Why separating coercion and torture is a fallacy
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Why separating coercion and torture is a fallacy

On television, in the newspaper, in discussions with friends, and even in the comments on this weblog, I’ve seen people draw a distinction between coercion and torture. First, let it be said that the military (and other people who interrogate prisoners, like policemen) have come up with lots of ways to interrogate prisoners to get them to divulge information that they may not initially want to give up without torturing them. So there is a lot of middle ground between asking nicely and warming up the electrodes.

The general argument in favor of “coercion” is that there are techniques that can be used which are unpleasant but that do not constitute torture, and that these should be legal. In other words, sleep deprivation or exposure to extreme temperatures or even water boarding is OK but a savage beating with a truncheon is not. I would submit that for any of these techniques to “work”, they have to be applied to the extent that they must be considered torture.

Think about the mechanism of torture and coercion. The purpose of these techniques is to put the subject in a state of mind where their need for relief forces their reptile brain to overwhelm their human brain and do whatever is necessary to obtain that relief. As long as a determined subject of interrogation is in a state of mind where they can make rational choices, they will choose not to divulge the information that they have. (If they weren’t going to hold out anyway, there’s no need to torture them in the first place.) Inflicting pain, inducing fear, or humiliating a person to the point where they are in a state of mind where they are no longer able to rationally choose what they will or will not say is torture, period. It requires no interpretation to describe such treatment as an “outrage upon personal dignity.”

As regards the effectiveness of torture (in other words, absent the moral issue, whether torture achieves its intended aims), don’t miss this observation by Jonah Blank:

The similarity between practices used by the Khymer Rouge and those currently being debated by Congress isn’t a coincidence. As has been amply documented (“The New Yorker” had an excellent piece, and there have been others), many of the “enhanced techniques” came to the CIA and military interrogators via the SERE [Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape] schools, where US military personnel are trained to resist torture if they are captured by the enemy. The specific types of abuse they’re taught to withstand are those that were used by our Cold War adversaries. Why is this relevant to the current debate? Because the torture techniques of North Korea, North Vietnam, the Soviet Union and its proxies–the states where US military personnel might have faced torture–were NOT designed to elicit truthful information. These techniques were designed to elicit CONFESSIONS. That’s what the Khymer Rouge et al were after with their waterboarding, not truthful information.

Prisoner of conscience
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Prisoner of conscience

You know what I want to write about at this site? Cool stuff on the Web, better ways to develop software, and generally speaking, stuff that fascinates me. You know what I find myself writing about? Torture. Habeas corpus. Assertions of executive privilege. I’d prefer not to, but I just can’t stop myself.

While some Republicans made a halfhearted show of conscience and Democrats hid in the most craven fashion imaginable, the Bush Administration managed to pass a bill that will enable the government to imprison people for as long as it likes without giving them a day in court, and to torture those prisoners as much as it likes. This law diminishes this country, sullies the values upon which it was founded, and rolls back many centuries of progress in how governments relate to the governed.

How can people not get it? This is a do or die situation, and Democrats in government treated it as an issue to be managed with regard to the upcoming election. I won’t even get into the Republicans. The New York Times lays out the stakes of passing this law in no uncertain terms today. Read the editorial. Plenty of people have pointed out that this law not only trashes the constitution, it trashes the Magna Carta.

And in the midst of this, the excuse makers are trying to tell us that there’s a difference between “torture” and “coercion” and that one is OK and one is obviously bad, as though there’s some kind of bright line between the two. There is a bright line, but torture and coercion are on the same side of it. Don’t take my word for it, read the Washington Post op-ed by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. I can’t quote from it without just pasting the whole thing. Just read it and think about what kind of country you want to live in.

I apologize for repeatedly returning to this depressing subject. My posts about the evils of torture aren’t going to change which laws get passed or keep people from being ordered to intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other people, but I do hope to convince people, or maybe just a single person that torture is wrong and that the things our leaders pretend aren’t torture really are. Someday people will ask where we stood on these issues, and I’ll be able to tell them that I stood on the side of civilization.

Update: I just read that my representative, Bob Etheridge (D-NC), voted in favor of the bill. I won’t be voting for him in November.

Seeking clarity on torture
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Seeking clarity on torture

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has tried to justify its requests for Congressional authorization to torture prisoners by saying that the language of the treaties by which we are already bound is overly vague. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley went on TV and said, “I’m saying that nobody knows what humiliating treatment is. What does it mean?”

In a press conference, President Bush said, “And that Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It’s very vague. What does that mean, “outrages upon human dignity”? That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation.”

These guys must really hate our legal system, which must also be too vague for their tastes. Here’s a bit of the jury instruction in US criminal cases:

So the presumption of innocence alone is sufficient to acquit the defendant, unless the jurors are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt of the defendant’s guilt after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence in the case.

In fact, reading the entire burden of proof article in Wikipedia is instructive. How do we manage to run a legal system built upon language so vague and open to interpretation?

In other news, Marty Lederman says the Senate compromise on the torture, war crimes, and military tribunals legislation is an utter capitulation. Discouraging, but not surprising.

A torture hypothetical
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A torture hypothetical

Some old friends and I were enjoying a spirited discussion of torture via email yesterday, and I presented them with a hypothetical that I thought I’d post here as well. It neatly bundles up all the reasons why torture is wrong. While the situation is hypothetical, Pete is a real life friend of mine who is a dentist in the Army Reserve Dental Corps. I forget what rank he is, but he’s an officer.

Let’s say that Pete is deployed to Iraq, and, while on the way to get a falafel sandwich, is captured by Iraqi insurgents who happen to be former members of the Iraqi secret police. Pete is a US Army officer, and the insurgents feel like they have nabbed a high value prisoner. They are concerned about future US air strikes killing their family members. They would like to know whether there are any plans for the US to bomb their neighborhood, and figure that Pete might be able to help them out.

Would it be wrong for them to torture Pete? As far as they’re concerned, he’s their best shot at keeping their families from getting blown up.

And what’s Pete’s best shot at not getting tortured? He can keep telling them that he’s only a dentist and he doesn’t know anything about military plans, but isn’t that exactly what someone trained to resist interrogation would say?

Al Gore’s Current TV
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Al Gore’s Current TV

This morning I read that Al Gore’s news network, Current, is bringing four broadband channels online with Yahoo as a partner. I can’t say the announcement interests me all that much, but I do think that Current will make a fascinating case study one day, mainly because it arrived at the same time as YouTube with some of the same aims.

When Current came out, the big news (aside from its not having a set programming schedule) was that it would feature amateur content alongside professionally produced news. YouTube, of course, offers another way for amateurs to present their video to an audience, and has about a thousand times the buzz that Current TV does. The reason for that is simplicity. YouTube is just a big repository that makes it easy for people to upload videos, link to them, embed them in Web pages, and most importantly, play them without installing anything or even making any decisions. That simplicity has made YouTube ubiquitous.

I haven’t watched Current very much. To watch, I have to go sit in front of my TV, choose to turn to that channel instead of watching a Seinfeld rerun, and then hope something that’s interesting to me is on. When it was launched, Current’s web site didn’t offer any of YouTube’s killer features. Unsurprisingly, now it does.

What I find interesting is that Current was so close to being the right thing at the right time without actually getting there. I think that in the end, people will look at this era of Web applications and see that the key to success was building easy to use tools and then giving up control.

I also think that we’ll see more YouTube finding its way onto television. MSNBC already features a video from YouTube pretty much day in the viral video segment on The Most. How long will it be before some channel rolls out a “Best of YouTube” show?