The torture debate goes on

The torture debate goes on. (Here) is an MSNBC article regarding how the Senate voted, 90-9, to include an amendment prohibiting ANY torture to a Defense spending bill.

In the media the debate goes on. (Here) in the Weekly Standard is a fairly succinct defense of torture, at least in the rarest of circumstances, by Charles Krauthammer. (Here) in the Slate Webzine is a rebuttal of Charles Krauthammer's argument by Michael Kinsley.

Both these articles pretty well cover both sides of the debate. The "great moral dilemma" that they both so eloquently discuss only covers the inner turmoil of many Americans as they attempt to decide which side of the debate they side with. Thus far, as I earlier stated, 61% of Americans state that torture, at least in rare circumstances, is justified.

However this American viewpoint is not represented in the Senate vote. Perhaps it would be wrong to condemn the Senate for attempting to lead. However I can remember how a Senate vote authorized our President to take whatever means he felt necessary in Iraq, and this vote ended up leading us into war in Iraq. It is interesting that the level of support for THAT vote, again AGAINST American public opinion, could have also been noted to be an attempt by the Senate to "lead" the American people where they did not want to go. Just which leadership was wiser, Senate leadership or American public opinion?

Let me remind the Senate that while they vote 90-9 that torture should never be allowed, American public opinion runs 61% in favor of it being OK sometimes. I'd be interested in running an American public opinion poll on just under what circumstances torture should be allowed for members of the Senate. Grin.

I understand the man leading the charge, Senator McCain, suffered under torture himself back during the Vietnam War. However I would wish to point out to Senator McCain that he was not tortured because America was torturing Viet Cong or North Vietnamese prisoners. He was tortured even though the Geneva Convention prohibited it and in every way he was a "lawful combatant". Let me also point out that the only thing that prevented Allied prisoners taken by Germany during WWII from being summarily executed (or at least Germany threatened to do this) is that we threatened to do the same to German POWs and the Geneva Conventions be damned. Perhaps the only thing that kept them out of the death camps was this threat?

America is faced with a ruthless enemy. While our enemies might attempt to make hay out of any mistreatment of them, our treating them with kid gloves is not going to lead to better treatment of us once we are captured by them. They take great glee in capturing and possibly executing even the most pure of "us" such as the team of four Christian peacemakers now held captive. They have already beheaded numerous others. They kill civilians that most of us would call innocent as proven by 9-11, the train bombing in Spain, the subway bombings in London and the bombings in Bali.

If our enemy agreed to fight according the Geneva Convention then by all means so should we. However how did we fight WWII? Have you never heard of the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, let alone the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How many innocents died or suffered from these attacks? Did we "want" to do it or were we forced to do it?

Will we continue to fight this war with one hand tied behind our back? Will you, Senator McCain insist we tie BOTH hands behind our back while we allow our enemy to deliver body blows to us while our enemy's hands are unencumbered?

Will we provide (as required by the Geneva Conventions) "laboratory instruments" to prisoners we take while they continue to behead the prisoners they take?

The way they treat us is all the justification I need to treat them other then how I would like to be treated. I already know what I am in for if I am ever captured by them. I feel no sorrow for how inhumanely we might treat some of theirs. Some of them might be wrongfully treated because they are innocent. How are OUR innocents treated?

They set the standard. I regret they set the standard so low. Surely we can avoid stooping as low as our enemy. However I do not support Senator McCain setting our standards so high that I get a nose bleed from the altitude without my enemy even being required to land a punch to my nose.


Blogger Michael said...

I perhaps do not quite understand your point of view.

Personally, I think the position a civlised Western democracy should take is quite clear, and it should be done so without ambivalence. Torture should not ever be an acceptable practice in the gathering of evidence except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. As previously stated by myself, where the extraction of information is time critical.

However, for "routine" intelligence gathering, whether it is an covert operation or not, it should never be acceptable.

Britain (at least via laws passed by the Law lords) have outlawed the usage of torture, insofar that evidence tainted by torture cannot be admitted into court (even if the torture was not commited by British personnel).

I do not see what benefit there is to the US for it to routinely torture certain suspects for the extraction of information. It is certainly outside the bounds of international law and outside what is considered to be acceptable behaviour for a civil democracy. It seems obvious to me that the US does in fact engage in tortore, or at least condones it for its purposes in routine settings. Otherwise, there would be no ambivalence (article 1 and article 2) about it.

The Geneva Conventions should never be thought of as "too high a bar". Indeed, it is the absolute minimum we should do to conform with ethical behaviour. That our enemies behave in horrific or in a repugnant manner should make no difference to our behaviour. If we are fighting for our "way of life" or for "idealism" (and the current Bush administration portray themselves as particularly "ideolistic"), to betray those very values we hold dear as the basis of our society is grave hypocrisy.

Moral egocentricism is an ever present risk. It is easy to fall into the trap of justifying our own abuses as "well intentioned mistakes", even though when the same actions carried out by "other hands" would be considered "crimes against humanity" or "terrorism".

A case in point is Iraq. Have the "abuses" in Abu Graib, or the detention of "illegal combatants" in Guantanamo Bay served as "deterrents" against the "enemy". I would argue not. Abu Graib has polarised Iraqi (both Sunni and Shi'ite) and Middle Eastern opinion against the US and the West. American presence in Iraq is seen by the majority of people in the various countries of the Middle East as harmful to the cause of bring democracy to the region rather than helpful (according to a recent poll to which I don't have the URL to)! The destabilisation of the region has made Iraq swarming with Islamic extremists that weren't there before. And yet, there is still an unswerving belief by the West that the Iraqi invasion was "good" for the Iraqis.

You mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima, which is another example of moral egocentricism by the West. How many people consider the Hiroshima bombing for exactly what it is? That is, a war crime. Oh, I don't doubt that there was a good reason for the bombing, but most perpetrators of such acts do. Somehow, if Imperial Japan dropped atomic weapons on Los Angeles and Boston to "end the war and saves potentially thousands of lives" we would not view that act with such benign tolerance.

Anyway, thanks for a great post.

Michael Tam
vitualis' Medical Rants

12/15/2005 02:22:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The "poll" I mentioned above: here.

Michael Tam

12/15/2005 03:36:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...


The reason I do not support what Senator McCain is up to is because he would make it illegal to ever, under ANY circumstances, use torture. I did not get to see it myself, but he appeared on Meet the Press (a Sunday TV talk show) where the "extreme" scenario of a nuclear device being set to go off was presented to him and I understand that his reply was something along the line of: Yes, it would be illegal to use torture in this case, but I would expect the law would not be observed. (Or something like that.)

This hypocrite is deliberately passing a law that he is then expecting the man in the streets to break. Doesn't he realize that there will always be another man in the streets who will then be set to draw his weapon and state "The law is the law" and prevent the law from being broken?

Even you agree that sometimes torture is justified. We might disagree on just where to draw the line, but I doubt we would truly be that far apart.

I do not think it is right for politicians to pass the buck by refusing to debate where the line should be drawn. They set some lofty, head in the clouds, goal and then expect "we the people" to decide for ourselves just when to break the law. According to the way the game is played, "we the people" could even do the right thing, save a million lives, and still end up being prosecuted for breaking the law.

The politicians are ducking their responsibility. They should debate just where the line should be drawn. If they want to pass a law that says torture is never justified I stand against it.

I also think it is rather absurd to be willing to kill or maim the crew of a dozen military aircraft intent on destroying New York City, but when we are dealing with a terrorist we have to put on the velvet gloves. At least the air crew of the bombers are "playing fair" while the terrorist seeks to exploit every weakness in our society to achieve his aims.

12/15/2005 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...

I was so wrapped up into one point I forgot to cover some of your other points.

As for Hiroshima being a war crime, I think I might write a separate article on that one. I do not think it was a war crime.

As for Abu Ghraib, I think that is almost (but not quite) universally condemned. I join you in condemning it.

Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay)? That is a little more complicated. An almost reasonable defense of Gitmo could be made. Here in America Rush Limbaugh even sells "Club Gitmo" T-shirts and baseball caps. However I think those in favor of Gitmo try to draw too fine a line. I think those captured in Afghanistan should enjoy the status of POWs. Just because the Taleban could not afford to issue them fancy uniforms and they were fighting in the rags they came with does not make them "illegal combatants".

As for the Geneva Convention, I am not an expert on the Geneva Convention. However my understanding is that during WWII, if someone was caught behind enemy lines without being clearly identified as a "legal combatant" they were subject to immediate execution, that is all the rights they had under the Geneva Convention.

As for the British Court's decision on evidence I am wondering just how far they are willing to take it. I think I support the decision if for no other reason someone being tortured is apt to sing out with whatever they think the torturers want to hear just to get the torture to end. However how far does this decision reach? Let us say Britian is informed by a foreign intelligence agency of who was behind the subway bombings and that another series of bombings is planned. The British police conduct a raid, arrest the suspects and find tons of evidence. Only there is a kink. Turns out the foreign intelligence agency obtained their information through torture. Now the raid was legally conducted, but the information of where to raid was tainted. Is all the evidence now tainted? Are the British going to paint themselves into a corner where they will be forced to release "the guilty bastards"? Heck these guys might even make a mint as they make the talk show circuit and we celebrate them as being shining examples of just how benevolent our society is. Just how ridiculous do the British want to be with this?

12/15/2005 10:23:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

There is no such thing as a "legal combatant" under the Geneva Conventions and as such, there is no such thing as an "illegal combatant" either.

Arguably, some of the people picked up and subsequently detained in Gitmo do not fit the definition of a "prisoner of war", and yes, that does mean that the Geneva Convention need not necessarily apply. However, just because they don't fit into any previously defined category doesn't mean that the US can do whatever they like (e.g., torture, held indefinitely without charge, trialled by a secret military tribunal, etc.) One has to be reminded that the very reason this group of people exist is because the US invaded Afghanistan (and Iraq) and started arresting/detaining people outside of battle and "rendering" them to other countries as part of their "war on terror". As such, they should be given the same rights as a criminal under US jurisdiction or minimally their rights under the Geneva Conventions as a "prisoner of war".

Britain (US ally #1), for example, have not accepted US juridiction over their citizens in this context which is why they have successfully lobbied the US to release them back to the UK (in accordance to international law though this is somewhat less emphasised).

As for Hiroshima not being a war crime, there is only one reason why it fails the definition. That is because in WW2, a war crime was by definition something that could only be performed by the "enemy".

Hiroshima was the use of a known "poisonous weapon" (the effects of radiation were known) on a primarily civilian target (> 95% of casualities were civilians) on a grand scale. That is by definition a war crime now.

Regardless of circumstance now, if any country used an atomic weapon in a populated urban against another, it would be considered a war crime.

Michael Tam

12/15/2005 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger Little David said...

While the Geneva Convention might not actually use the term "illegal combatant" it does define what it takes to be a "combatant". I will also note that Protocol I Article 47 states specifically: "A mercenary shall not have the right to be a combatant or a prisoner of war." So if a mercenary attempted to engage in combat anyway wouldn't the term "illegal combatant" be an accurate term?

I'm not trying to say those held in Gitmo are mercenaries, I am only using mercenaries as an example of an "illegal combatant". If someone attempts to engage in combat without fitting the description of a "combatant" then they are "illegal".

However I do think those held at Gitmo do fit the definition of "combatant" and therefor think they should enjoy status as Prisoners Of War. I think I stated this previously.

As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I am sure there is some of "the victor writes the history" effect in there. However the bombing of German cities with conventional forces was justified by "they did it first". If Japan had developed the atomic bomb first, do you think they would have refrained from using it? My understanding of it is that the entire civilian population of Japan was being mobilized to resist the coming US invasion. Is it not possible that using the atomic bomb actually led to less death and suffering of the civilian population as a whole in the long run?

Anyone who thinks (thought) that had the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack against New York, Los Angeles, Chicago etc we would not have retaliated by striking back against Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, etc is... what?

The present day moral dilemna, an even greater one, is what happens if a terrorist is successful in sneaking in and detonating a nuclear device in New York City? Should we just then wave the flag of surrender? Should we do nothing and wait for the same thing to later happen in Chicago, Houston or Los Angeles? Or should we prove there is a price to be paid for such action and retaliate?

I am fairly certain I am going to be screaming for retaliation. It might have been easier to do target selection back during the cold war. But just because target selection is difficult does not mean we should not come up with some targets.

Call me a monster for harboring such thoughts if you want, but I think our enemies are themselves monstrous.

12/16/2005 01:41:00 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Someone who is "not a combatant" does not make them an "illegal combatant". For example, a civilian is "not a combatant" either.

As I stated before, some people at Gitmo arguably do not fit the definition of a POW but this must be taken into the context of the unusual scenario of how these people were captured in the first place. I once again illiterate that there is no such thing as an "illegal combatant".

Michael Tam

12/16/2005 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger Little David said...

OK, then what do we call those that engage in combat in a way that the Geneva Convention prohibits? For example, to be a "combatant" you must carry your arms openly so as not to be confused with the civilian population. What if you engage in hiding your weapons until you get close enough to your enemy to kill them with a high degree of certainty. You are engaging in combat, however you are engaging in combat in a prohibited way. Would it be wrong to call these people "illegal combatants"? We are going to call them something and I do not see a problem with slapping the "illegal combatant" label on them.

12/17/2005 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Then the French resistance in WW2 were all illegal combatants... And so were all the European volunteers who fought for Israel in the Israel-Arab war.

Michael Tam

12/17/2005 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...

Not as defined by the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the civilian population. The Geneva Convention, in order to keep "combatants" from starting to fire on civilians to protect themselves, insists that those that take up arms must do so, both before and during actual combat, openly.

They are even allowed to put away their arms and meld back into the populace in order to protect the populace.

What they are not allowed to do is to take up arms and do so surreptitiously. This is what the Geneva Convention says. I think this is called perfidy in the Geneva Convention. Do not try to hide in your argument behind the Geneva Convention when it supports your position and then refuse to acknowledge just what exactly the Geneva Convention does and does not allow.

Truth is our enemy does not "play fair". If you want to be a "combatant" while you engage in combat you are not allowed to hide amongst the civilians who are not engaged in combat because then you invite undesired action against the civilians.

If you try to do this you are an "illegal combatant" because we have to call you something.

12/17/2005 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Little David said...

Ooops, I guess I should have said that undoubtedly some of the French Resistance probably would today be considered as "illegal combatants". I just wonder if they would have complained too loudly for being treated as such. I am pretty certain that the Nazis did not treat them as heroes when they were discovered.

As for the "European volunteers" in Israel, as long as they were not mercenaries, and as long as they carried their arms openly, they were legal. (I think.)

I would love for a Geneva Convention "expert" to join this conversation!

12/17/2005 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

The "mujahadeen" in Afghanistan openly bore arms in defence of the government of Afghanistan against the US invasion. A hell of a lot of these admittedly nasty (or delusioned) people became "illegal combatants". They sound like POWs to me even if they weren't citizens of Afghanistan and weren't in uniform.

Similarly, a few well publisied cases involved a foreign worker/traveller/backpacker who was simply caught up in the US invasion in Afghanistan who got "picked up" by the US army. Yes, these people were not bearing arms. They also weren't supporting the other side either. "Illegal combatant"? I think not.

Quite simply, you are either:
(1) a civilian
(2) a prisoner of war
(3) foreign national involved in attempted murder of a US soldier
(4) foreign national involved in criminal conspiracy to do something nasty and illegal against US personnel or interests

No need for "illegal combatant".

Michael Tam

12/21/2005 08:10:00 AM  

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