Sloppy Thinking About ‘Torture’

by Bruce S. Thornton // FrontPage Magazine 

photo via FrontPage Magazine
photo via FrontPage Magazine

Torture is one of those topics that often overwhelm sober reason with lurid emotion. Even people who usually are clear-eyed and rational sink into sloppy thinking and incoherent argument when it comes to torture. Peggy Noonan’s recentWall Street Journal column about the Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

Noonan is usually an astute analyst, but her column on the report is riddled with received wisdom and unexamined assumptions. For Noonan, the “important lesson” of the report is not that progressives, as usual, are shameful hypocrites and partisan hacks who will damage their country’s interests for ideological or political advantage. It is not that when fighting a brutal enemy who obeys no laws of war, things are done we’d rather not do in order to save lives. No, her “lesson” is that the enhanced interrogation techniques, “torture” in her view, are “not like us” or “part of the American DNA,” and that, quoting John McCain, such techniques damage “our reputation as a force for good in the world.” These assertions, however, are based on simplistic psychology and flawed reasoning.

First, with very few isolated exceptions, none of the interrogation techniques meets the U.S. Code’s legal definition of torture, which requires the intent to cause severe suffering “other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions,” in the words of the statute. Noonan may think the EITs are “what I believe must honestly be called torture.” But what Noonan, or I, or anyone else “believes” does not trump what the law actually says, and it is the law (Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340) that our officials must follow, not subjective perception or even international laws that conflict with our own. As I said before, if people disagree with the law, then there is a political process for changing it.

The begged question that the EITs are torture undermines by itself the rest of Noonan’s argument. But it suffers from other problems as well. She also makes the fuzzy but simplistic statement that it “won’t help us fight it [war against jihadism] to become less like ourselves and more like those we oppose.” This is a version of the progressives’ mantra since 9/11 that the “terrorists win” if we do certain things that the critics believe are immoral or contrary to our “values”––as if our crisis of national identity is more important than destroying the enemy, the only way we “win.”

Noonan’s argument, however, falls to pieces on analysis. First, it ignores critical distinctions, such as intent: the reason why we do what we do, and the moral superiority of our reasons compared to those of the enemy. Again, with a few exceptions, the intent of the interrogators was not to inflict pain just to indulge their sadism, but to extract information to save American lives, which they did. Second, there are critical differences between the techniques used by the CIA––which were vetted by the Department of Justice, usually overseen by physicians, and subject to precise rules governing their application––and the horrific torture going on in countries like Iran. It is childish to fail to recognize that being slammed against a wall or deprived of sleep or confined in a coffin is nothing even close to the genuine torture going on all over the world. I haven’t heard any of the journalists who volunteered to be waterboarded asking to have their fingernails wrenched out with pliers, or electrodes attached to their genitals.

Third, ignoring the different purposes of what a country does in war leads to the facile moral equivalence of the naïve pacifist or the anti-American critic. During World War II the Allies’ strategic bombing campaigns destroyed almost all of Germany’s major cities and killed up to half a million people. Some historians today call the strategic bombing campaigns war crimes. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which probably saved a million American and Japanese lives that would have been lost with an invasion of Japan, remain popular bywords for American brutality.

But the noble purpose of all that destruction was to hasten the defeat of two of history’s most brutal regimes, whose triumph would have created a world deprived of freedom and human rights, a world of oppression and misery. Achieving that purpose required the “awful arithmetic,” as Lincoln called it, the tragic but necessary calculus that some must die now so that more don’t die later. Noonan needs to explain why incinerating and blowing up hundreds of thousands of people––including women, children, and the old––during the “good war” is “like ourselves,” while the CIA’s interrogation program––in which a grand total of two terrorists died––isn’t.

Finally, there is the obsession with our country’s “reputation,” and the implication that we should concern ourselves with “the world’s regard.” Just which country in the world has the moral authority and clean enough hands to sit in judgment on what our country does? Russia? Iran? China? The British, who in India strapped rebellious sepoys to cannon and blew them to pieces? The French, who killed a million and a half people during the Algerian War, and used torture to dismantle the National Liberation Front’s terrorist cells? And does Noonan really care what the thug regimes sitting on the U.N. Human Rights Council think? Or even our so-called allies in Europe, who carp and criticize our behavior even as they enjoy the free security ride we provide because we are willing to spend the money and do the dirty work they get to avoid?

As for the brutal men who run most of the world, our concern for their opinion is a sign not of strength, but of weakness. It is a marker of our cultural failure of nerve, and our doubt about the rightness of our motives and purposes, the reasons why we have to do what we’d rather not do. But the fact is, our rivals and enemies don’t hate us or oppose us because of what we do. That canard is psychologically reductive, as if other nations and peoples don’t have their own interests and beliefs and aims that they actively pursue, but just passively sit around until we provoke them to react to our bad behavior.

Of course, our enemies will use our actions as the camouflaging pretext for their own behavior, since they understand that too many Americans are predisposed to believe the worst of their own country and thus will counsel retreat and appeasement, or even damage their own country’s interests and security, as the release of the Senate report has done. Bin Laden was the master of such propaganda, employing a whole specious catalogue of American offenses against Islam as the pretext for terrorist attacks based on his religious beliefs about the divine right of Muslims to dominate the world. But in reality, as the world’s greatest military, economic, and cultural power, we will be envied, resented, and hated no matter what we do or how much we anxiously seek the rest of the world’s high “regard.” Rescuing millions of Muslims from violent oppression in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan has not cut any ice with the scores of jihadist gangs actively trying to kill us.

Contrary to Noonan and McCain, and despite the dishonest rhetoric from our resentful allies, rivals, and enemies, the Senate report does not diminish America as a “force for good in the world,” a beacon of freedom, tolerance, and opportunity. That is why the U.S. is the emigrant’s favorite destination, why the U.S. is the go-to power for those countries in need when stricken by natural disasters or violent aggressors, and why the basic attitude of most of the world’s peoples is “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” The United States is in fact the “city on the hill,” the only world power in history that has used its power more for good than for ill. To think that reports of interrogation techniques used to save lives challenge the reality of American exceptionalism bespeaks a lack of confidence and faith not in our perfection, but in the fundamental goodness of America and its aims despite our occasional imperfections.

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12 thoughts on “Sloppy Thinking About ‘Torture’”

  1. A hearty, “Amen.” The whole American Guilt Trip started in the 60’s and plays out still, today. Obama is mining a rich vein of godlessness that depends on the guilt of the masses who haven’t met their savior, or have forgotten his name. The more liberal the person the greater the guilt and the more they want government to step in and become God.

  2. All of America’s enemies and many of your allies will wonder what the fuss is, because for them torture is a routine measure. Many will assume that torture was common in America and that you were just being hypocritical about doing it. Mark Steyn commented on the abu Ghraib affair that it wasn’t any torture that upset Iraqis (if indeed there was torture); the inmates took it for granted that they would be tortured (if they were). Rather, it was the sexual perversity of a woman forcing them into lascivious postures and perhaps deviant sexual exercises, and photographing same.

    Anyway, I view the Senate report as a tempest in a teapot as far as its contents go. The fadt that it was released indicates a severe conflict within America’s ruling elite and it is THAT which may do damage.

  3. Could we please just retire “American exceptionalism” like forever? It’s vague and invariably suggests that Americans are superior moral beings.

    We were lucky a long time ago to start a great experiment in self government and it was ambitious and original in its scope and structure. However, that scheme has long since been upended as the federal government has grown to be the untethered behemoth that it is today. Supreme Court “jurisprudence” is a joke and its distinguishing feature is that it does all that it is humanly possible to do to enhance federal power and diminish personal freedom. First American Republic RIP.

    Nor do the majority of Americans concern themselves with this transformation of government. Huge majorities are wedded to the “entitlements” and payoffs that flow from government, and good governance to them is all about getting more benefits, not in limiting government excess or supporting the rule of law.

    Every area of public life is awash with lies and fiscal and economic madness. Would that we could lay claim to anything exceptional . . . but we can’t. Pedestrian America comes closest to what he have now.

    1. Only a fool would think such things. The reason anyone would not think America exceptional is because someone told them so. The choice is ours to make, much like the French after WWI when they taught that the Germans we no different from the French, except the French were fighting for freedom and the Germans were fighting for Tyranny. The French have never recovered. America is exceptional; in our charity, our strength and the magnificent people that develop as the result of rugged individualism. For an example watch the movie, A Game of Honor, about the football team members at the Navy/Army academies. Listen to the interviews of the players and what they say makes for a life well lived – meeting challenges every day, overcoming those challenges, not shirking responsibility but rather shouldering the burden and soldiering on. Victims none! Magnificent human beings made so by the grace of God in a country where individuals stand on their own, free to succeed or fail based on their merit, not the largess of what the government offers them. A magnificent life made available to every citizen of this country except those that take the bait that their fate is the result of actions by someone other than themselves.

      1. Right on target! Need to make sure the right to life, liberty and the pursue of happiness is not hindered by government, that way, we individual Americans can continue to go after our dreams.

    2. Much of what you have said is sadly true. This country is not even the same country it was 25 years ago, much less since the time when it was founded.

  4. As Always, Monsieur Thornton go beyond the left scream and propaganda and present a clear picture of the subject.

    Et qui plus est, it´s well written….

  5. You are correct about Peggy Noonan, BUT I make exception. She lost absolutely all credibility with me when she endorsed and became “star struck” with Obama’s smile, the idea of a first black president, and probably Michelle’s “arms”, with no evaluation of his qualification. She became just another “shill” for the Democratic party. She is no longer astute, and in future writings, is trying to “save her soul”.

  6. Thank you for citing the law -‘requires the intent to cause severe suffering “other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions,”’

    I think it is obvious that the activities described as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques are intended to cause suffering beyond lawful sanctions. I don’t believe these techniques are what anyone would call within legal sanction. What in the hell is legal or sanctioned about water boarding? Do you expect anyone to believe that the military and civilian agents who supervised these session of EIT were not intending to cause severe suffering beyond lawful sanctions.

    Beyond your inhumane blindness to obvious torture, what disappoints me is you don’t recognize that information extracted from these EIT sessions is highly suspect and generally useless. I don’t expect you to detail incidents where information extracted by such sessions were proven useful not only because that information if it exists (which I don’t believe it does) would be classified.

    I was also not moved by you description of the purpose of American participation in WWII as noble. It was a brutal and industrial exercise of national power in the best cause, but still as brutal as modern conventional war can be and I can’t see what is noble about it – necessary but not noble. America was driven to war after having war declared upon it. It was not an exercise of national character.

  7. Any arguments about ‘legalities’ regarding the need to stop the horrors imposed on humanity by the mindless destruction of life, health, freedom, and dignity wrought by the new Naziis of radical Islam is an exercise in a pointless and valueless morality having no utility other than that of a propaganda weapon used by the horror mongers themselves. Anyone wanting to plant an explosive next to a baby carriage deserves rapid extermination, not the polite legalities of a moral discussion, much less any trial.

  8. Bruce Thornton’s argument itself fails analysis. First, he dismisses the idea that EITs are torture because, “none of the interrogation techniques meets the U.S. Code’s legal definition of torture.

    Mr. Thornton’s implicit argument built around US Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113C, § 2340, is that it’s not torture if the law says it’s not torture. He and everyone else here ought to know that’s a specious argument. The content of law is subjective. Torture, whatever it is, remains torture no matter any specific legalisms. Any given legal definition of torture is not necessarily a valid definition of torture.

    For example, this relevant article at PubMed distinguishes between torture and cruel and inhumane treatment as, “Any use of physical or mental force against a detainee with the purpose of humiliation constitutes degrading treatment or punishment and any infliction of severe pain or suffering for a specific purpose as expressed in Art.1 CAT amounts to torture.

    Art. 1 CAT refers to the Convention Against Torture, to which the US was a signatory. By the CAT definition given, EITs are torture. By any sensible outlook, being forced into strained positions for hours, water-boarding, 24-hour sonic bombardment, extended sleep-deprivation, and such-like are torture.

    Next, Mr. Thornton supposed that such actions are not torture, because, “with a few exceptions, the intent of the interrogators was not to inflict pain just to indulge their sadism, but to extract information to save American lives, which they did.

    I.e., his argument is that intent alone is enough to redefine as not torture, an action that inflicts severe pain or suffering and that would otherwise be considered torture.

    However, here is the entire U.S. caveat to the CAT, regarding torture: “the United States understands that, in order to constitute torture, an act must be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering and that mental pain or suffering refers to prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from (1) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering; (2) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality; (3) the threat of imminent death; or (4) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

    Nothing in the U.S. position excludes torture on the grounds of intent to obtain needed information. Mr. Thornton’s argument fails on its own merits.

    This failure is quite apart from the failure of ethics housed in the supposition that intent is enough to redefine the objective infliction of pain and suffering. As an example of this logical failure, with respect to the death penalty Mr. Thornton’s logic would redefine death as not-death, because the intent of the executioner is to penalize for a capital offense rather than to inflict death for its own sake.

    Finally, no one seems to address the point that the other reason to avoid inflicting torture is that it brutalizes those who inflict it. And it brutalizes the society that allows it. We can’t avoid the effect on ourselves. The effect is that no citizen is safe from officially sanctioned torture at the hands of a government that condones torture, and that producing brutalized individuals means their attitudes will disseminate along with their accession into the larger society. I don’t want that society and we need to have a care against producing that society. That seems to me a valid conservative position.

    Ms. Noonan’s criticisms may be fatuous, but honestly Mr. Thornton’s are hardly better. I’d like to see a non-partisan appraisal from someone. We need non-partisan appraisals if we’re ever to find our way through the thicket.

    For example, with respect to bombing Dresden or Hiroshima, where is the difficulty of acknowledging that the actions were crimes, but that not doing so would have allowed even greater crimes? War is ugly and criminal, but what’s the alternative response to military aggression? Certainly not suicide. Why not just freely admit what war is (criminal) and what it does to us (brutalizes), even while acknowledging that it was necessary?

    For myself, I see the release of the report on torture as yet one more indication of the high ethical standing of the US. So far as I know, it’s the only country with the moral and ethical courage to release such a report. Just to be clear, the report is not like an admission of guilt when all the world knows what you’ve done (Germany and the death camps). It’s a revelation of private offenses. We’re human, we make mistakes, we do some bad things, we’re open about admitting it, and we do better. Who else does that? Has Russia ever admitted the gulags, or the tortures in Lubyanka? I have a copy of the 1975 Senate Report 94-465, “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” It’s stunning reading, and I’m proud of the US for releasing that report, too. What other country is so open?

    So why not see the torture report in that light? Torture is an offense. We did it. We screwed up. We have admitted it in public. We can be proud of standing up to our mistakes in a world filled with secreted guilt and malign rule.

    A position of openness would also deflate progressive critics, in that it frees one to observe that, unlike others, they have invariably and uncritically supported the regimes that have both indulged torture on an industrial scale and have never admitted it, both. After all, to support the criminal is to collude in the crime.

  9. Thornton’s talk about “critical distinctions, such as intent” sounds like an “end justifies the means” argument to me. Cheney et. al. claim that American lives were saved, but like the how’s of a workers’ paradise, details about the attainment of that moral high ground always remain sketchy. Personally, I don’t believe them. For some reason, that Utah facility has me jaded.

    Solzhenitsyn spent quite a few pages in Gulag on sleep deprivation, and other techniques we have used, such as confinement in a box. Nothing about water boarding that I recall. Or about ripping fingernails or electrodes attached to genitals, for that matter. But the blue hats were, for the most part, only after confessions rather than so-called “actionable” information.

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