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Torture and Mitigation

[ 0 ] December 27, 2008 |

A while ago, Ross Douthat wrote a meandering, self-indulgent post about his feelings on torture, suggesting that while he felt torture was bad, he could also understand why the Bush administration had ordered it, mainly because Douthat himself was kind of scared after 9/11. Glenn Greenwald wrote a fabulous post pointing out that every regime that tortures thinks that it has good reasons for torturing; the point is the crime, not the motivation. Dan Drezner and Josh Cohen talked a bit about torture on Bloggingheads, which led Glenn to write a distinctly less interesting post questioning whether the two were torture “mitigators”. Glenn said yes, Dan said no, Josh said “what?“, Glenn suggested that Dan (and I paraphrase) was a douche, and Dan suggested that Glenn (and I do not paraphrase) tortures puppies. I don’t see it (the mitigation), but mileage may vary.

In the course of this, Glenn wrote:

More simplistic still is the very idea that the motives of Bush officials — including Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld — can be reduced to one clear and pure desire: To Protect Us. Even one’s own motives, let alone those of others, are notoriously difficult to ascertain. The certainty claimed by those who are defending Bush officials about what their motives were in torturing is absurd. There are all sorts of reasons to believe that they were motivated, at least in part, by the power that comes from torture, or a desire for vengeance, or the belief that the detainees in our custody were sub-human, or just general indifference to law and morality. How have those ignoble motives been ruled out by their defenders and noble motives so emphatically embraced? Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It’s one of those few absolute taboos, and it’s almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place….
A “root cause” theory that is deemed unspeakably evil in American discourse when applied to non-Americans is immediately embraced by our elites when we need a way to explain the fact that our own leaders committed unambiguous war crimes.

I have mixed feelings on this. On the question of war crime guilt, I would agree with Glenn, although of course the issue of motivation touches on several aspects of any criminal proceeding. But it also seems that Glenn is suggesting that there’s no utility in investigating the motivations behind torture; this may not have been his intent, but it’s how I read the argument. I suspect that there’s a disjuncture brought about by the difference between the academic and polemical worldview. From the polemicist point of view, it’s quite sensible to invoke the unfair manner in which the “root causes” concept is deployed, and consequently to deny its utility altogether. As an academic, I’m thinking that if an inquiry into the root causes of terrorism or torture is useful for non-Americans, then it’s probably useful for Americans, too. But allowing that, of course, reduces the polemical value of the assertion of criminality; this is true whether the assertion is being made about Americans or Cubans or Saudis or Zimbabweans. I should also note that it’s not my intention to assess any value to either the polemical or academic project, although obviously I have sympathy with the latter.

Regarding those root causes, I can think of a number of ways in which investigating the source of American torture could bear fruit. For one, I have to wonder why “torture porn” seems to provide such a box office draw, and what the relationship is between such porn (and I think that the CSI franchise would be an example of soft core torture porn) and the acceptance of torture in the Bush administration. I’m interested in how the torture narrative developed within the Bush administration, because I’m extremely skeptical that enhanced interrogation methods (so to speak) are actually the result of a serious concern with the safety of Americans. This is to say that I don’t really believe that the people who authorized such methods were primarily motivated by a “pure and clean desire to protect us” (not that it would matter in a criminal sense, anyway). Rather, I very much suspect that an understanding of “toughness” peculiar to the American Right, and in particular a desire to appear tougher than domestic liberals and foreign enemies, drove much of the consideration of the utility of torture. Joel Surnow, after all, put Jack Bauer on the torture train before the Bush administration opened Gitmo.

In some sense, it’s easier to account for torture in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, or Zimbabwe, because the regime in each case understands that torture is useful for destroying opposition political movements, but not so much for gathering intelligence. There’s at least, that is to say, a plausible connection between ends and means. In the American case not so much, and that’s a puzzle. [in comments, Martin rightly calls me out on this; the use of torture in Afghanistan and Iraq is fairly straightforward torture for repression, and has a history in US foreign policy. What’s puzzling is the narrative that connects torture with intelligence; this is where the means-end relationship breaks down.] It’s a puzzle worth investigating, however; understanding the motivations of torturers is critical to understanding why torture happened here, and I daresay important to making sure it doesn’t happen again. As such, the stories that torturers tell themselves are valuable, even (and perhaps especially) if those accounts are self-serving.

This Really Must be Stopped…

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Think of the children:

With powerful and dynamic lyrics, each stanza of “Locked and Loaded” is meant to exhibit the complete synergy of each imperative component of the fight. For instance, lyrics for the combat control Airmen who are calling in the drop says:

“Walk in the shade of the clouds at night,”

“Crawling in the dirt, calling an A-10 strike,”

“Dancing in the shadows, lives are on the line,”

“Bombs are gonna fall, just in time.”

…In an interview with the music Composer TSgt Matthew Geist, also the band guitarist said, “..[O]n the tour… they were most impressed that it was an original song by our band.”

The lead singer for “Locked and Loaded” MSgt Ryan Carson, whose favorite phrase at the beginning of each concert is, “We’re going to rock your face off!” started out as an Opera Major at the University of Wyoming when the Air Force picked him up. Carson wanted to help the Airmen focus on why you do what you do for the Air Force.

I’ll be presenting an expanded and gussied up version of my Abolish the Air Force argument at this year’s ISA; Locked and Loaded, I think, will form the core of my case.

Little Blue Pills…

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Creative COIN:

U.S intelligence officials use “novel incentives,” but this is not limited to Viagra. Sometimes, “notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains” can be won over with tools, school equipment, and surgical assistance. But it appears the “pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos” can be effective with older tribal officials.

Why not just hand out cash? It doesn’t work as well — Afghan leaders with U.S. dollars are recognized for having cooperated with the unpopular Americans. And with Taliban commanders, drug dealers, and even Iranian agents offering enticements, too, U.S. officials have had to get creative.

The key, one American said, is to “find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.” Viagra obviously fits the bill.

It’s all about the patriarchy, I guess. Via NB.

…I was also wondering about this.

Someone has to pay attention to this crap

[ 0 ] December 26, 2008 |

Voting in The Soggy Biscuit sweepstakes — dedicated to anointing the “biggest circle-jerk of the year” — is now open.

I’ll admit to having something of a soft spot for the African Press International scam. The fact that these folks are still at it — and are now requiring that anyone who wants to read their Michelle Obama coverage ask for a password from the editor — is worthy of admiration and underscores the resiliency of their devoted American readers. That said, the API thing was really just an opportunistic subset of the “Whitey Tape” fiasco, which strangely enough didn’t make the list. If it had, this year’s contest would be a no-brainer.

I’d also be tempted to vote for the “Fake Obama Birth Certificate” story, which EvenTheDerangedWingnut Bob Owens dismissed. It’s a sensible choice, and I suspect it will eventually carry the title Let’s be honest, though. Any circle jerk that doesn’t include Confederate Yankee isn’t really worthy of the name. For that reason alone, my vote will go to “Bill Ayers Ghost Wrote Obama’s Book,” a rumor that Owens entertained and for which a couple of idiot Republicans were willing to waste $10,000.

Harold Pinter

[ 0 ] December 25, 2008 |


Since I need to go open presents and such, allow me to delegate to Roy’s old appraisal. Make sure to stick around for the decimation of the inevitable Aesthetic Stalinism that followed his Nobel Prize (“Why don’t Kimball and Steyn go make a Thatcher Prize medal out of paperclips and a yogurt lid and give it to Tom Clancy?”).

Cats and Dogs, Living Together…

[ 0 ] December 25, 2008 |

Frankly, I blame the Democrats.

Also, given that I’m thus far 2-5, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to blame my Bowl Mania failure on the fact that I misunderstood the instructions.


[ 0 ] December 25, 2008 |

A happy one to all of our loyal (or intermittent) readership.

Gosh Darn It, People Like Him

[ 1 ] December 25, 2008 |

Bye-Bye Norm. That is, unless the Supremes discover another mysterious “no, the Republican has to win” clause in the 14th Amendment…

A piece of the true cross

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

I’ve been away from the intertubes for most of the last few days, so perhaps I’m the last person to hear about this inspiring business success story.

Although his assertion has been impossible to verify — cobblers from Lebanon, China and Iraq have also staked claims to what is quickly becoming some of the most famous footwear in the world — orders for Mr. Baydan’s shoes, formerly known as Ducati Model 271 and since renamed “The Bush Shoe,” have poured in from around the world.

A new run of 15,000 pairs, destined for Iraq, went into production on Thursday, he said. A British distributor has asked to become the Baydan Shoe Company’s European sales representative, with a first order of 95,000 pairs, and an American company has placed an order for 18,000 pairs. Four distributors are competing to represent the company in Iraq, where Baydan sold 19,000 pairs of this model for about $40 each last year.

Five thousand posters advertising the shoes, on their way to the Middle East and Turkey, proclaim “Goodbye Bush, Welcome Democracy” in Turkish, English and Arabic.

Turns out the original shoes were destroyed during forensic testing, so no one can be quite sure of the exact brand. On the other hand, it quite possibly took longer to determine that al-Zaidi’s shoes were not explosive than it took to realize that Iraq’s fabled WMD did not exist.

I should also point out one error in the Times story, wherein the writer insists that “both shoes rocketed squarely at Mr. Bush’s head and missed only because of deft ducks by the president.” This is only half true. I’ll grant that Bush’s initial dodge was objectively impressive, but he was quite clearly unprepared for the second shoe.

A billion here, a billion there . . .

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

A back of the envelope calculation indicates the New York Yankees are now committed to approximately $875 million in guaranteed salaries over the next several years. To wit (all numbers in millions):

ARod: $250

St. Derek: $37

Rivera: $30

Posada: $40

Damon: $13

Matsui: $13

Cano: $22

Sabathia: $161

Burnett: $82

Tex: $180

The way things are going we’ll all be bailing them out too in a couple of years.

Whoops, forgot Wang. Throw another five million on that pile — now there’s a real bargain!

The "Invoking A Meritocracy That Never Existed" Gambit

[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

Quebec premier Jean Charest has, for the second time, selected a cabinet with equal numbers of men and women, perhaps establishing this as a norm for future premiers. Lysaine Gagnon is displeased:

This development is being touted as a progressive move by Mr. Charest. It certainly added a touch of gloss to what would have been a rather lacklustre event, since most senior cabinet ministers were simply given their former posts. But it’s sending our governments down a very bad path, because it means that some of these appointments will be made regardless of merit and qualifications.

Oooh, fetch me the smelling salts. Are you telling me that a cabinet appointment in Canadian government may be based on any factor other than “merit or qualifications”? What an unprecedented development! When I read this I was planning a string of snark about what an amazing coincidence it was that every Liberal who managed to get elected in the prairies turn out to be remarkably qualified for the federal cabinet, etc. etc., but the striking thing about her argument is that Gagnon completely recognizes this: “There are many factors apart from merit that must be taken into account when a premier creates his cabinet – geography, political considerations and so on.”

At this point, then, one is compelled to ask why exactly the train of political considerations should stop with the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups. This is a classic Charles Murray move: justify the exclusion of African-Americans by citing a non-existent American tradition of judging people on their individual merits. Somehow, the door always stops in front of discriminated against groups (legacy admissions are OK, but suddenly when more people of color start attending universities standardized tests are absolutely sacrosanct.) One can quibble with Charest’s precise mathematical equity, I suppose, but in general it seems likely that appointing more women is as likely to improve the quality of people serving in the cabinet as anything, and certainly redressing the gross gender inequality in political institutions is certainly a more compelling consideration than, say, rewarding the premier’s cronies. Which brings us to the last point: what exactly are the “qualifications” to be a lower-level cabinet minister anyway? Cabinet appointments are always in substantial measure political, and this is not only inevitable but not particularly undesirable.


[ 0 ] December 23, 2008 |

Does this mean that Obama will try to have John Roberts arrested?