Sunday, September 24, 2006

Give Me Liberty or Give Me A Congressional Minority

Jim Henley tells the kind of jokes that make me want to cry:

The Senate has made it official: torture is official government policy so long as it meets the strict test of being called something else, said test to be proctored, taken and graded by the President in consultation with...the President.
Having given sufficient attention to the Senator McCain/President Bush plan to scrap the doctrine of habeas corpus as it applies to the suspects (some innocent, some guilty) that we detain in connection with the amorphous, perpetual and ill-defined "war on terror," I thought I might turn a bit of attention to the second prong in the Republican Party's attempt to pervert our system of justice: the use of torture. Again, this regime will be applied to the innocent and the guilty alike - though after torture has been applied, many of the innocent detainees will have been transformed into threats.

Matt Yglesias cites a column in the Washington Post that really touches on all of the relevant aspects of the way that torture corrupts the perpetrator, victim, underlying society, pursuit of truth and overall legal regime. I will highlight certain aspects, but do read the entire piece.

The very identity of the author of the column itself is instructive. His name is Vladimir Bukovsky. As the mini-bio at the bottom of the column explains, Bukovsky "spent nearly 12 years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for nonviolent human rights activities." The man has first hand experience and, having lived in England for the past thirty years, is in a uniquely informed position to caution us about the path we are setting out on at the behest of the Bush administration and its GOP enablers.

Some history, and the suggestion that when Bush peered into Putin's soul, something might have been looking back:

This is a new debate for Americans, but there is no need for you to reinvent the wheel. Most nations can provide you with volumes on the subject. Indeed, with the exception of the Black Death, torture is the oldest scourge on our planet (hence there are so many conventions against it). Every Russian czar after Peter the Great solemnly abolished torture upon being enthroned, and every time his successor had to abolish it all over again. These czars were hardly bleeding-heart liberals, but long experience in the use of these "interrogation" practices in Russia had taught them that once condoned, torture will destroy their security apparatus. They understood that torture is the professional disease of any investigative machinery.[...]

So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders?
The fact that the Bush administration is battling, with tenacity, to undermine prohibitions on torture, and the doctrine of habeas corpus, is as much a comment on their actual attitudes toward the "democracy" that they claim to be so enamored with (and claim is the innate inclination of all human beings) as it is about the exigencies of national security. There is an admission implicit in these radical departures that, from the perspective Bush and his supporters, democracy is a weakness. A "quaint" throwback to some quixotic fancy of a bunch of British colonists who, through happenstance, were afforded the unique opportunity to put some crackpot theories into practice. Yglesias says it better than me:

Bush, Cheney, and those around them remind me of Nietzsche's line about staring too long into the abyss. They've become transfixed, hypnotized almost, by the evils they believe themselves to be fighting. Obsessed to the point where they've clearly developed an admiration for the brutal methods, ruthless dishonesty, and utter secrecy with which the enemies of liberalism conduct themselves.

But these things they're so eager -- determined, really -- to cast aside aren't frivolous luxury to be abandoned in times of peril. They're the very essence of what makes our system of government work. They're what makes it worth preserving, as a matter of ethics, but also as a matter of practice vital to the preservation of our way of life. Liberal democracy isn't a fluke occurrence that just so happens to have survived despite its drawbacks. It's actually a superior method of organizing a state. The idea that the country is being run by people who don't understand that is sad and frightening. The idea that the very same people claim to be embarked upon a grand mission to spread our system of government around the world is like a horrible tawdry joke, but doubly frightening in its own way.
Just as they are wrong about the resiliency and efficacy of liberal, democratic institutions, so too are they misguided by the seductive allure of false notions of "strength" that in the end just do not produce quality results. That is to say, we are trading in our Rolls Royce for an imposing looking and manly Humvee that, underneath the hood, is more like a Pinto. Bukovsky's brief anecdote is telling:

One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it."
He also provides some greater detail regarding just how the process of debasement occurs:

Investigation is a subtle process, requiring patience and fine analytical ability, as well as a skill in cultivating one's sources. When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists. Thus, in its heyday, Joseph Stalin's notorious NKVD (the Soviet secret police) became nothing more than an army of butchers terrorizing the whole country but incapable of solving the simplest of crimes. And once the NKVD went into high gear, not even Stalin could stop it at will. He finally succeeded only by turning the fury of the NKVD against itself; he ordered his chief NKVD henchman, Nikolai Yezhov (Beria's predecessor), to be arrested together with his closest aides.
Not only do you tend to turn the qualified professionals away, but you further compound the problem by creating a system in which those that are left behind are less likely to even follow the rules regarding the acceptable parameters of torture that you bothered to establish. This passage in The Assassin's Gate, which I have cited previously, explains the problem well (p. 326):

There's an old aphorism: Keep it simple, stupid. KISS is the acronym. You always have personalities in uniform - I had them in Vietnam - who will take advantage of any ambiguity, any lack of clarification in the rules of engagement, and kill people, or whatever his particular psyche is liable to do. You don't have rules for your good people. You have rules for that five or six percent of your combat unit that are going to be weird. You need those people, because sometimes they're your best killers. But you need the rules. And when you make any kind of changes in them, any relaxation or even hint of it, you're opening Pandora's box.
Bukovsky again:

Even talking about the possibility of using CID treatment sends wrong signals and encourages base instincts in those who should be consistently delivered from temptation by their superiors. As someone who has been on the receiving end of the "treatment" under discussion, let me tell you that trying to make a distinction between torture and CID techniques is ridiculous. Long gone are the days when a torturer needed the nasty-looking tools displayed in the Tower of London. A simple prison bed is deadly if you remove the mattress and force a prisoner to sleep on the iron frame night after night after night. Or how about the "Chekist's handshake" so widely practiced under Stalin -- a firm squeeze of the victim's palm with a simple pencil inserted between his fingers? Very convenient, very simple. And how would you define leaving 2,000 inmates of a labor camp without dental service for months on end? Is it CID not to treat an excruciatingly painful toothache, or is it torture?

Now it appears that sleep deprivation is "only" CID and used on Guantanamo Bay captives. Well, congratulations, comrades! It was exactly this method that the NKVD used to produce those spectacular confessions in Stalin's "show trials" of the 1930s. The henchmen called it "conveyer," when a prisoner was interrogated nonstop for a week or 10 days without a wink of sleep. At the end, the victim would sign any confession without even understanding what he had signed.
As Yglesias alludes to, Bukovsky also does a find job of pointing out that the combination of these decidedly undemocratic tactics, with the overarching messianic foreign policy of exporting democracy to foreign lands, makes for a jarring juxtaposition. The contradiction and hypocrisy will not be lost on a target population that is already reflexively suspicious and cynical.

If America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression -- not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering. No country needs to invent how to "legalize" torture; the problem is rather how to stop it from happening. If it isn't stopped, torture will destroy your nation's important strategy to develop democracy in the Middle East. And if you cynically outsource torture to contractors and foreign agents, how can you possibly be surprised if an 18-year-old in the Middle East casts a jaundiced eye toward your reform efforts there?

Finally, think what effect your attitude has on the rest of the world, particularly in the countries where torture is still common, such as Russia, and where its citizens are still trying to combat it. Mr. Putin will be the first to say: "You see, even your vaunted American democracy cannot defend itself without resorting to torture...."

Off we go, back to the caves.
Although I fully understand the fact that electoral politics require certain unseemly compromises in order to achieve the broader goals, I would rather the Democrats put up a pitched battle on torture and habeas corpus than to make big gains in the House or Senate. It's simply that important.

(*This post's title borrowed, with gratitude, from a commenter on Matt's proudly eponymous site)

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