Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Question for an Enterprising Researcher

So just how did the Koran-Flushing incident travel across the world and end with riots killing more than a dozen people? Did al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya pick it up? Muslim bloggers? Some other newsource?

Ethical but Stupid?

Ur has some very legitimate challenges to my last post:

I have to disagree with you, though, about the appropriateness of using techniques particularly designed to offend the religious sensibilities of the interrogee, for reasons that I think Sullivan has mentioned before. We are bending over backwards here trying to show that the war on terror is not a war on Islam (despite a noticeable contingent of people in this country who think that's exactly what it should be). If this becomes a war against Islam instead of against a group of fundamentalist whack-jobs who like to kill infidels and don't fear death, we are guaranteed to lose. Using interrogation techniques that specifically target Islamic beliefs is quite likely to push borderline cases over the line between cursing out names and actually trying to kill us.

An absolutely fair point. While I made a distinction between what is ethical and what is effective, I should also have considered whether the techniques were wise. I hereby revise my criteria to justify an acceptable interrogation technique: 1) it must be at least minimally ethical, 2) there must be a reasonable expectation of getting useful information through its use, and 3) it must not undermine our strategic goals.

He continues:

Of course, rioting over the supposed flushing of a Koran is fucking insane. But that's what we are dealing with. In any war, one of the prime strategic goals is to destroy the enemy's ability to wage war. Al Quaeda doesn't exactly have factory complexes or airfields or tank farms to bomb - their resources are pissed-off fundamentalist Muslims who hate us enough to risk (or sacrifice) their lives to destroy us. That is what we have to deprive them of, and the only way to do that - short of genocide - is to avoid giving any evidence, however slight, to the argument that we are enemies of Islam itself and not Al Quaeda or Hamas (or any other terrorist group) in particular. Telling a prisoner to 'fuck Allah' isn't an evil thing to do (unlike actual torture, which you rightly point out is a problem in and of itself). It is, however, fucking stupid.

Here's where I demur, since I honestly question whether world-wide Muslim opinion of the United States is in anyway connected to reality. No matter how good some kids are, their parents still beat them at the slightest provocation, and--in such situations--there are always provocations. Honestly, do you think Newsweek's retraction about the flushing incident is going to make any difference in Pakistan, or were we condemned before this even happened?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Abuse By Any Other Name

Few pundits were more outraged by the prison abuse scandals of the past year than Andrew Sullivan. In numerous articles, and in dozens of blogposts, Sullivan has effectively shown that: A) our military has undoubtedly physically tortured prisoners, some of which was sanctioned from above, some of which was extracurricular*; B) the Bush Administration has farmed-out terror suspects to foreign governments whom we know to use torture (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc); and C) there has been almost no outrage about points A) and B) from those who are the first to call this war just.

Not only is torture—the infliction of severe physical pain as a means of punishment or coercion the—extremely unreliable from what I gather, I think it goes without saying that it is unethical. Simply put, I don’t want American soldiers and Marines ripping out fingernails or committing any other act medieval sadism on our prisoners; it’s going to do little to help, and much to hurt us. I am in complete agreement with Lee (and should likewise caution about my utter ingorance of how to run an interrogation).

Beyond this, however, Sullivan and I disagree. In much the same way that he has criticized others for inventing a definition of “abuse” so expansive it could include anything that wouldn’t kill the victim, Andrew now defines “torture” to mean anything, anything that might play on the cultural and religious taboos of a Jihadist. Commenting yesterday on the scandal involving allegations that Marines flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet during and interrogation, he writes:

A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to "Fuck Allah," after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran?...It is not being "basically, on the side of the enemy”…to resist the notion of government-sanctioned torture and to report on it. It is patriotism and serving the cause that this war is about: religious pluralism and tolerance.

Notice how Andrew draws no distinctions between our troops murdering a prisoner, and draping the Israeli flag over him. He goes on:

“[W]e do know for certain that other "techniques" designed to use religion as an interrogative tool have been deployed, including the smearing of fake menstrual blood on detainees' faces. This religious warfare was also deployed at Abu Ghraib. I wrote in my review of the official records of the torture:

One Muslim inmate was allegedly forced to eat pork, had liquor forced down his throat and told to thank Jesus that he was alive. He recounted in broken English: "They stripped me naked, they asked me, 'Do you pray to Allah?' I said, 'Yes.' They said 'Fuck you' and 'Fuck him.'" Later, this inmate recounts: ''Someone else asked me, 'Do you believe in anything?' I said to him, 'I believe in Allah.' So he said, 'But I believe in torture and I will torture you.'"

We are fighting an enemy who is homophobic, sexist, anti-Semitic, religiously bigoted, and deeply, deeply superstitious. In other words, they are probably extremely vulnerable to methods of psychological interrogation that are physically benign, like many of the ones Andrew lists. Considering our objections to the use of physical torture, shouldn’t we at least consider exploiting their profound cultural and religious neuroses to our advantage?

There needs to be clearly defined limits on what kind of things our military and intelligence agents can do, limits that need to be set for by ethical boundries and pragmatic constrainsts. But I ask you: if we were fighting Sinn Fein, would it really be so unconscionable to threaten to flush fake communion wafers down the toilet? if they were Nazis, would it be so bad to threaten to give them a transfusion of a Jew’s blood? Not so, according to Andrew Sullivan, who thinks that the more screwed-up, retrograde, and narrow-minded our enemy’s culture is, the lighter we need to tread.