Bring me the soft pillows

Richard Cohen, big liberal columnist for the Washington Post, makes the following (to my mind) completely misguided observation:

If the threat of torture works — if it has worked at least once — then it follows that torture itself would work. Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can't all be fools or knaves. This is also the position of Dick Cheney, who can sometimes be both, but in this, at least, he has some support.

America should repudiate torture not because it is always ineffective — nothing is always anything — or because others loathe it but because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values. It is a statement of principle, somewhat similar to why we do not tap all phones or stop and frisk everyone under the age of 28. Those measures would certainly reduce crime, but they are abhorrent to us.

But it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called "our moral compass." George Bush was certainly disliked in much of the world, but the Sept. 11 attacks were planned while Bill Clinton was in office, and he offended no one with the possible exception of the Christian right. Indeed, he went around the world apologizing for America's misdeeds — slavery, in particular. No terrorist turned back as a result.

To the first bolded statement, I would suggest that we are equivocating on "works."  Individual people may or may not provide information that is true under the threat of torture or under torture.  No one really denies that.  What they deny, rather, is that we can make use of the that information as a general intelligence strategy.  If we were ignorant enough to need to torture someone, then we can't really make much use or even verify the little bits of true information they may give us.

Second, as far as I know, our moral authority does not impress many.  But it is a minimal standard for maintaining the respect and esteem of our allies and friends, not to mention ourselves.  On the Clinton analogy, think of the reaction of the world to 9/11/01 and compare that to what it would have been on four years later.  

7 thoughts on “Bring me the soft pillows”

  1. This reminds me of the Plato’s Republic: why should one be just? Because it “works”?
    Maybe you should name the post: “what is good for the stronger” 🙂

    Here’s Cohen with another pearl: “I know it is offensive to compare almost anyone or anything to the Nazis, but the Bush-era memos struck me as echoes from the past.”

    … talking about a bad analogy.

  2. ” I, for one, am glad we’re no longer torturing anyone, but ceasing this foul practice will not in any way make Americans safer.”

    Perhaps it won’t make any Americans safer from the violence of terrorists, but what about the violence of regular military? If we find ourselves in a war where our enemy captures our soldiers, we will have no grounds for complaint against them if they waterboard our soldiers in order to learn about the attacks that we are perpetrating against them. If it is legitimate to torture for the sake of self-defense, then it will be legitimate for our soldiers to be totured.

    That’s what these people don’t seem to understand–their argument is an argument for the permissibility of torturing our soldiers under certain conditions. Why do they support the torture of American soldiers?

  3. I suppose the argument could be made that the geneva convention would rule out this consequence. If our soldiers are captured as p.o.w.’s then torture would be forbidden by convention. But, I suppose that the “enemy combatant” designation would be available to our enemies as well.

  4. No I think you were right the first time Colin.  Given sufficient terror at our intentions, an enemy can find the Geneva conventions not to apply to our soldiers.   But more broadly, torturing someone, however horrible that person may be, only increases his standing as a victim.   Our actions in his regard should demonstrate his grievance to be unjust, not to him (but perhaps), definitely to others–especially those who may be inclined to join him.

  5. Well, the argument, I think, was that the various detainees were captured out of uniform etc., and not as part of regular army units, so they were not afforded protection of p.o.w.’s (though I may be wrong about that). 

    So, we might want to limit the scope of the consequence a bit. But, it would at the least allow for the torture of soldiers who are not acting as part of the regular army (one has heard claims that special forces have operated in Iran for example). Certainly torturing C.I.A. operatives would be kosher according to this argument.

  6. Thanks – good points, as always.  I’m going to dissect this one later.  Almost everything he argues in that op-ed is incorrect or missing essential context.  That’s nothing new for Cohen, but his misappropriation of Orwell is particularly galling.

    However, I’ll mention here that he’s ignoring the NIE that invading Iraq and the abuses there made us less safe, and every argument of interrogator Major Matthew Alexander, including the op-ed Alexander wrote appearing in Cohen’s own paper (and in his department).  Alexander has pointed out, as have many experts, that rapport-building techniques are far more effective than abuse, that statements obtained through torture are unreliable, and abuse makes prisoners clam up.  Alexander has stated, repeatedly, that many of the Iraqis he questioned had been radicalized by the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  As Alexander has pointed out, and Colin notes upthread, torture by Americans has endangered American troops.  Cohen’s thesis is false, and I have to wonder if  he does any research at all in his subjects or if it’s just free-form.  The same thing seems to be true of David Broder, who Scott Horton eviscerated recently on the same subject. 
    (Extra points for the title, by the way.)

  7. “[T]he Sept. 11 attacks were planned while Bill Clinton was in office, and he offended no one with the possible exception of the Christian right.”

    Bill Clinton offended many when he bombed the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which allegedly produced nerve gas, in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania:

    Human Rights Watch estimated that the shortage of anti-malaria medicine that the plant produced caused thousands of deaths. Moreover, much of the evidence that the Clinton administration cited to justify the attack was suspect (much like the evidence for WMD’s in Iraq). Minor point, perhaps, but I think it’s always good to keep our current international situation in historical context.

    Once again it must be reiterated that Al Qaeda doesn’t “hate us for our freedom,” nor do they “give a damn about our […] moral authority,” because we don’t have any moral authority (at least no more than any other country does).

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