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day permlink Monday, 16 October 2006

permlink Torture, Consent and Coercion

There's really nothing I can say that would be new about the United States' approval of torture as a interrogation practice. But it's still worth emphasizing important things other people have said.

Medley linked some good ones a while back:

John Scalzi:

...Bush is a moral coward, and has always been a moral coward, since at no point has he shown anything other than incomprehension of and contempt for the United States Constitution, particularly when it comes to his pet projects of torturing people and sham trials. I simply can't conceive of a worse president than this one...

Senators McCain, Warner and Graham are moral cowards for making a big show of having problems with Bush's awful trial plan, and yet "compromising" with a deal that has no discernible practical difference from the president's original trial plan. These men postured as bulwark for the Constitution, and I for one gave them my faith, which is not something I'll be in a mad rush to do again. McCain in particular I hold out for special criticism, because he does have the moral standing to stop something like this in its tracks. Instead he traded that moral standing for a bit of political theater.

The Senate Democrats are moral cowards for not filibustering this bill as they ought to have, fearing Republican retribution at the polls and figuring that it'll be tossed out by the courts anyway... The Democrats ought to have stepped on this bill's head and killed it, not only because they could have, but because they should have. Someone should have stood up for the Constitution and for the moral standing of the United States and its practices. Someone should be up there calling Bush what he is: A tiny man so frightened of the terrorist boogyman that he's willing to shred our moral standing to keep him away, and so dead-eyed hateful of what it means to be American that he can't find a way to protect this country without urinating on what it is that makes us great.

I'm proud to be an American, but I'm tired of being ashamed of my government.

Rebecca Blood:

Remember when the Abu Ghraib photos shocked all of us? The story then was that a few inexperienced/rogue soldiers got away from themselves, acted on their own, that it was a complete and utter anomaly. In the last few weeks, the pro-Administration stance has been that such treatment is sometimes necessary, and that humiliation, for example, isn't that big of a deal anyway.

[...] And we have just concluded a national debate about whether we need to uphold the Geneva Conventions by codifying the President's right to authorize these very practices.

The sick thing, or I should say one of the sickest things (since there are so many to choose from), is that it even though we know torture doesn't get us good information (waterboarding in particular is good for eliciting confessions rather than information), torture supporters don't even care.

In reading the arguments in comment threads and seeing them on FOXNews, what clearly matters much more than whether torture accomplishes a damn thing is that we be Man Enough to Do "Whatever It Takes" To "Win", even if it doesn't accomplish a thing other than to inflict pain and suffering and years-long imprisonment on thousands of people who may not actually be guilty of anything.

You know, just like Jesus would do.

There's a pattern in some of the torture supporters' chatter:

  • I used to work with a guy who's a proud right-winger, a devotee of the machoer-than-thou branch rather than the Jesus-loves-cutting-CEOs'-taxes branch. When Abu Ghraib was first exposed in the news, he loudly proclaimed (after reading out loud a list of the guards' tactics) that it just sounded to him like what happens in Basic Training. And so, what's the big deal?
  • El Rushbo, of course, has equated it all on multiple occasions with 'hazing' and 'fraternity pranks'.
  • Republican Congressman Chris Shays said just last week that Abu Ghraib wasn't torture, it was a sex ring. (He since backpedaled, but not much.)

The common thread through all these minimizations is that they gloss over the question of consent. Army volunteers go through basic training. Frat pledges submit themselves to the pledge process knowing that hazing may be part of the deal. And a "sex ring" implies voluntary participation.

Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether the allegedly comparable activities are actually similar (I doubt Basic Training or 'hazing' involves dragging bleeding blindfolded naked people across concrete floors, leaving smeared red trails, but hey, whatever). Let's say that Rush is right, it's just frat-level behavior: Who exactly volunteered to be in an American prison? Who submitted themselves to any of this treatment willingly?

That difference obviously changes the nature of the acts. (If a bunch of frat guys grab someone off the street and 'haze' them, it's still assault; there's no exemption for frats in the law.) The choice to argue as though the difference does not matter is worth examining.

Are these torture-minimizers genuinely blind to the vast difference between consent and coercion (in which case they're stunningly morally ignorant), or are they intentionally papering over a key distinction just to muddle the discussion with some appalling bullshit (in which case they're morally depraved)?

What third option is there? What am I missing?

And when you allow back into the discussion that the abuse and injuries are obviously far more serious than the minimizers claim, you just end up speechless at the audacity.

This weekend we went to see Twelve Angry Men at the Kennedy Center.

The discussion over the finer points of the law in a murder case -- like 'presumption of innocence' and the acquittal of the accused unless the jury has been convinced 'beyond a reasonable doubt' -- seemed, frankly, quaint (in the words of Attorney General Alberto 'Abu G' Gonzales). That's some other America there.

From Rafe:

...the Bush Administration managed to pass a bill that will enable the government to imprison people for as long as it likes without giving them a day in court, and to torture those prisoners as much as it likes. This law diminishes this country, sullies the values upon which it was founded, and rolls back many centuries of progress in how governments relate to the governed.

How can people not get it? This is a do or die situation, and Democrats in government treated it as an issue to be managed with regard to the upcoming election. I won't even get into the Republicans. ... Plenty of people have pointed out that this law not only trashes the constitution, it trashes the Magna Carta.
permlink   Current Events   1 comment(s)  
The discussion over the finer points of the law in a murder case -- like 'presumption of innocence' and the acquittal of the accused unless the jury has been convinced 'beyond a reasonable doubt' -- seemed, frankly, quaint. . . . That's some other America there.

I had a similar experience recently. Last week, I was reading New York Times v. United States (The Pentagon Papers case) with my students, and I was struck by the same kind of feeling. Allow me to quote Justice Black, just for nostalgia's sake:
In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.

*le sigh*
      ...posted by Liz on October 17, 2006 6:41 PM
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