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March 10, 2003

James D. Macdonald, who knows about this stuff, weighs in on the torture debate.
Oliver, lad, let me explain something to you.

Give me a pair of pliers, a soldering iron, and two hours alone with you, and you will confess to being a member of Al Qaeda. Another half hour or so, and I’ll have a list of all the terrible things you did, and most of the details of the things you plan to do. Then I’ll get a list of the other secret members of Al Qaeda you know. Give me a little time with them, and they’ll confess too, confirming that you’re a terrorist.

[12:29 AM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on James D. Macdonald,:

Oliver ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 12:44 AM:

Yes, because in all my writing I have advocated bringing in Joe Blow off of the street and accusing him of being Al Qaeda without proof. As I said on my site, I feel that this should be an option for people we are certain are members of Al Qaeda.

I'll ignore the whole patronizing due to age thing. Golly, it never was an issue when folks agreed with me.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 12:49 AM:

"I feel that this should be an option for people we are certain are members of Al Qaeda"

And, of course, "we" are never wrong.

I'm trying not to be patronizing. Perhaps you could try just as hard not to be a callow nitwit.

Oliver ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:02 AM:

Do you call everyone you disagree with names? Sheesh. You've done it 2-3 times now.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:09 AM:

Yes, when Oliver Willis says "I'll ignore the whole patronizing due to age thing", it isn't "namecalling."

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:13 AM:

Also, the important issue isn't whether it's peachy-keen to practice torture. (On, of course, people we "know" to be guilty. And we're always so correct about what we "know"!)

The important issue is whether someone is "calling names."

What we do to those ragheads is simply trivial. If they didn't want to be tortured, they shouldn't stand around being Moslems and stuff when we happen to be pissed off.

Remember, we're always right.

Oliver ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:19 AM:

Oh, Lord, gimme a break. When I said patronizing, I was referring to your commenter's "lad" comment.

On, of course, people we "know" to be guilty
If a US soldier is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, wherever and he and his squad bust an Al Qaeda cell - I think its safe to say that they're members of the Al Qaeda network. I'm not understanding you: would it be okay for him to shoot them dead, but not torture in the pursuit of maybe saving lives?

What we do to those ragheads is simply trivial.
Where the fuck did that idiotic (now that's namecalling) statement come from? Did I ever or have I ever said anything of the sort in my life? No. Do I advocate the killing or arrest of people based on their racial background? No. Have I ever? No. And it's pretty asinine of you to bring up such an irrelevant point.

Erik V. Olson ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:29 AM:

As I said on my site, I feel that this should be an option for people we are certain are members of Al Qaeda.

Define Certain. Illinois was certainly very certain when it re-instituted the death penaly in 1977. They allowed lawyers. They held trials. They had appeals. They were very thorough. They were very certain.

They executed 12. Of course, they had to let 13 go, because, it turns out, that while the state was very certain These Were Bad People, the state was completely wrong

You don't even want to bother with the steps Illinois took. You don't need trials. You don't need lawyers. You know who the bad guys are, and you've got your vice-grips and blowtorch. You're on the case. Never mind the chance of mistake. Never mind the rejection of one of the fundamental principals our country held as true -- one so important that one of the first acts of our newborn country was to enshrine it as the highest law of the land, to wit...

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Never mind that it makes martyrs -- and martrys make more enemies. Never mind the scars, the screams. Never mind the bad intelligence you get from torture -- a fucking Magic-8 ball is more reliable. Never mind we've held up countries that torture as examples of intolerable evil. Never mind the contempt we held Vietnam in for torturing thier "enemy combantants."

Sir, I clearly understand your position. And I reject it it. It is wrong, tactically wrong, straegically wrong, physically wrong, and morally wrong. It will do no good. It will do much evil. The merest advocation of such a position is morally wrong, and the only good I can see coming of it that I now know the identity of one more monster in this world.

I understand your postion quite clearly, indeed. oderint dum metuant.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 02:03 AM:

Maybe some of us would be in favor of capturing and putting the suspected cell members on trial, rather than either killing or torturing them?

I think there's been a heck of a lot of confusion in the last two years over the difference in rules for conducting a police action and fighting a war (and which is which, when). Granted, witnessing a mass murder conducted by an international gang of political criminals hasn't helped us to be particularly rational on the subject.

Bush won the day, back then, when the country was susceptible to his emotional rhetoric that we were fighting a war on terror -- rather than conducting a police action to deter terrorists.

Mostly, we condone policemen and SWAT teams killing armed criminals who resist arrest. We don't like it as much when they kill or torture suspects who are outgunned and have no immediate hostages.

If we're convinced, as Bush has us, that what we're doing is fighting a war, "our army against their army," this significantly reduces ethical/moral resistence to simply killing "enemy soldiers."

What determines whether we're conducting a police action or fighting a war? We could argue about that for awhile. But, it seems to me that when we have the backing and assistance of national governments in apprehending members of terrorist cells, that rules for police operations are more appropriate than rules for wars.

(Even in fighting wars, we have those pieces of paper signed in Geneva that say we agree not to torture enemy soldiers. )

Iain J Coleman ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 08:32 AM:

The British Army tortured IRA suspects in the early 70s. This proved counterproductive, to say the least. Keen students of current affairs might just have noticed the continued existence of the IRA as an active terrorist organisation throughout the 80s and 90s.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 09:13 AM:

Oliver, Jim Macdonald calls me "lad," and I think he's, what, maybe three years older than me. Sorry for misunderstanding; I literally didn't realize that was what you were reacting too.

Okay, the "raghead" remark was an unfair imputation. Obviously this is a subject on which many of us get our dander up.

I'm still waiting for an defense of torture that doesn't simply repeat your observation that it's hard to feel sympathy for Al Qaeda, or depend on carefully-contrived ticking-bomb scenarios.

Personally, I'm about to get into the subway in Brooklyn, change trains in the station directly underneath the (allegedly Al Qaeda-connected) Al-Farooq mosque, and depending on which train pulls in next, either ride through lower Manhattan directly past Ground Zero, or over the Manhattan Bridge. I think my personal vulnerability to future Al Qaeda terrorism is just a bit higher than yours, so I don't really need my attention drawn to the fact that we urgently need to find out as much as we can about how these sons of bitches operate. I'm opposed to torture because it doesn't work very well and in fact makes screwed-up situations even worse. Its marginal utility in a small subset of ticking-bomb scenarios is vastly outweighed by its immense practical negatives.

As Iain Coleman points out above.

Barry ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 09:14 AM:

Iain, that's because UK didn't go for the source. A couple of dozen targeted assassinations by SAS in the major IRA funding state would have changed the calculus immensely :)

K Harris ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 09:38 AM:

You all seem to know each other so well. Hi. I'm new.

A good bit of attention seems to be focused on whether we would be able to torture the right people. While the answer is probably "no", there is another issue, raised early in the discussion. A big NYT article (sometime earlier this year - sorry, don't have a reference) went to the source, offering interviews with US military interrogators. Whether the answers were self-serving, I cannot say. However, the interogators very clearly made the point that information gathered through torture is unreliable. Not only will people admit to doing things they haven't done, but they will make up details they think the questioner wants to hear. Framing questions is harder, since the subject has a strong motive to cue on the question to come up with an answer that will end the torture.

It is a good idea to hash through the ethics of torture, but coming down on the side that torture is ok is very likely to depend on the notion that torture is effective. If it isn't effective, it isn't ethical.

GP ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 10:25 AM:

Hey Patrick and Oliver, on this topic of torture, both of you are starting to form the proverbial liberal circular firing squad.

Cowboy Kahlil ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 10:44 AM:

As far as the 'effectiveness' debate, I should think the nude pictures of Ann Coulter would suffice. He might not provide useful information, but compelled to become gay, the worst he'd do for the rest of his life would be threatening to redecorate your parlor.

aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 11:47 AM:

Oliver, I can't speak for Patrick, but I would say it is OK to kill combatants in combat, but that it isn't OK, once they've been captured, to either kill them or to torture them. I have trouble with your formulation of 'torture in the pursuit of maybe saving lives' because the well-documented tendency of tortured people to say anything they think will bring the torture to a conclusion means that it is impossible for the people doing the torturing to discern what information gleaned from it is valid and what isn't, and therefore extremely difficult for that informaiton to be useful in saving lives. Even if it's accurate information, the signal to noise ratio is so low that it isn't helpful.

But the thing that really gets under my skin about the torture argument is that, for decades, the United States has criticized other countries when they have tortured people, and yet all of a sudden it has become an acceptable notion in American society; by giving in to the urge, we not only reveal ourselves to be hypocrites, but we abandon what has always been one of the core tenets of our politics. By becoming a nation which endorses torture, we give up one of the ideals which has always distinguished us. A United States which engages in torture has ceased to be the United States that I grew up in, and instead has converted into some dark, twisted parody of itself.

I don't think it would be going too far, or succumbing too much to emotion, to argue that torturing prisoners will cause the United States to lose its soul.

Kevin Andrew Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 12:12 PM:

Well, if Oliver wants to conduct a torture session, he should consult the classics:

And when such instruments have been disposed of, the Judge shall use his own persuasions and those of other honest men zealous for the faith to induce her to confess the truth voluntarily; and if she will not, let him order the officers to bind her with cords, and apply her to some engine of torture; and then let them obey at once but not joyfully, rather appearing to be disturbed by their duty. Then let her be released again at someone's earnest request, and taken on one side, and let her again be persuaded; and in persuading her, let her be told that she can escape the death penalty.
Here it is asked whether, in the case of a prisoner legally convicted by her general bad reputation, by witnesses, and by the evidence of the fact, so that the only thing lacking is a confession of the crime from her own mouth, the Judge can lawfully promise her her life, whereas if she were to confess the crime she would suffer the extreme penalty.
We answer that different people have various opinions on this question. For some hold that if the accused is of a notoriously bad reputation, and gravely suspected on unequivocal evidence of the crime; and if she is herself a great source of danger, as being the mistress of other witches, then she may be promised her life on the following conditions; that she be sentenced to imprisonment for life on bread and water, provided that she supply evidence which will lead to the conviction of other witches. And she is not to be told, when she is promised her life, that she is to be imprisoned in this way; but should be led to suppose that some other penance, such as exile, will be imposed on her as punishment. And without doubt notorious witches, especially such as use witches' medicines and cure the bewitched by superstitious means, should be kept in this way, both that they may help the bewitched, and that they may betray other witches. But such a betrayal by them must not be considered of itself sufficient ground for a conviction, since the devil is a liar, unless it is also substantiated by the evidence of the fact, and by witnesses.
Others think that, after she has been consigned to prison in this way, the promise to spare her life should be kept for a time, but that after a certain period she should be burned.

It's amazing how well old Sprenger and Kramer hold up after all these years, isn't it? Just substitute "terrorist" for "witch," and instead of asking "Did you fly to the Brocken to attend the Devil at his Sabbat?" you ask "Did you journey to Afghanastistan and attend Osama Bin Laden at his secret training camp?"

Many other helpful hints can be found here:


Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 12:56 PM:

Oliver, what you were hearing there was the voice of someone who by my best estimate is old enough to be your father, who's spent a lot of time riding herd on youngsters, and who is assuming that you simply aren't acquainted with the issues. Would you rather he thought you were stupid?

Lis ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:23 PM:

Oliver, if you're still reading this, I've got a question for you regarding the limits of what you consider acceptable.

According to several news reports, when officers captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, they also took his two sons, aged 7 and 9, into custody. "CIA interrogators confirmed that the boys were staying at a secret address where they were being encouraged to talk about their father's activities."

The CIA insists they're treating these kids kindly, but they are questioning them about their father. This probably also serves as a threat to force their father to talk. [How much do 7-year-olds know about their parents business? And, if KSM is isolated, questioners could just lie to KSM about custody of his sons; why do we need to be holding them?]

Do you find this kind of behavior acceptable, or should the boys have been returned to their mother or another family member?
[Information from Road to Surfdom here and here, TalkLeft and pixiedust.]

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:45 PM:

I think Macdonald is vastly oversimplifying the application of torture, as are those who are downplaying its possibly effective application (which I comment on here).

So I think the strongest argument against it is a moral one, not the practical one. And I happen to agree that it should not be used.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 02:06 PM:

Well, Cowboy Kahlil, it seemed I missed my calling. Here I am, working in computers, writing fiction and poetry, leading a coven, singing in two different choral groups, and cooking delicious things, when had I but had access to your wisdom, I would have realized that as a gay man (albeit not one turned by the horrific sight of Ann Coulter in the buff) my only possible activity is interior decoration.

Wait, you only said it's the WORST. Nice to know you think everything I do is better than interior decoration, but I don't happen to agree. Interior decorators are just as good as I am, and more importantly, just as good as you. Better, if they avoid using others' sexual orientation as a shorthand for ineffectiveness.

And of COURSE a terrorist, once gay, becomes a completely ineffective individual. Gay men never do bad (John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer) or important (Keith Haring, Ian McKellen) things.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 02:47 PM:

No one ever really knows anything; they've got a picture of the world which is necessarily incomplete, possibly wrong, possibly disinformed, certainly rotting as their access to information gets cut off after capture.

People in trades which demand reliable factual correctness - divers, EMTs, hazardous environment rescue, running big machines, linesmen - spend a lot of effort on keeping their world view coherent with that factual correctness, and other people spend a lot of effort on keeping that factual picture factual.

Even then, you don't *know* stuff; it's a reference in your head to something you understood in a certain way, *even when that thing is properly described as a fact*.

Intelligence is a process where you take a whole bunch of these references and try to jigsaw puzzle them together in a way that matches the facts you can get (you know, by *measuring* things, rather than referencing the contents of people's heads) and -- this is the extra tricky bit -- which matches the pattern of intention the people you're opposing have.

That's the extra-tricky bit because you have to be able to see a world view that you *don't hold* -- if you held it, you wouldn't be opposed, right? -- in a way that allows it to be emotionally real.

Once you start torturing people, what you're trying to do is to get information out of them that they don't want to give you; you get references, but, hey, they're not good references, they're informed by the violence you're doing to their brain chemistry, they're informed by their opposition to you, and they're constrained by the rest of the organization you're opposed to knowing how to deal with information leakage. You don't get an answer; you get a busted up human being and you get some dubious references.

If you have a lot of these references, many more *other* references, AND -- this is not optional -- someone able to sympathetically construct the world view of the people you're torturing for information to listen to what they scream to make sense of it, yeah, you could conceivably get information out of torturing the suspects.

There are a couple-three problems with this.

One is that if the people getting the references believe in a world that's made out of absolute certainties, rather than references of varying quality, they are going to take everything said in a scream as true, and act on it.

Since it's only going to be factual by accident, and it's only going to be true for that moment of torture, things descend into chaos.

Two is that you generally can't find that empathic torturer who can actually understand how the references connect up, and the (few, argueable) historical examples of such people tend to be killed as intolerable threats by their own side.

Three is that you've just paid an enormous, generational price for this information; you've destroyed civil liberties, civil security, your own peace, the rule of law, the possibility of the peaceful transition of power, any claim to institutions involving justice, and your distinct personal ability to rest easy in your bed at night, having placed yourself between your own 'security' forces and the desperate acts of those people you have told those security forces to destroy.

That's a very high price; it's an indescribably higher price than that involved in obtaining that information by other means.

Which ought -- I hope -- lead to thinking about why that price seems like a good idea.

I think that question has a simpler answer than 'they don't think the rule of law is a good thing in the first place' -- though they generally don't -- or the delusion that you can know stuff, perfect particles of knowledge that can be dragged intact out of you with pliers.

It comes down to the belief that you can kill fear with force of arms, with bombs or bullets or knives or a rack, that you can get the shape of your fear in your hands and crush it.

The fear is in you; it is of you, and your understanding of the world, and the shape that you give to your own actions, the exactment of your own belief.

You can kill fear, if you kill yourself; that one corpse will do what a thousand thousand others shall not ever do in all the world, howsoever you mangle them.

digby ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 04:12 PM:

The reason that you can kill an enemy combatant but you cannot torture him is that the concept of just war is based upon the concept of self defense. You may kill if someone is trying to kill you, and it is accepted in battle that one is allowed the utmost use of force to save your own life and that of your team, but once the enemy has surrendered, and your life is no longer in danger you cannot just line them up and shoot them.

It was long ago discovered that barbaric, immoral warfare was a big loser for everyone who participated and that includes those who react with barbarity as those who first perpetrated it.

People need to study some moral philosophy. "Preventive war" and "preventive torture" are not new ideas, as illustrated above. Civilized cultures ended the practices for very good reasons, mainly because people realized that some basic rules were necessary for human beings to remain civilized, no matter what the supposed threat.

Quercus ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 06:23 PM:

*Do you call everyone you disagree with names? Sheesh. You've done it 2-3 times now.*Ok, so -you- can call names but no one else can; is that how the game goes? Or did I just imagine your reference to "Dr. James Rockford" (nice effort to de-legitimise the guy put putting his name in quotes) as someone who would normally end up in your "crank" email?
Someone who makes a clear, thoughtful, cogent response to your call for torture is a "crank" but heaven forfend that your delicate sensibilties should be bruised by what your percieve to be a patronizing tone from Mr. Macdonald or harsh words from Mr. Nielsen.
You can't even be consistent yourself on this comperably insignificant issue and yet your seem to think that torture can be applied consistently to only those deserving of it while sparing the innocent and protecting the righteous. And somehow this will be done by a government that, if your blog is any indication, in nearly every other instance, you wouldn't trust to successfully screw in a light bulb.
Heck, you yourself haven't even been consistent on who would or would not be a candidate for torture. First it's AlQaeda operatives, then when someone brings up the fact that those sad bastards who died at Bagram were likely no more that Talib foot soldiers your definition of AlQaeda suddenly becomes more elastic and they're acceptable targets as well. And then you're back to strictly AlQaeda folks again.

Why not just be honest and admit that you want to hurt anyone potentially connected to 9/11, not for justice or to prevent more attacks, but simply for the sheer horrible gut-level satisifaction of feeling like you've gotten even. If not on AlQaeda as a whole, then on one little piece of it. You want them to hurt because you were hurt. You want then to feel pain because you felt pain. You want to take back a bit of the power they took from us. You want to savor their helplessness, their agony, their misery just as they savored ours. You think, as victims, we're owed at least that, if not more. You want to do it because at the most animal level it feels good, it feels righteous, it feels justified. You want to do it because those MoFo's have it coming.
You can pretty it up as much as you want to but in the end, that's what it all comes down to. And if we get some useful info, well that's nice, but it's not really the point at all is it?

Of course the problem with that is that when you start in a cycle like that it feeds on itself like a breeder reactor and who knows how or where it'll end. They, after all, use just the same sort of arguments you've used to justify torture in order to justify the 9/11 attacks. But none of that matters because damn but it feels good -right now-.

You want torture. Fine. It's a hard impulse to fight, that burning need to get even and stick it to them whats stuck it to you. But at least be honest about why you want it and stop trying to construct a moral justification to make it seem less icky.

Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 07:47 PM:

Eric says:
"If a US soldier is in Afghanistan, Pakistan, wherever and he and his squad bust an Al Qaeda cell - I think its safe to say that they're members of the Al Qaeda network. I'm not understanding you: would it be okay for him to shoot them dead, but not torture in the pursuit of maybe saving lives?"
I think you can find numerous instances in the Vietnam War where soldiers "knew" that people they encounterred were Vietcong operatives, when in fact in that particular instance they were just the local peasants.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 07:49 PM:

Derek, I think there are two differences between Jim Macdonald's description of the (non-) utility of torture and your own, not just one.

The first, which you've brought up, is that he's given a simpler picture of it than you have. In his defense, I have to point out that he thought he was posting a short comment to Patrick's weblog. Patrick liked it so much that he moved it to Electrolite's main sequence.

The second difference is that you're speaking theoretically.

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 08:44 PM:

I hope we're *both* speaking theoretically (unless James actually intends to take a pair of pliers to Oliver's soft parts).

I think we (you, me, Patrick, James) basically agree. I just think the moral argument, not the practical one, is the strongest.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 08:46 PM:

Robert, mistakes like that have happened in every war I've ever read about.


As I've said elsewhere, when I heard they'd captured Khalid Sheik Mohammed, I found myself having violent fantasies of hanging him up by his heels and slowly flaying him. It took me a while, but eventually I realized that it isn't physically possible for him to suffer as much as he's made others suffer; and after that to remember that retribution is someone else's bailiwick.

I still have these flashes of hanging KSM up and slowly peeling his skin off, but I trust they'll gradually diminish.

I went through this once before, when my friend Dave was shot in the face with a .45 by some suburban teenage idiots. They were looking to rob him, but just moments earlier he'd put the evening's movie theatre receipts into the bank's late-night drop box. Being idiots, they shot him anyway.

We were stunned. Dave was one of the nicest guys I've ever known, a genuinely kind, helpful, thoughtful person who had about a zillion friends but not an enemy in the world.

This happened in Seattle. When I heard it was possible that Washington state prosecutors might ask for the death penalty, I had a spell of confusion very like this one. It passed. I'm human; I hoped then and hope now that his killers are having a wretched time of it. But there isn't a special moral category for "aggrieving me and mine."

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 09:06 PM:

Erik: You go gir-- er, ah. Well said that! Carry on.

I can never understand why an intelligent human being would ever find torture useful. Hurt them badly enough and of course they'll tell you what you want to hear. But until you check it out, you've no idea whether it's true or he just wanted you to stop. And you may have no way to check it, or no way to check it without getting people killed.


Randy Paul ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 09:20 PM:

The US ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994 and the implementation legislation was passed and signed into law shortly thereafter. As I have posted in my own blog here, torture is a crime. It was a crime on September 10 and it remains a crime to this day. "Rendering" Al Qaeda members to third party countries to be tortured is also a violation of the Convention Against Torture. From a moral standpoint, I think it's beneath contempt.

One thing that anyone who believes that torture could be effective and who have no qualms about having it done should ask themselves is this: if it's the right thing to do, why is it done in secret?

By the way, George H. W. Bush signed the Torture Victim Protection Act into law in the early 1990's. This provides for a civil action to be sought in Federal Court against accused torturers. Clearly Father knows best on this subject.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 11:16 PM:

What Teresa said.

My fantasies are mostly about OBL, and they've faded out some. But being a person with a vivid and horrific imagination, I'm sometimes frightened by the intensity of my own rage. The one with the hundreds of short nails (and sometimes yarn - remember those calculus curves you made in high school?) made me shudder myself.

It's like with the death penalty: people say "what if someone killed your [insert loved one here]?" I say "I'd want them dead, of course. But society must restrain individuals from that very human impulse, because it's bad for society."

It is impossible, I am convinced, for a society that employs torture, under any circumstances, to remain anything other than dystopic for any length of time.

Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 07:34 AM:

Perhaps young Oliver (I can say this because I am old enough to be his GRANDMOTHER) doesn't understand that Macdonald knows whereof he speaks viz torture. Oliver has (wrong) head information. But Jim has actual training in withstanding--as long as possible--torture and its after-effects.

Jim--tell him your nude, bag-on-head story.

Perhaps young Oliver (hell, I could be his GREAT grandmother) mistakes things he has read in books for things found out in the field on dark nights.

Perhaps we all do.


Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 09:48 AM:

It is impossible, I am convinced, for a society that employs torture, under any circumstances, to remain anything other than dystopic for any length of time.

This leads, unfortunately, to the depressing conclusion that human society has been dystopic from the git-go. Which sounds distressingly probable . . . but that way lies romanticizing the lives of hunter-gatherers and bonobo apes, and I so don't want to go there.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 10:38 AM:

Debra: I should have said 'condones' rather than 'employs'. And yes, I think society in Europe during the Ages of Faith was pretty damn dystopic.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 10:41 AM:

"Human Society" is hardly a continuous smooth function; there have been excellent good bits, scattered here and there, when people freed themselves from fear of one another.

It's difficult to create a society that doesn't prefer oppressing itself to change, though.

Rachel Brown ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 01:24 PM:

I've thought about a small locked room with nothing in it but Osama bin Ladin tied to a chair, me, and a machete.

When a member of my family was murdered, in a case in which the prosecutor legally could have tacked "torture" onto the "special circumstances" of the case but chose not to, I had to change my seat at the trial because after a while I'd gotten too sure that from where I was, I could vault over the rail and snap the defendant's skinny little neck before anyone could stop me.

That could have been a death penalty case, but although all of us in the family _wanted_ the murderer dead, we decided, for various reasons, that it was not the right thing to pursue. He's now in jail for the rest of his miserable life.

(I don't put the death penalty on the same level as torture; my story is simply an illustration of similar choices surrounding a different issue.)

So I understand what people want to do to in revenge, although I doubt that many of the people now advocating torture would have the stomach for it if they had to do it themselves. But wanting something doesn't mean that it's righteous, or has practical value, or will make you feel better once you've done it. And pursuing your worst impulses can sure make you a worse person.

Torture is an evil act. Imagining it is human. Performing it puts us on the same moral ground as even the worst person we might inflict it on.

My uncle is gone, and I can't make his last moments easier than they were. But at least I know that the only killer in that courtroom was the defendant.

Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2003, 12:02 AM:

Up until about two years ago, one of my Macho Fantasies was that if I was ever captured by Commies or Nazis or Martians or whatever and subjected to torture, -I- would never break, -I- would never squeal, -I- would never spill the secret plans to overthrow the Evil Dictatorship.

But on March 20, 2001, I found out I wasn't that tough or that strong.

For about a month, I'd been having serious back pain. On that day, it had gotten bad enough that I ended up at the local, and crowded, emergency room. As the hours passed while waiting to see a doctor, the pain got worse. And worse. And worse. And worse.

Until I started crying. Then whimpering. Then moaning. And finally literally screaming like an animal, uncontrollably. The screaming didn't come from my brain; it felt like my -body- had taken direct control from any conscious volition.

I would have said ANYTHING to make that pain stop.

I would have done ANYTHING to make that pain stop.

Admit to any crime? Yes. Accuse my wife, or son, of any crime? Yes. Accuse anyone, anywhere, of anything? Yes.

If someone had walked up to me with a gun and offered to shoot me in the head, I would have BEGGED them to pull the trigger.

If that day wasn't torture (even if caused by my own body's betrayal, rather than imposed by an outside agency), I don't want to ever know what is. A small taste of torture was far, far more than enough.

(My back -- although the cause of the pain could never be pinpointed -- eventually got better, after I finally found a good chiropractor and a very good physical therapist who treated the symptoms. But even after the actual pain was gone, I lived with an intense "fear of pain" for months afterward, a fear that the level of pain I'd felt on March 20th might Happen Again.)

So much for -that- Macho Fantasy. (Over the years, I've sort of gotten used to the idea that Macho Fantasies are doomed to be punctured and fly wildly away into the distance, but I could have skipped the lesson on that one, thanks.)

ers ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2003, 01:51 AM:

I couldn't help thinking of Israel's extradition -- well, really, they *kidnapped* him first -- of Eichmann. Yes, they tracked him down in Argentina, and, probably against various international laws, with tremendously detailed and secure strategizing, kidnapped him and hauled him to Israel. And Eichmann, mastermind of the Nazi "Final Solution," was not tortured. He was *put on trial*. As fair a trial as could be ensured, given the circumstances. And during that trial, he was protected by bulletproof glass, and by the tightest security Israel could manage (which is pretty damn tight).

Meeting torturers with torture creates an endless cycle of destruction. If it's wrong, it's WRONG, for everyone. I don't agree with everything Israel does (don't get me started about the current situation), but in this instance, they behaved honorably as all Hell.

There's a world of difference between violent fantasies and violent actions. I'm a hopeless idealist, but perhaps someday our species will learn to resist the urge to pull out eyes and teeth in vengeance.

Chip Tijuana ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2003, 11:00 AM:

I'm surprised anyone is even debating the moral and ethical implications of torture. I was under the impression that it was a common belief of the average westerner, not to mention the average American, that torture is simply wrong. I've been to a lot of blogs, pro-war and anti-war, and from what I've seen, most of the pro-war bloggers are defending the concept of this war, with the argument that it's all about a regime change. They say that the US has a duty to invade Iraq and remove Saddam because he is evil, because he gasses, tortures, and murders his own people.
So if this is the case, then allowing torture in the US would suggest that someone should invade and remove the Bush administration from power.
Using torture would make the US just as bad as the people it is torturing. Assuming the US isn't already as bad or worse than that group in the first place, but that's a whole other debate.

Yehudit ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2003, 02:04 AM:

"Yes, when Oliver Willis says "I'll ignore the whole patronizing due to age thing", it isn't "namecalling.""

Um, no, Patrick, it isn't. I thought you were an editor - you know, someone who cares about precision in language.

Also, I agree that as far as torture is concerned, the ends do NOT justify the means (ends rarely do, since there is rarely a clear-cut line between means and ends).

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 13, 2003, 02:15 PM:

One of the best things about having a day job as an editor is that so many people think it's clever or original to play the "surely YOU as an EDITOR" card any time you're part of a wrangle or a misunderstanding about language.

News bulletin: Editors are human, and use flawed human language just like everyone else.

The "ha ha, I get to take you down a peg" routine, attached to one's day job, is really annoying. I don't mind having my language criticised; I mind the idea that I have a special obligation to be especially perfect.