Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Ain't gonna study torture no more

Wretchard over at Belmont Club speaks today about the McCain Amendment and its probable effects. As usual, he's insightful and intelligent and I commend his blog to all, but two things I'd like to add:

1. I don't think terrorists are necessarily writing anonymous letters to American senators encouraging them to support the Amendment, and
2. I'm about as sick of NIMBY attitudes as I can be.

As to the first. There's much talk, from the "con" side of the Amendment debate, about how if it passes terrorists will have a big party to celebrate that fact that they'll never be tortured if captured by Americans, and will immediately revamp their training regime to take into account the very limited interrogation options available to the American military. But there's extraordinary rendition, the practice of sending prisoners to other nations to be interrogated there. Rendition was a Clinton-era invention (at least officially - I have to wonder how often it happened sub rosa before then), and would not be affected by the McCain Amendment. So terrorists would not face American interrogators with bright lights, loud music, coercive suggestions... instead they might face a well-equipped Saudi, an angry Kurd with access to electricity - who knows? If I were a terrorist, I don't think I'd be happy that the Americans would no longer be my interrogators if I were captured.

(Please note: I do not mean to suggest that either Saudis or Kurds necessarily use torture - just that their rules would be different from ours, as indeed they are now, and there's no Saudi or Kurd or Russian or Somali McCain, for instance.)

Some of Wretchard's commenters opined that we'd start taking fewer prisoners on the battlefield. I doubt it. Our need for intelligence would be as great as it is now. Here I step off into a world of my own devise: if I were in charge of battlefield prisoners, I would try to sort out the intelligence wheat from the chaff as quickly and efficiently as possible - exactly how is an exercise I must leave to the student, since I think it must rely on local informants, overheard chatter among prisoners, intelligence already in hand, etc., but I can't know for sure how it's currently being done. Having discerned which prisoners would be most likely to give important information, I would concentrate my interrogation resources on that fraction. The other prisoners' primary hazard might be death by boredom.

In a post-McCain world, if I just killed every fighter on the field, I would lose whatever intelligence I stood to gain before, so that choice is not open to me - having prisoners is highly inconvenient and expensive, but the tradeoff in intelligence makes it necessary. So I'd still have to take prisoners. Having taken them, I'd still have to sort out who might have useful intelligence, presumably by the same methods I was using before. Then I'd render the useful ones to allies for interrogation, and wait for the results. Finis.

This is a NIMBY argument - "not in my backyard," for anyone who didn't live through the '80s. The scruples of Californians about being able to see offshore drilling rigs does not obviate their existence elsewhere, and if it's an environmental tragedy to have them at all (which it's not - tankers spill far more (and often refined, a.k.a. more toxic) petroleum), it's a tragedy whether they're off the coast of Santa Barbara or Galveston. The immorality of NIMBY is why I am against the McCain amendment: I would rather have combatant prisoners in the hands of American interrogators, who are guided by social and cultural norms that preclude the most heinous forms of torture and seriously circumscribe interrogation techniques, than have squeaky-clean collective hands but know that others were up to their elbows in filth on our behalf.

An analogy to the Catholic Church might be appropriate here. The Catholic Church's guilt in the recent spate of pederast-priest claims, investigations, and convictions is not that the church as a whole was participating in the appalling behavior, but that the Church knew about and enabled the behavior. In what way would the American government - the American psyche - be innocent of torture if we knowingly sent our prisoners to places where human life and dignity are cheaper than we hold them?

Make no mistake, we're using rendition now. I'm deeply conflicted about it. Only long after the fact will we, the public, know whether the intelligence gained by other nations using techniques we refuse to apply was worth the moral cost to us (the moral cost to other nations is, I believe, appropriately their own concern, and that's not just an expedient view of mine). I hope that our government has already performed that calculation, using information not yet declassified, and that it's the demostrated benefit of rendition that is causing us to maintain the policy on a lesser-evil basis.

The bottom line, for me, is that we could outlaw torture in the same way that the Right-Thinking Nations of the World once outlawed war. And it'll be just as effective. Oddly, the traditionally conservative view of humanity as fundamentally flawed, and the traditionally liberal view of humanity as fundamentally good, flip-flop here: I, a conservative, believe that keeping prisoners in American hands, without the stringent limits on interrogataion the McCain Amendment would impose, is far less likely to result in egregious torture than the uptick in extraordinary rendition we'd see if the Amendment passed, because America is fundamentally good. My opponents take the view that the American military must be restrained by force of law from doing what their fundamentally bad natures would lead them to.


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