Sunday, January 29, 2006

Lance Morrow reviews books on the torture debate

Lance Morrow reviews books on the torture debate in the NYT book review, January 29, 2006, here. Morrow is an elegant essayist, as always. What I don't understand, however, is how he can tell us, at the beginning of this review, that these two books cover all the big questions, but then tell us later on that there are virtually no contrarian voices and that the voices suffer from piousness, and an attitude of "torture bad, me virtuous." The addition of Heather MacDonald as a contrarian voice is not enough to give wide coverage to views on the debate over torture and interrogation. You would need to add, at a minimum, Sanford Levinson's edited book, Torture: A Collection, as well as Phillipp Heymann and Juliette Kayyem' Protecting Liberty in a Time of Terror. The two books Morrow has reviewed are essentially by institutions with institutional interests - Human Rights Watch and NYU's Center on Law and Security - not even semi-neutral edited collections. Their positions are important ones, of course, but they are not exactly the best positioned to present a fair range of views, and they don't. It means, as Morrow hints but doesn't quite say, that the arguments against those institutional positions don't really get their say. Text:

January 29, 2006
New York Times Book Review

Books on Torture
Necessity or Atrocity?


Sept. 11 encouraged a corrupted version of American exceptionalism, among other things. The superpower suddenly became the embattled victim, the injured innocent - which was how Americans imagined themselves when they declared their independence in 1776. The Bush Justice Department's 2002 "torture memos" - hardboiled pettifogging intended to give legal cover for getting rough, for "taking the gloves off" in America's war on terror - were later repudiated by the administration. But the memos amounted subliminally to a different sort of declaration of independence, conjured up out of the founding Shinto: America, claiming a special dispensation under Providence, would make its own rules, especially if national security was at stake. The signal emanating from the White House and the Pentagon borrowed a memory from the American subconscious: we would not be contradicted by the tainted Old World, with its treaties and conventions drawn up far away - in Geneva, for example - especially not when such conventions would protect the likes of Al Qaeda.

New reality trumps old morality. Out of a new emergency of history, one particularly menacing narrative took shape, darkened by the prestige of apocalypse - the ticking bomb. A script emerged, along these lines:

The Qaeda terrorist breaks under aggressive questioning. (The waterboard worked. He came up spluttering and talking.) The interrogator relays information that, just in time, snips the wire on the dirty nuke hidden in the heart of an American city. The interrogator - "torturer," if you insist - is actually a hero. Thousands of lives are saved.

The ticking bomb may be hypothetical for now, but according to this scenario a certain amount of rough stuff may already have paid off in the war on terror, which, mind you, is a real war against ingeniously concealed fanatics traveling the globe at will, capable of mass killing, anywhere, without warning. In this context, due process, beyond a certain formal point, is for sissies. We live in a newly vulnerable, porous world. Human rights fetishists, fighting the last war (a state-to-state conflict, with old rules now rendered quaint) have become Al Qaeda's useful idiots. What will the bien-pensants have to say if and when another 9/11 - or something worse - occurs?

Who-whom?, Lenin asked. The rough-stuff rationale elicits an indignant counterversion from advocates of human rights:

Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have become outposts in a global American gulag in which innocent and guilty alike are illegally detained and tortured, usually with no yield of usable intelligence - we squander the nation's moral capital for trash. Torture is the refuge of the lazy, the stupid, the pseudo-tough. Real intelligence services don't have to torture; they are intelligent enough to learn the prisoner's language and culture. Why would a tortured man tell you the truth? He will say anything to stop the pain. What happened to those mystic chords of memory about all men - all of them - being created equal, endowed with unalienable rights? What of America's respect for human dignity? For itself? A couple of dozen prisoners, give or take, have died in the American gulag - not to speak of those whom the C.I.A. has disappeared into regimes far less fastidious than our own.

The American superpower, many human rights advocates go on, has under George W. Bush turned its back on civilized opinion from Aristotle on, has abandoned the Geneva Conventions, America's 1994 antitorture law and a century's progress toward basic rights, and in the process, compromised the ideals of freedom and democracy for which the wars on terror and in Iraq are supposedly being fought. America has become a pariah among nations by committing human rights crimes similar to those for which Nazi government officials were tried and convicted at Nuremberg.

Two new volumes of essays take up all of the questions contained in these contrasting views, examining the subject of torture in the context of international terrorism, studying it in various lights - moral, legal, political, historical, military, philosophical. "The Torture Debate in America," edited by Karen J. Greenberg, focuses especially on legal questions; almost all of its contributors have been trained as lawyers, and are either professors of law or human rights workers. "Torture: Does It Make Us Safer? Is It Ever OK?," edited by Kenneth Roth and Minky Worden, looks at torture from a more global and historical perspective, ranging from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance, to contemporary Israel and Algeria and Argentina and Rwanda. Both collections proceed from an essentially left-brain mentality; the right brain's script has only token defenders. Overall, the voices in these books suffer from a tendency toward piousness: Torture bad, me virtuous.

Critics in both volumes dismiss the ticking-bomb scenario as chimerical - a puerile Hollywood hypothesis highly unlikely in actuality. The real danger of the administration's anything-goes message, they say, was that it fatally routinized and bureaucratized the coercive impulse, and once that message had made its way down the chain of command to the grunt level, it ordained in effect that all of Islam should be considered a ticking bomb. Any Muslim was fair game for waterboarding.

Is that version overdone? Heather Mac Donald, a fellow of the conservative Manhattan Institute, is one of the few contrarian contributors to either of the volumes. She argues in "The Torture Debate" that Abu Ghraib, which she says showed nothing more than "the sadism of a prison out of control," generated among the critics of President Bush a false "master narrative - call it 'the torture narrative.' " "The actual interrogation techniques promulgated in the war on terror," Mac Donald writes, were "light years from real torture and hedged around with bureaucratic safeguards."

Mac Donald's defense of rough coercive interrogation contrasts the Americans' "torture lite" with the gruesome, mangling, sadistic and genuinely evil ingenuity that torturers have historically shown, from the Inquisition to Pol Pot. Training manuals for Al Qaeda, according to Chris Mackey in "The Interrogators," tell fighters that a failure to cooperate with Americans carries no penalties and no risk of torture - a sign of American weakness. Mac Donald quotes an American interrogator who said: "They realized: 'The Americans will give us our Holy Book, they'll draw lines on the floor showing us where to pray, we'll get three meals a day with fresh fruit, do Jazzercise with the guards. . . . We can wait them out.' " Gitmo as Club Med.

Conscience is a protean thing; it reprehends acts that, unofficially, it may consider necessary under some circumstances. We have formal morals and vernacular morals, like the good china and the everyday. Torture is that paradox, an all-but-universal practice that is simultaneously a universal taboo, like incest. In the real world lots of people marry their cousins.

IF you call something torture, you are officially bound to be against it. So call it "interrogation." Almost everyone concedes that it is all right to try to find out what a terrorist in your custody may know. But what methods are all right? Sleep deprivation? Being forced to stand for long periods? Bright lights? Hooding? Rock music? Menacing dogs? Cigarette burns? Thumbscrews? Electric shock? Rape? Where do you draw the line?

Any wholesome mind thinking of torture sympathizes with the victim. (A diseased mind identifies with the torturer.) Therefore, anyone inclined to countenance rough physical or psychological treatment is bound to argue either that what he has in mind is not really torture, but something short of that, temporary discomfort maybe, or that a certain amount of brutal questioning is legitimate because it is aimed not at the past but the future: it is inflicted not for purposes of punishment or revenge, but to prevent a future catastrophe, another 9/11. The change of tense from past to future is what might turn the interrogator from villain to hero.
But surely torture - whether torture lite or torture satanic - is, in the long run, bad karma for the United States. Noah Feldman, a professor of law at New York University School of Law, argues in one essay in "The Torture Debate" that "whatever the merits of unilateralism in foreign policy, unilateralism in law and morals is incoherent and dangerous."

Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler observed that different people living at the same time may inhabit different centuries. What century does Osama bin Laden inhabit? In what century is Guantánamo located? Who is pulling whom back to darkness and barbarism? Being a victim of 9/11 gave Americans a kind of moral Get Out of Jail Free card. But a superpower cannot plausibly play the victim for long; for many of those who recognize the dilemmas surrounding torture, the card expired somewhere between Shock and Awe and Abu Ghraib.

As for myself, after reading these two thoughtful collections, I would contend that America should be setting an example of attention to international norms and treaties, and respect for the opinions of others in the world. Torture is a mug's game. You give up too much in the way of ideals for too little in the way of information. Al Qaeda may not abide by the Geneva Conventions, but Americans should do so scrupulously, ostentatiously, not in order to coddle terrorists but to encourage the rule of law in a bad world. God presumably granted Americans their dispensation only on condition that they aspire upward. When they head in the other direction, the dispensation is rescinded.

(Lance Morrow is the author of "Evil: An Investigation," and most recently of "Second Drafts of History," a collection of his essays. He is working on a biography of Henry Luce.)

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