commentators right and left simply assume that the CIA knows what it’s doing in deciding who to interrogate and how. I believe this assumption is simply wrong: Those we call “detainees” are often captured under conditions calling for quick judgment in the midst of the fog of war. That faulty, dubious judgment should not be perpetuated indefinitely (I fear something like that happened at Guantanamo Bay several times.)

The three issues, adequate civilian/political supervision, how severe the methods of interrogation allowed, and the decision as to who merits to be interrogated harshly can all be solved with an innovation the law Professor Alan Dershowitz proposed several years ago. When our society does something in unexplored legal grounds, or on the border of immorality, or to ill-defined categories of persons, we often place the relevant actions under judicial supervision. What liberals call “torture” and conservatives – hypocritically – “enhanced interrogation” should be performed under the authority of respected judges and only then.

Such a step would officialize torture as American policy. The world would scream at us. That would include the two third of polities where bicycles thieves are routinely beaten and female arrestees are ordinarily raped in police stations. That would include countries where the official punishment for an adultery conviction is death by stoning, countries where apostasy carries the death penalty. (Make your own list.) That would also include polities that are so sweet and soft that vast tracts of their territories are abandoned to lawlessness. ( I am thinking of France.) That would include a handful of good-guy countries such as Denmark, Sweden and saintly Finland that seldom do anything in relation to terrorism.** Three or four countries that are regularly on our side might also protest, such as the UK, Australia and Canada. Personally, I wouldn’t care much who complained. Others don’t join us because they love us but because their interests converge with ours: Look at NATO ally Turkey right now. The exceptions are the three last countries named. Those would come around when it turned out that the policy produces both actionable information and moderation. We could be safer with a reasonably clear conscience, which is all you can hope for in war. Yes, we are at war. There is no end in sight.
* For my overseas readers: “To take behind the barn” = to spank.

** US NATO ally Denmark has had as many as 300 soldiers in Afghanistan. That’s quite a few for such a small country. It’s not many in the wider picture.

About Jacques Delacroix

I write short stories, current events comments, and sociopolitical essays, mostly in English, some in French. There are other people with the same first name and same last name on the Internet. I am the one who put up on Amazon in 2014: "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography" and also: "Les pumas de grande-banlieue." To my knowledge, I am the only Jacques Delacroix with American and English scholarly publications. In a previous life, I was a teacher and a scholar in Organizational Theory and in the Sociology of Economic Development. (Go ahead, Google me!) I live in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California.
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