Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Powder puff warfare

One of my ulterior motives for posting on this subject is a disturbing trend I see in some fringes of the religious right. At one level, I don’t care what liberals think. Since I’m not a liberal, I don’t have a vested interest in the fortunes of liberal ideology. Mind you, I care what happens when liberals come into positions of power.

By contrast, I do take a personal interest in the religious right since I myself belong to that end of the ideological and theological spectrum. That’s my own backyard, or even my own frontyard.

There’s a contagious outbreak of tinfoil punditry and Bush Derangement Syndrome that’s infecting certain conservative circles. Some right-wingers are using arguments interchangeable with George Soros, Ramsey Clark, Noam Chomsky, Rosie O’Donnell, and Gore Vidal.

I don’t think it’s funny when this sort of paranoid, self-loathing anti-Americanism begins to infiltrate and take over certain sectors of the religions right—turning them into pod people. It’s poisoning the minds of the younger generation. And it needs to be challenged.

I’m also taking aim at the notion that it’s okay for professing Christians to slander our men in uniform—many of whom are, themselves, professing Christians—by tarring them with indiscriminate charges of rape, murder, &c.

In a moment I’m going to respond to something Shamgar said, but this pathology extends higher up the food chain as well. To take one example, last time I looked at Mike Butler’s blog, I seem to recall him saying that 9/11 was an inside job—along with Pearl Harbor. This is a guy who used to be Greg Bahnsen’s right-hand man.

Before I delve into the details, I want to put one issue front and center, because this is the issue which the opponents of counterterrorism constantly dodge.

A terrorist doesn’t have a right to withhold information from us. To the contrary, he has a moral obligation to divulge whatever he knows about his comrades, cell groups, future plots, and so on.

That being the case, we have a right to find out what he knows. Yet he’s not going to volunteer that information. So what’s the next step?

As Bill Vallicella puts it:

“My case was one in which you have a known terrorist in custody; he is guilty of past terrorist acts; he is known to have the inside dope re: a plot that will take out the whole of Manhattan. Now do you allow a million innocents to perish in gruesome deaths because of the precious dignity of this fellow that you dare not violate? Or is this a case where you simply must look to the consequences in order to determine the rightness/wrongness of the act?”

At this point, the opponents of counterterrorism offer us a recipe for moral paralysis.


“Steve, I really don't know why I bother to continue to try.”

It’s not as if you’re doing me a personal favor.

“You are quite clearly not interested in having any sort of rational discourse on such issues.”

This is what Shamgar said in his previous reply:

“Wow, that's great reasoning. I didn't realize we could so easily justify our actions in any case. Lets keep going. The enemy beheads our contractors and soldiers on video tape and broadcasts it on the news. I guess that makes it ok for us too. They murdered civilians, I guess that makes it ok for us too. If they were to land troops here and rape our women and children that would make it ok for us to do too.”

That’s his idea of “rational discourse.”

“My point in terms of torturing her was not about certainty - it was about the same thing the rest of my post was about. Drawing lines. I asked you a very simple question. Given that your position as stated provides for a wide range of things that at least some of us would find to be clearly wrong, where is your line where you can no longer justify your actions in this manner? Further, I want to know where it is. I ask because I don't believe you have one and that's part of your problem.”

Several issues:

i) Like all the opponents of counterterrorism, Shamgar wants to frame the issue in terms of “torture.” He then demands that I tell him where I’d drawn the line.

But, of course, he’s rigged the debate. Since I reject his framework, I’m under no obligation to draw lines within a framework I reject.

ii) Moreover, this goes to the issue of borderline cases in ethics. That's an ethical challenge we’re confronted with on a regular basis.

However, it would be quite unethical to say you can’t tell the difference between right and wrong unless you can resolve every conceivable borderline case in ethical valuation or ethical decision-making.

Consider speed limits and stoplights. Is it a good idea to have speed limits? Presumably we don’t want drivers hurtling through a residential area at 100 mph.

But how fast is too fast? Exactly—and I do mean “exactly”—where do you draw the line? 25 mph? 30 mph? 23.7 mph?

Are we going to say that unless you can tell me precisely how fast is too fast, there’s no moral justification in having a speed limit in a residential area?

Same thing with stoplights. Is it a good idea to have stoplights? Presumably we don’t want every car crossing a busy intersection at the very same time.

But exactly how long should the stoplight be? 20 seconds? 30 seconds? 22.003 seconds?

Nothing could be more morally irresponsible than to say that unless you can draw bright lines in every conceivable case, you should do nothing at all.

iii) However, I’m all for drawing lines. I draw the line with softheaded opponents like Shamgar who confuse emoting with moral deliberation.

iv) Finally, let’s draw some distinctions. Historically, there have been a variety of reasons for the imposition of physical or psychological duress:

a) Interrogation

b) Punishment

c) Deterrence

d) Sadism

Only (a) is relevant to counterterrorism, and (a) can be further subdivided:

a-i) Obtaining information

a-ii) Obtaining a confession

Only (a-i) is relevant to counterterrorism.

Keep these distinctions in mind as we proceed.

“First you denied there was any real torture.”

When and where have I ever denied that? This is such a vague allegation that there’s nothing to respond to. There’s been no demonstrable shift in my position.

I haven’t bothered to investigate every allegation of torture. That isn’t my job.

“I denied this was my definition of torture and tried to get you to operate under the functional definition of real torture which you flatly refused to do - preferring to dismiss me as a bleeding-heart liberal.”

Actually, I have defined torture in the past, but I refuse to let you dictate the terms of the debate. Just because you want to cast the issue in those terms doesn’t mean that I have to go along with you.

“Then, real torture became the issue. Cigarette burns, electric shock, and waterboarding. You grabbed on waterboarding and made it out to be not such a big deal, despite all evidence to the contrary.”

I made it out “not to be such a big deal” for the reasons I cited. I cited reasons that opponents of waterboarding gave. And I subjected those reasons to a bit of elementary scrutiny.

Here’s another example. In the 11/10/07 issue of World Magazine, these are the objections to waterboarding:

“The scars of torture are in the mind…It’s the destruction of the human spirit that makes torture so pernicious…waterboarding is especially traumatic…[it has] detrimental effects to the human psyche…[including] lifelong anguish” (25).

So, if we were to capture bin Laden, we shouldn’t waterboard him to find out what he knows about various operatives and associates and sleeper cells and future plots because that would be too “traumatic.” It would have a “detrimental effect” on bin Laden’s “psyche.” It would be “dispiriting.” It would inflict “lifelong anguish.”

“Now you have come up with this philosophical argument to justify our behavior based on the behavior of our enemies.”

This is a mendacious and malicious oversimplification of what I actually wrote. But let’s take one of his scurrilous examples:

“The enemy beheads our contractors and soldiers on video tape and broadcasts it on the news. I guess that makes it ok for us too.”

I oppose beheading a jihadist informant. For one thing, it isn’t very practical. Decapitated informants aren’t especially informative. So I don’t think that beheading an informant is a terribly effective way of extracting information from him.

“Do you know that for sure? Can we be certain w/out torturing her to make sure she won't give up some information?”

Counterintelligence has never been predicated on being “sure.” One simply makes reasonable judgment call. If it’s a choice between interrogating bin Laden or Fanny Crosby, which one do you choose? Is it really that difficult? Do we need to draw some abstract line in the sand to make that determination?

“I would obviously disagree as to the characterization of "useful". The problem with this sort of logic is the same one as the logic you used before. It quickly turns into a license to do anything.”

This is a classic slippery slope argument. One problem with a slippery slope argument is that it’s possible to slide down more than one slope. If, like Shamgar, you try to turn counterterrorism into a game of powder puff football, the end-result is not to restrain evil or humanize the conflict.

To the contrary, when CIA agents and field commanders are subjected to the Pollyannaish scruples of perennial bed-wetters like Shamgar, their natural reaction, if they were to take it seriously, is to conclude that since it’s impossible to get the job done under all these restrictions, the only alternative is to chuck moral misgivings and do whatever it takes to beat the enemy.

“Even if we just keep it to a discussion of the killing of innocents - once you state that it is ok, and justified it becomes exactly that and there ceases to be any real effort made to avoid it and the situation escalates. This is exactly the problem with allowing things like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be justified. Perhaps they were necessary, perhaps they saved millions - but they should still be held up as a horrible evil. When you hold up the killing of ‘innocents’ in war-time as wrong, then you force people prosecuting the war to evaluate options in that light and look for ways around it. If there is truly no other way, and they proceed anyway, the repercussions will likely take that into account - but the action itself must continue to be held as evil. If it is instead then spoken of as good, it only encourages others to perpetrate the same - and greater - acts of evil and with far less justification.”

Notice the utter moral confusion in Shamgar’s analysis. It’s wrong, yet it’s necessary. But if it’s truly wrong, then, by definition, there can be no moral justification for it. Folks like Shamgar are very emotional and reactionary and moralistic, but they haven’t begun to think through a morally consistent position.

“In War, sometimes people who shouldn't are going to die. That is a harsh reality. That doesn't mean it should become acceptable to us. Second, he seems to predicate the whole argument on it being a just war in the first place, something that does not apply to our current involvement in Iraq.”

Actually, there’s no reason that we should be bound by just-war theory. Aquinas and Suarez aren’t Holy Writ.

And, frankly, theologians don’t have the right to simply dictate the moral parameters of war. What does the average theologian know about military strategy and tactics? Or counterintelligence? What does he know about the real-life circumstances and contingencies that soldiers have to confront on the battlefield?

This is not to say that theologians should have no input on the issue. But this ought to be a collaborative effort. Theologians need to consult soldiers, CIA agents, and the like to even begin to come up with a well-informed evaluation of what should constitute the rules of war, counterterrorism, &c.

“Third, I'll note we are the aggressor in Iraq. We have been bombing them for nearly a decade. But, of course, the kind of logic we use to justify our own actions never gets to be used by the enemy. It's only right when we do it.”

Who’s the “we.” The bombing involved the enforcement of UN sanctions, not US sanctions.

Finally, Shamgar referred me to an article:

I’ll quote the relevant portions and offer my assessment:

“In fact, waterboarding is just the type of torture then Lt. Commander John McCain had to endure at the hands of the North Vietnamese.”

This objection disregards the distinction I drew regarding different reasons for the imposition of physical or psychological distress. These are not morally insignificant distinctions.

“These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo.”

Keep in mind that this objection isn’t limited to the Iraq war. Anyway, this is the version of events you get from knee-jerk opponents of the war effort in general. I’d simply note that these allegations were formally investigated. The Schlesinger Report presents a very different picture:

And here’s what a professional interrogator had to say:

“The Washington Post reported in 2006 that it was mainly America’s enemies that used it as a principal interrogation method. After World War 2, Japanese waterboard team members were tried for war crimes. In Vietnam, service members were placed under investigation when a photo of a field-expedient waterboarding became publicly known.”

Once again, this disregards the purpose of waterboarding, which varies. One might as well say that we should ban firearms because criminals use guns to commit crime—therefore, no law-abiding citizens has the right to own a gun to protect himself or defend his family.

“Torture in captivity simulation training reveals there are ways an enemy can inflict punishment which will render the subject wholly helpless and which will generally overcome his willpower. The torturer will trigger within the subject a survival instinct, in this case the ability to breathe, which makes the victim instantly pliable and ready to comply. It is purely and simply a tool by which to deprive a human being of his ability to resist through physical humiliation.”

Of course, this keeps using the prejudicial word “torture.” But if we had bin Laden in custody, I hope that our interrogators would be able to break his will and overcome his resistance.

“The very concept of an American Torturer is an anathema to our values.”

i) This begs the question of whether pressuring information out of a terrorist is anathema to our values. Why should that be the case?

ii) And it uses the prejudicial word “torture” to skew the answer.

“I concur strongly with the opinions of professional interrogators like Colonel Stewart Herrington, and victims of torture like Senator John McCain. If you want consistent, accurate and reliable intelligence, be inquisitive, analytical, patient but most of all professional, amiable and compassionate.”

i) If kinder and gentler methods work, fine. However, I don’t assume that if we gave bin Laden enough candy bars and access to the Playboy channel, he would automatically sell out the cause and turn state’s evidence against his cohorts.

ii) Incidentally, McCain’s judgment is clouded by his personal experience.

“Who will complain about the new world-wide embrace of torture? America has justified it legally at the highest levels of government. Even worse, the administration has selectively leaked supposed successes of the water board such as the alleged Khalid Sheik Mohammed confessions. However, in the same breath the CIA sources for the Washington Post noted that in Mohammed’s case they got information but "not all of it reliable." Of course, when you waterboard you get all the magic answers you want -because remember, the subject will talk. They all talk! Anyone strapped down will say anything, absolutely anything to get the torture to stop. Torture. Does. Not. Work.”

I already addressed this simplistic objection in answer to Julie.

“According to the President, this is not a torture, so future torturers in other countries now have an American legal basis to perform the acts. Every hostile intelligence agency and terrorist in the world will consider it a viable tool, which can be used with impunity. It has been turned into perfectly acceptable behavior for information finding.”

Aside from the fact that this disregards elementary distinctions, it’s willfully naïve since the bad guys never did abide by the Geneva conventions.

“A torture victim can be made to say anything by an evil nation that does not abide by humanity, morality, treaties or rule of law. Today we are on the verge of becoming that nation. Is it possible that September 11 hurt us so much that we have decided to gladly adopt the tools of KGB, the Khmer Rouge, the Nazi Gestapo, the North Vietnamese, the North Koreans and the Burmese Junta?”

Once more, there’s no attempt to draw elementary moral distinctions.

“What next if the waterboarding on a critical the captive doesn’t work and you have a timetable to stop the “ticking bomb” scenario? Electric shock to the genitals? Taking a pregnant woman and electrocuting the fetus inside her? Executing a captive’s children in front of him? Dropping live people from an airplane over the ocean? It has all been done by governments seeking information. All claimed the same need to stop the ticking bomb. It is not a far leap from torture to murder, especially if the subject is defiant. Are we willing to trade our nation’s soul for tactical intelligence?”

A morally blind and intellectually obtuse, all-or-nothing argument.

“Waterboarding will be one our future enemy’s go-to techniques because we took the gloves off to brutal interrogation. Now our enemies will take the gloves off and thank us for it.”

Our enemies already do far worse than that, and for no good reason. Look at what happens when one of our soldiers is captured in Iraq?

“To defeat Bin Laden many in this administration have openly embraced the methods of by Hitler, Pinochet, Pol Pot, Galtieri and Saddam Hussein.”

This is scurrilous slander that discredits itself by its own shameless hyperbole.

“I have stated publicly and repeatedly that I would personally cut Bin Laden’s heart out with a plastic MRE spoon if we per chance meet on the battlefield. Yet, once captive I believe that the better angels of our nature and our nation’s core values would eventually convince any terrorist that they indeed have erred in their murderous ways.”

Yes, if we play him some records of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America,” any hardened jihadist will become a flag-waving patriot.

“Once convicted in a fair, public tribunal, they would have the rest of their lives, however short the law makes it, to come to terms with their God and their acts.”

This misses the point. We aren’t trying to extract a confession out of them and convict them of a crime. Rather, we’re trying to obtain actionable intel to prevent another terrorist attack.

“This is not enough for our President. He apparently secretly ordered the core American values of fairness and justice to be thrown away in the name of security from terrorists.”

If it’s a secret, how come you’re in on the secret?

“Torture advocates hide behind the argument that an open discussion about specific American interrogation techniques will aid the enemy. Yet, convicted Al Qaeda members and innocent captives who were released to their host nations have already debriefed the world through hundreds of interviews, movies and documentaries on exactly what methods they were subjected to and how they endured.”

That’s a good reason for keeping the detainees detained, is it not?


  1. haw haw haw!!!

    Its great to see a self-proclaimed 'right wing' Christian worried about 'pod people.'

    haw haw haw!!!

  2. I just like the irony of someone saying "If we use these techniques we'll be just like the enemy" when same person also says that we are already worse than the enemy to begin with.