Friday, December 12, 2014

Take this quick and (not so) easy CIA torture quiz!

     Here’s a simple quiz. One question. Multiple choice. Pick either A or B.
     Ready? Then let’s begin.
     1. Complete the sentence:
     America is a great nation because
     A) everything we do is, by definition, right.
     B) we try to do what’s right and when we fail we admit it and try to do better.
     A simple quiz, but not an easy one, and many people get it wrong.
     I won’t tell you the correct answer just yet so as to leave some readers in suspense.
     But I will, promise.
     First, a bit of context, namely the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the orgy of CIA torture the Bush administration unleashed after Sept. 11. Turns out,  Jack Ryan fantasies notwithstanding, that brutalizing people who had fallen into our clutches didn’t do much good in terms of keeping our country safe, didn’t help find bin Laden or uncover any big terror plots.
     Which fits in with what we know about torture; it tends not to produce intelligence.
     I can’t say my world was rocked by the news. We knew Dick Cheney and his henchmen consider themselves tough guys and, denied the traditional tools of rack and thumbscrews, were happy to make do with waterboarding and sleep deprivation.
     The details are repulsive—one prisoner froze to death chained to a concrete floor.
     But then, details of atrocities usually are.
     More surprising to me than the report were the howls of justification that came from the Right, starting with those who didn’t want to reveal the report at all because it might encourage terrorism.
     Sure it could. But is that our new standard of behavior? Are we against things that might inflame potential enemies? Because if that's our policy, it's a big list. We can start by scrapping the First Amendment and requiring women to start wearing veils.
     That's obviously not happening. The standard isn't trying to placate those who will hate us anyway.
     If releasing the report, in our role as a free society, is OK, how about torture as a way to try to protect ourselves. Is that OK?
     One wit at another local paper said, in essence, "Yes," offering up the classic "But Jimmy's doing it too!" defense so convincing to 4-year-olds. He carefully explained that the Islamic State rapes and kills, suggesting that this justifies our own loathsome tactics.
     "But it might be useful to realize that while we might feel queasy about what we did, the Islamic State is immune from hand-wringing after they cut American throats."
     Useful? In what way? He never comes out and says it — the timidity of bullies — but the implication is, we're facing these tough guys, so we better be tough guys too. They have no self-doubt; why should we?
     A few questions he never asks but we can:
     Wouldn't committing the kind of horrors they do make us just like them?
     Couldn't the ''hand-wringing" that you condemn also be referred to as "thinking?"
     Would you say that cutting off people's heads has been a success strategy for the Islamic State? Did it not end up hurting their cause, in the same way that torturing people hurt America's cause?
     Here's the bottom line, and it's sad that so few people see it. Torture doesn't work, but even if it did it would still be bad, because that isn't what America is about. The fact that something works to enhance security is not a recommendation. China has a vast system of gulags and is a far more stable society than the United States because anyone who dissents can be shipped off to prison. Their security is certainly enhanced. Should we do that too?
     When the report was first released, when some were talking about whether it should have been withheld, I thought of Turkey, where to this day it is against the law to talk about the 1915 Armenian genocide because it makes the Turks look bad. And Japan, where the right wing is trying to suppress Japan's brutal history of World War II atrocities, so as not to have their nationalistic preening undermined by the stark evidence of where such pride once led them.
     How does that make Japan look? And do we want to do that too? Are we a great nation because when we do stuff that's wrong, we don't talk about it, so we don't look bad to those who expect better of us?
     Not my country. Not America. The Economist summed it up perfectly in one simple sentence: "ALL countries fail to live up to the ethical standards they set themselves; only a few have the moral purpose to examine their lapses in the public square."
     Amen. Oh, and for those who haven't figured it out yet, the correct answer is: B.


  1. Hmmmm...I wonder what the right would be saying today if this all came out as occurring during the Clinton (or god forbid, Obama) administration.


    1. That's because you assume others are as blinded by partisanship as yourself. And -- sorry to be the one to tell you -- but this is occurring during Obama administration, and the New York Times, that bastion of liberalism, condemns Obama for washing his hands of this even more thoroughly than Bush did. The whole point of the column is to recognize and address the country's failings, whomever is to blame. Sad that you missed that, but not surprising.

    2. Uh, no...not blinded by partisanship - but forced to deal with a bunch of right leaning coworkers that have taken every opportunity to press the deficiencies (percieved or real) of the left, especially the last 6 years.

      I was not surprised by the response from the right (as you were) - defending their own to the end. Our conversation ended quickly the other day when I presented the exact same argument you put forth here. We don't want to be them, we need to be better than that.

      And as long as there is uncontrolled ego, there will be war - atrocities included from both sides. I don't think we've failed as a country. Maybe strayed from the path, but in the end, held true to the beliefs that make us unique in the world.

  2. So many wrongs to be made right. It gets depressing after a while.


  3. Thanks for taking on John Ass.

    1. One of the commenters on Eric Zorn's blog referred to him as Jack Kass. Needless to say, I found that entertaining.

      I do wonder though, Neil, is it an old journalistic tradition not to name somebody with whom you disagree? A personal preference? Is it a way of not giving him any more attention than is necessary to make your point, perhaps, by not deigning to use his name?

    2. I suppose the latter. He's so off the radar, striking at him personally is pointless. But he does represent a certain mindset, and that's what I wanted to address.

  4. I'm a little surprised Mr. Steinberg didn't call out the hypocrisy of the torture defenders with respect to President Obama's immigration executive action. Most of them called it "unconstitutional," "against the rule of law," "acting as king," "undermining democracy" etc.

    Well, whether you think torture is defensible/excusable/etc., the law couldn't be clearer. Even before this report it was clear that as defined by the law, waterboarding is torture. Now we're up to "rectal feeding." Anyone wanting the President to obey the law on immigration (and though he's utterly misguided with executive action and has made a radical shift in how executives manipulate their discretionary authority no matter what (usually factually mistaken) analogies his defenders make, he was acting within the law) must also want him to investigate and prosecute individuals both named and not named in the report. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

    That said, there's plenty of hypocrisy on the left too - they could care less about the UN convention against genocide, only favor following U.S. child refugee law with Hispanic children, not African, etc. Mr. Steinberg mentions Turkey and the Armenian genocide - which U.S. president vowed to recognize it and then, um, didn't? Hint: the skinny one with the funny name.

    Sadly, all of this is parlor talk: it'd probably take just a single major domestic terrorist attack in the general population (i.e., not on an army base) before public opinion would largely fall in with the pro-torture crowd regardless of how efficacious it is, and put an end to any talk of "demilitarizing" the police.

  5. "A) everything we do is, by definition, right."

    For many, this is the definition of American Exceptionalism.

  6. >>B) we try to do what’s right and when we fail we admit it and try to do better.<<

    Actually B isn't all THAT much better than A if it's not accompanied by something more than an admission. Are we compensating those we tortured? Giving them any justice by punishing their accusers? How about a Presidential apology? So the report may represent something positive, and something many nations would never do, but it doesn't go into the "we're great" column just yet. (And I'm not saying Mr. Steinberg necessarily disagrees with that - my thought was just prompted by the rhetorical question he asks)

  7. So Neil, those of us who think that this is not a great country, but vile and evil and the worst place ever on Earth get censored? We have to agree with you or no right to speak?

    1. No, your irredeemably blindered view of the country wasn't what got deleted. It was your reference to bodily functions. Ewww. No need for that. Another instance where you assume something based on ignorance and are wrong. I don't mind you displaying it. But I don't want you to be nauseating in the process. It's a fine distinction, I know, but it's one I get to make.

    2. I know I'm three years late but the point should be made that the right to speak loses all of it's punch when what is spoken has an anonymous source. Anonymity is often enough linked to cowardice. Think about it. The KKK wears hoods. Who listens to them but other cowards?

  8. I don't quite get the charge of hypocracy by Obama for mildly blessing release of the report and failing to denounce the Armenien genocide. Different circumstances and different political calculations, the latter perhaps not admirable but necessary, As Mr. Emerson put it, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and devines."

    I seem to have seen the marble bloke somewhere. Perhaps in the Piazza dello Signoria?
    I expect he's someone Dante encountered in one or another of the early circles.

    1. Being consistent about genocide (let alone the Geneva Convention) isn't a "foolish consistency." Neither is keeping one's word. Nor has the President engaged in a "different" political calculation - he's ignoring the glaringly obvious truth in both cases for the sake of politics. The only difference is how small an Armenian population we have in the U.S. But if you want to quote that turgid Emerson line, consider this: President Obama has by his actions - or rather inactions - has effectively called following the clear mandate of the convention against torture a "foolish consistency" as there is no rationale argument that "rectal feeding" isn't torture and no ambiguity as to what the obligation of the United States is in view of credible evidence of torture.

  9. I'm with you, Anon. Recognizing these failings means next to nothing if it isn't followed up with some sort of concrete action. A presidential apology would be a fine start. Certain high-ranking former officials answering for their crimes in the Hague would be better.


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