Thursday, February 19, 2009

History Will Not Be Kind

Andrew Sullivan wrote an incisive post today on the accepted use of torture by our government and how we as a culture define the word:

Almost any coercive act sustained long enough against a person in captivity can become torture. Think of how we understand the drip-drip-drip of the "Chinese water torture" to be torture. It's not even, as the former vice-president would say, a splash of water on the face. It's a mere drip. But even a drip, sustained long and relentlessly enough, can break a human being. The test for torture is not whether it leaves brutal physical marks or not (that was the Gestapo standard). The test for torture is whether it is of sufficient immediate or cumulative force to rob the capacity of a human being to say voluntarily what he or she knows to be true. It is the imposition of sufficient coercion to destroy an individual's ability to resist giving some kind of answer, true or false, or some unknowable, random blend of the two.
He also discusses how the right's use of colorful metaphors to describe one of the most inhuman of activities is reminiscent of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's a great post and I encourage everyone here to read the entire thing.

But what I wanted to address is Sullivan's reference to the ubiquitous "ticking time bomb" scenario espoused by Republicans as an excuse to torture another human being. You've probably all heard it by now: we have a terrorist in government custody who has information about a nuclear bomb set to explode in a major American city sometime in the immediate future and we need to do everything we can to get that information out of him before the bomb goes off. Now setting aside the fact that torture has been proven to be an unreliable method of gathering truthful intelligence, when has this scenario ever even come close to happening in all of human history?

Now I'm not saying that Al Qaeda isn't going to try to attack us again or that we'll never catch some of them in the process but let's be realistic about our chances here. Whether you agree or not with Dick Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine", at least those are sufficient odds of a credible threat. Do you know what the odds are of a terrorist organization getting ahold of a working and sufficiently transportable nuclear device and of them smuggling that device into this country and of our learning about the plot ahead of time and of our capturing someone who we know has direct knowledge of the plot right before the bomb is about to explode? They're by all credible accounts astronomical anywhere outside of an episode of 24.

If we're going to treat that scenario with such a high level of validity then why haven't we begun working on a space defense system capable of spotting and destroying any renegade asteroids over a certain size crossing orbits with the Earth? The odds of being hit by one of these massive rocks are probably just as high as the scenario above while the consequences to our planet would be far more devastating than the destruction of one American city by many orders of magnitude. You can try explaining this to the next right-winger you talk to who spits out this whole time bomb story but don't be surprised when his fingers go straight into his ears and he starts singing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" at the top of his lungs to drown you out. For these guys, fear usually trumps logic.


Anonymous said...

If you're interested, this book by Alfred McCoy gives a good history of the development of torture techniques by the CIA. It's not easy to read, though. I had to put it aside a few times.

It's disgusting what has been done in our names, and not just in the last 8 years.

Van Zan said...

I think the ultimate victory of a just society must be not that it can destroy or merely resist its enemies, but that it breeds none. Torture and humiliation breeds enemies faster than anything else under the sun.

The scene in The Dark Knight where Batman brutalizes the Joker in a police cell is held by some as an exploration of the "ticking time bomb" scenario, and torture in general.

In like circumstance would I bring my power to cause pain down on someone holding info necessary to save the life of someone I love? I believe I would.
If I represented the lawful authority of my country... would I still do it?
Yes. But I thus give away all legitimacy of representation, for I am acting of and for myself and answerable to my own conscience.

For Bush and co there was no distinction between "of myself" and "for my country". One facet of the neocon conceit that they represent the "real" America, seen elsewhere in caustic intellectualized intolerance to any view but the one they espouse.

Batman ends the film as a fugitive from the law. An interesting conclusion.

Anonymous said...

First of all, that asteroid isn't America's problem. It's the world's problem and somebody else will deal with it.

Secondly, as for:
"we have a terrorist in government custody who has information about a nuclear bomb set to explode in a major American city sometime in the immediate future and we need to do everything we can to get that information out of him before the bomb goes off"

If it happens on TV, it happens in real life!

Anonymous said...

In Jurrasic ParkII a Tyrannosaurus rumbled through backyards. I tortured a chemist into making me some tyrannosaurus repellant and haven't had a tyrannosaurus in my back yard yet.

Van Zan said...

Said the chemist: "I also put chick repellent in your tooth paste. What else haven't you had? :)"