Thursday, April 30, 2009
The Torture Farce
Being NICE to Iran is going to undo their violent hatreds and viciousness?
Is that what Anderson Cooper thinks? Really? And what about PrezBO?
CF. A while back I promised a post on the "complex virtues of certain kinds of simple-mindedness." The example I had it in mind to use as a worst case was Jim Manzi of the National Review, who has managed to systematically out-think himself on Global Warming. He's a very smart man, but he places far too much stock in the power of intellect to control deeply irrational forces. (I may yet get to his stance on Global Warming...) Since then, though, he has also unburdened himself on the subject of torture, in an essay that begins with this set of definitions and rhetorical constructs:
I'll start by defining terms and establishing some terminology. Purely for the purpose of labeling, I’ll take the list of what I assume all parties to the debate would agree is torture (e.g., bamboo under the fingernails, beating a prisoner with a club until he has brain damage, etc.) and call this set of techniques, collectively, Torture 1. Purely for the purpose of labeling, I’ll take the list of what I understand to be considered torture by some but not by others (e.g., waterboarding, “walling”, etc.) and call this set of techniques, collectively, Torture 2. In a rigorous discussion, we would make a complete list for each and fine-grain each item on each list down to physically-defined action-steps (e.g., waterboarding is so many ounces of water delivered through a cloth of this description in such and so manner for no more than this many seconds up to this many times per week, etc.), but I assume this description is sufficient for a blog discussion.
I think that the question of “What is torture?” can be usefully simplified, again for the purposes of a blog discussion, to the question “Is Torture 2 really torture?” As you noted, I did not take a position on this in my post. This was purposeful. I think this is an important question, but I have not done the necessary work to enable me to hold an informed opinion on it. At a minimum, there are numerous technical questions that would be required to form such an opinion (e.g., “What are the long-term psychological effects of waterboarding?”, “Are psychological effects relevant to the legal governing definition of torture?”, etc.) that I haven’t studied. But I don’t think that one has to answer the question of whether or not Torture 2 is “really” torture in order to draw the conclusions that I did in my post.
I think I made two key claims in that post: (1) When judging the purely instrumental effectiveness of torture we need to consider its strategic rather than merely tactical impacts (I defined these in the post), and (2)The burden of proof should be on those who propose to change the long-time U.S. practice of not managing systematic torture as a matter of policy. I think each of these is true even if we consider only the techniques labeled Torture 2.
Let me take them one at a time.
When judging the purely instrumental effectiveness of torture we need to consider its strategic rather than merely tactical impacts. Technically, accepting this statement doesn’t require me to define torture in any way, since this is logically true when considering any action from dropping an atomic bomb to brushing your teeth. However, in order for one to accept that it is a practical, rather than merely theoretical, requirement, I believe that he must accept that it is reasonable to believe that the non-immediate consequences are potentially significant. Consider Torture 2. Do you dispute that the non-immediate consequences of these specific practices comprising Torture 2 are potentially significant? I think that the fact that they have already created a gigantic controversy is prima facie evidence that they are. And I don’t think that the argument that it is the awareness of these actions that creates the problem changes this conclusion, since even if one intended to keep them secret, there is always the realistic possibility that they will become known (once again, proven recently by example). So unless I’m missing something, I think that this first statement should be accepted, and with practical rather than merely theoretical significance, even if we’re only talking about Torture 2. I don’t really see this as in any way controversial (though obviously, identifying, dimensioning and weighing the importance of these potential non-immediate impacts and coming to a conclusion about net benefits can be very controversial).
[If you can stand it, there's more of his argument and conclusions here, in my first incomplete stab at this topic. If you can stand it...]
My first line of rebuttal is this: Read any single sentence of Manzi's essay out loud, straining mightily not to sound like a too-too precious intellectual sounding off in a university coffee shop. Can't be done. Sorry. Common sense invariably waddles into the context with vandalizing simple-mindedness before you get to the second propositional clause of whatever sentence you're reading. For example, there are much less abstract definitions of "Torture 2":
The techniques used against the most stalwart al-Qaida members, such as Abu Zubaydah, included one terrifying procedure referred to as "the attention grasp." As described in horrifying detail in the Justice Department memo, the "attention grasp" consisted of:
"(G)rasping the individual with both hands, one hand on each side of the collar opening, in a controlled and quick motion. In the same motion as the grasp, the individual is drawn toward the interrogator."
There are rumors that Dick "Darth Vader" Cheney wanted to take away the interrogators' Altoids before they administered "the grasp," but Department of Justice lawyers deemed this too cruel.
And that's not all! As the torments were gradually increased, next up the interrogation ladder came "walling." This involves pushing the terrorist against a flexible wall, during which his "head and neck are supported with a rolled hood or towel that provides a C-collar effect to prevent whiplash."
People pay to have a lot rougher stuff done to them at Six Flags Great Adventure. Indeed, with plastic walls and soft neck collars, "walling" may be the world's first method of "torture" in which all the implements were made by Fisher-Price.
As the memo darkly notes, walling doesn't cause any pain, but is supposed to induce terror by making a "loud noise": "(T)he false wall is in part constructed to create a loud sound when the individual hits it, which will further shock and surprise." (!!!)
If you need a few minutes to compose yourself after being subjected to that horror, feel free to take a break from reading now. Sometimes a cold compress on the forehead is helpful, but don't let it drip or you might end up waterboarding yourself.
The CIA's interrogation techniques couldn't be more ridiculous if they were out of Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketch:...
I will spare you the gruesome details of the CIA's other comical interrogation techniques and leap directly to the penultimate "torture" in their arsenal: the caterpillar.
In this unspeakable brutality, a harmless caterpillar is placed in the terrorist's cell. Justice Department lawyers expressly denied the interrogators' request to trick the terrorist into believing the caterpillar was a "stinging insect."
Human rights groups have variously described being trapped in a cell with a live caterpillar as "brutal," "soul-wrenching" and, of course, "adorable"...
Finally, the most savage interrogation technique at Guantanamo was "waterboarding," which is only slightly rougher than the Comfy Chair.
Thousands of our troops are waterboarded every year as part of their training, but not until it was done to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- mastermind of the 9/11 attack on America -- were liberal consciences shocked.
Which leads me to my second point: the definition of "Torture 1," which Manzi's nomenclature implicitly parallels with "Torture 2" -- same idea but more, uh, "consequentialist." Right. And who can't appreciate the grammatical dismissiveness of the fact that he only deigns to define "Torture 1" in a parenthetical phrase? -- "(e.g., bamboo under the fingernails, beating a prisoner with a club until he has brain damage, etc.)" As if even Torture 1 would automatically be halted at "brain damage." And as if "etc" represented a list of lesser hurts too tediously well known to repeat in an intellectual debate. We are talking "strategic issues" here, aren't we?
But the simple-minded among us are frequently moved to respond more directly to, uh, direct stimuli, like, say, video evidence of the real thing, which is hardly ever parenthetical. Here's some of that:
Saddam Hussein's Iraq
And that's not even the worst of it. There are still the censored images of what jihadists have done. Here. (Don't look if you can't stand to see a "live" beheading.)
Bottom line? We simple-minded folk are allowed to defend ourselves against barbarians by being mean when it makes sense to be mean. NOT a hard concept.
Now for my main point. Even the choice of the terms "Torture 1" and "Torture 2" is speciously rational. It's a kind of intellectual masturbation that determinedly rational people use to make the world seem more amenable to reasonable approaches. What they say and write sounds rational but it's pure wishful thinking. Regardless of his mighty credentials, Jim Manzi is a hopeless dolt. Why? Because there are more of us than there are of him.
And who's the us I'm talking about? People who have not strangled their emotions with fantastical logic and who leaven those emotions with common sense. People who know instinctively that such Kantian obsession with logic leads inevitably to philosophical dead ends and self-defeating postulates that paint you into impossible corners.
What do we know that the Manzis don't? That reason never prevails. That the more it is advanced as a primary decision-making tool, the more perverted it becomes. Life is not an equation which can be solved for X, where X is the rationally defined truth, but a balancing act between right and wrong, where even though there is such a thing as clearly right and clearly wrong, there can be many difficult choices in between. Is that a contradiction? Yes. The simple-minded frequently possess the complex capability of navigating contradictions that befuddle the smartest among us. Yes, we screw up, too, but there are so many of us, and we keep coming back and back at the same problems, without the shackles of deterministic rationalism, until we arrive at the possibility of getting it right.
Examples? There are thousands. For the simple-minded, that is. Not so much for the super-smart intellectuals. The simple-minded know that the Allies won World War II because the preponderance of right was on our side, not because we never did anything mean or unfair or vicious in prosecuting our cause. We can consider the possibility that Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have transgressed some line without invalidating the ultimate virtue of our victory. Because nothing we did was quite as bad, or nearly as malevolent, as smashing the heads of babies against the walls of Manila hospitals, clubbing and starving prisoners to death by the thousands, or systematically gassing millions of people to death for their religion. It's only the simple-minded who can weigh the bad againt the more bad without using the rules of logic to force the one to equal the other based on an abstract (and fraudulent) mathematics of philosophy.
Torture 1 is not equivalent to Torture 2. It's the determination of intellectuals which continually ensnares them in exactly this kind of trap. It's the mathematical concept of the limit that repeatedly invokes the false metaphor of the slippery slope, in which one mistake becomes synonymous with the worst evil imaginable. That's how Robespierre argues himself from opposing capital punishment into the Great Terror that executed thousands and thence to the guillotine himself. It's how rational, atheistic Marxists in two great nations transformed their allegiance to the common man into the mass slaughter, imprisonment, torture, and brutalizing oppression of the common man . They lacked the simple-mindedness to see that sometimes the thing called rough justice is called for and then it has to stop. Logic wants straight lines extended into infinity. That's where pogroms and genocides come from. Simple-mindedness doesn't mind the contradiction that says, "Enough is enough. Let's move on now."
I'm almost done. But I'm going to make one final point that relates intimately to Obama's "remaking of America." I'm not going to explain it. You'll have to do that for yourself. I'm confident our readers here are simple-minded enough to do that.
At the very beginning of the microcomputer revolution, I worked for a publishing company that was regarded as the Bible of computer products and companies. Everyone depended on our analyses of companies and their products in every part of the industry, from modems to mainframes. We had the best, most efficient continuing education programs available, and every editor had free access to them. Working there was like getting an advanced degree in the technology. We probably had 10 percent of the connections to what still was not called the internet. There were state-of-the-art products on every desk. I, myself, wrote one of the very first reviews of the Apple McIntosh. You should have heard the discussions, arguments, predictions, and projections that went on in the corridors of that company. They were brilliant. Some of the smartest people I've ever known dreaming in high-tech terms of the future. (Example: the most brilliant one I knew was a woman who had majored in music at Oberlin and learned data communications in terms of Mozart; she could actually HEAR the data flow in her head and became a leading expert on modems.)
And they (i.e., WE, me included) were all dead wrong. In terms of where the technology was going, we were frequently right, but everything we thought about individual companies was wrong. Like many others, I went on to work for a computer company. I discovered what my old colleagues all eventually discovered. All our high-tech wisdom was junk. Because computer companies weren't any more rational than individual people, PTAs. governments, or nations. Companies that couldn't fail failed. Even companies that lucked into golden opportunities fumbled them, and failed. Companies that produced breathtaking innovations, uh, failed. All the outcomes were rough justice, messy, wasteful, and spectacularly irrational.
But the industry grew. Why? Because the market itself, the buyers, were wisely simple-minded. They were, all of them, living in a well defined short term, from now to two or three years from now. They weren't making utopian decisions. They weren't living in some grand dream of technological transfomation, They were looking forward only as far as the next quarter and maybe a quarter or two after that. They didn't care who was brilliant or who deserved to survive based on innovation, or where the technology was going. They wanted to stay competitive, right now, to pay their bills, service their customers, make a profit, right now. The market is merciless. And the market is wise. Not rational. But wise. BECAUSE IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO PREDICT THE FUTURE, NO MATTER HOW RATIONAL YOU ARE. I have met prospects who were honest enough to say, "You have a better product than IBM and Microsoft, and I know you deserve to succeed, but they play hardball and you just can't win here. Sorry."
Make of all this what you will. Should there have more visionaries? Yes. Would we all be better off if there had been? Yes. But one more of the virtues of simple-mindedness is that it sees no advantage in committing suicide today for the impossibly grand virtue of paradise someday.
I repeat. Jim Manzi is a dolt. And by the same token, so is Obama.