Friday, February 18, 2005

Worse than a crime

"Never strike a man. For one thing it is the act of a coward. For another, it is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise” - Robin "Tin-Eye" Stephens quoted by James Meek, Nobody is Talking, The Guardian 18 Feb.

Tin Eye Stephens, the commander of camp where suspected spies were held, said this in 1942 when, as Meek writes, “British cities had [been subjected to] a Nazi bombing campaign that had killed 42,000 civilians and destroyed 130,000 houses. Britain's merchant fleet was losing 50 ships a month. Most of Europe was under fascist rule and millions of civilians were being slaughtered and enslaved. Britons did not know they would win the war”.

Fast forward to shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Meeks quotes a CIA veteran as saying "A lot of people are saying we need someone at the agency who can pull fingernails out." Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard, wrote that judges should be able to issue warrants licensing the torture of suspects where the authorities somehow knew that the suspects were concealing information about "an imminent large-scale threat".

Meeks goes on:

In a recent paper for the New England Journal of Public Policy Alfred McCoy, a history professor at Wisconsin-Madison University, surveys the CIA's use of torture over half a century in Vietnam, Central America and Iran, and marvels at the recklessness of the commentators of 2001. "In weighing personal liberty versus public safety," he writes, "all those pro-pain pundits were ignorant of torture's complexly perverse psychopathology, that leads to both uncontrolled proliferation of the practice and long-term damage to the perpetrator society."

Further insight comes in David Simpson's reviews of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth and The Torture Papers edited by Greenburg and Dratel in the 17 Feb edition of the London Review of Books (subscription only) . His piece is ever better than, and perhaps a source for, Meek. Simpson writes:

All the [official] reports share a rhetorical emphasis on the ‘few bad apples’ argument…This is constantly undercut, however, by the evidence of [these] authors, who argue for ‘insitutional and personal responsibility at higher levels’, and discover clear permission for stronger than normal interrogation techniques in a number of memos and findings.

Simpson reminds that legal advice to the US president described the Geneva conventions as ‘quaint’ and that persons would only be treated in accordance with them ‘to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity’. Further, this framework set the terms of a policy that was not revised when the enemy ceased to be al-Qaida or the Taliban and became Iraq, whose citizens obviously qualify for the protections of Geneva. (It has become clear, Simpson notes, that few if any of the Abu Ghraib detainees were other than completely innocent, let alone in possession of critical information, never mind the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario that the Israelis consider a justification for torture).

The New York City Bar Association is explicit in using the word ‘torture’ for US policy. The more ingratiating Red Cross, says Simpson, consistently favours the term ‘ill-treatment’:

Detainee 28, who died in custody, received his fatal injury from being ‘butt-stroked’, a weirdly punning and oxymoronic coinage that (one infers) indicates being hit on the head with a rifle butt to ‘suppress the threat he posed’.

When I had the impertinence to (as he described it) “goad” Douglas Murray with Mark Danner’s 6 Jan comment in the New York Times We are all torturers now, Murray responded “The 'bad apples' defence stills stands”.

This argument has long since been abandoned by rational people regardless of political prejudice, including Andrew Sullivan (see his 13 January comment Atrocities in plain sight or a17 Feb post on his blog titled crucifixion, linking to this.

Those who advance the ‘bad apples’ argument should know better and, if they have not already done so, retract. Not to do so is to provide material assistance to the enemy.

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