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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ticking Time Bombs and Torture

The argument that torture may be morally justified if it is the only way to find a ticking time bomb before it explodes is not relevant to the Bush administrations crimes for many reasons.

First, the standard assumption is that there is an imminent threat not that there might be one. Ticking time bomb + 1% doctrine = total depravity.

Second it is assumed that torture works quickly.

Third statements about the location of the ticking time bomb can be verified quickly. False statements are not very costly. 10 false statements and one true statement are much better than nothing. In the real world, false statements can be very costly. The falsehood of one was demonstrated by invading Iraq.

Fourth for some reason which I can't understand (I don't watch 24 so I am not expert on Bush administration reasoning about torture) it is assumed that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. I suppose, in the thought experiment, the person in custody who might be tortured acted alone. Or perhaps the terrorists still at large don't know he has been captured. Otherwise other terrorists could just move the ticking time bomb.

The argument that torture prevented subsequent al Qaeda attacks or that people might seriously have believed that they could prevent subsequent al Qaeda attacks really relies on the assumption that the ticking time bomb can't be moved. That plots known to the tortured prisoners were not modified after their capture.

In "White House Watch" which is not part of the operation edited by Fred Hiatt and is thus, probably reliable, Dan Froomkin notes that the claim that the torture of Abu Zubaida lead to the capture of Ramzi bin al Shibh can't easily be reconciled with the fact that bin al Shibh was captured more than 6 months after abu Zubaida. Wouldn't he have had time to figure out how to avoid places known to abu Zubaida ?

This isn't as extreme as the claim, in the ever reliable opinion pages of The Washington Post that the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammad lead to the disruption of a plot to fly airplanes into the Library Tower in LA-- which success was announced by the Bush administration before Khalid Sheik Mohammad was captured. I assume that there will be no correction since the Washington Post opinion pages are clearly a fact free zone.

The thought experiment only applies when there is information which is so valuable that obtaining it might justify torture and the information can rapidly be distinguished from misinformation and someone knows something about the present and future, not about plans in the past which would normally be changed because that person was captured.

How could anyone have believed they were in such a situation ? Did anyone believe they were in such a situation ?


Anonymous said...

"How could anyone have believed they were in such a situation ? Did anyone believe they were in such a situation ?"

April 1, 2008

For the record, I was in favor of the war on Iraq in the winter of 2003. I reasoned:

Condi Rice is not-stupid and not-malevolent, and is for the war.

Colin Powell is not-stupid and not-malevolent, and is for the war.

This means that even though the public intelligence is bs, that there must be solid evidence of an advanced nuclear program in Iraq and of a willingness to give serious weapons to terrorist groups--otherwise attacking Iraq while we have real enemies like Osama bin Laden running loose would be really stupid.

And although Bush is really stupid, not everyone in the administration is.

Wrong on all counts. I am very sorry.

I may be the stupidest man alive.

-- Brad DeLong

Anonymous said...

The climate in America through the Bush years, made acceptance of leadership brutality definite. Then again, the same climate in Israel has made the acceptance of leadership brutality definite but even the supposed liberals who have forgotten the positions they took on Iraq and are taking on Afghanistan, have not interest at all in the brutality in Gaza.

Anonymous said...

Here is the justification for war crimes, notice the date:

November 4, 2003

A Burden Too Heavy to Put Down

But the administration would be making a mistake if it sent the signal to the American people that the hard work from here on out would be done by the Iraqis themselves. After all, is it realistic to think barely trained policemen can, over the next six months, deliver blows against bands of experienced mass murderers? Is it realistic to think that a local Iraqi mayor will take on the terrorists and so risk his own death, when the most powerful army in the history of the earth is camped just nearby?

No. Iraqification is a strategy for the long haul, but over the next six months, when progress must be made, this is our job. And the main challenge now is to preserve our national morale.

The shooting down of the Chinook helicopter near Fallujah over the weekend was a shock to the body politic. The fact is, we Americans do not like staring into the face of evil. It is in our progressive and optimistic nature to believe that human beings are basically good, or at least rational. When we stare into a cave of horrors, whether it is in Somalia, Beirut or Tikrit, we see a tangled morass we don't understand. Our instinct is to get out as quickly as possible.

It's not that we can't accept casualties. History shows that Americans are willing to make sacrifices. The real doubts come when we see ourselves inflicting them. What will happen to the national mood when the news programs start broadcasting images of the brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt? Inevitably, there will be atrocities that will cause many good-hearted people to defect from the cause. They will be tempted to have us retreat into the paradise of our own innocence.

Somehow, over the next six months, until the Iraqis are capable of their own defense, the Bush administration is going to have to remind us again and again that Iraq is the Battle of Midway in the war on terror, the crucial turning point where either we will crush the terrorists' spirit or they will crush ours.

The president will have to remind us that we live in a fallen world, that we have to take morally hazardous action if we are to defeat the killers who confront us. It is our responsibility to not walk away. It is our responsibility to recognize the dark realities of human nature, while still preserving our idealistic faith in a better Middle East....

Anonymous said...

Here was the only response:

Avoid War Crimes

To the Editor:

In ''A Burden Too Heavy to Put Down,'' * David Brooks writes, ''Inevitably, there will be atrocities'' committed by our forces in Iraq. Did he forget to add that they must be prosecuted?

War crimes are indeed more likely if influential commentators foreshadow impunity for perpetrators of the ''brutal measures our own troops will have to adopt.''

The choice is not between committing war crimes and retreating ''into the paradise of our own innocence.'' A third option is for the United States to strive to avoid complicity.

It is untrue that ''we have to take morally hazardous action.'' Those who choose it, or urge others to, cannot evade or distribute responsibility by asserting that ''we live in a fallen world.''

New Haven, Nov. 4, 2003
The writer is director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University.


Anonymous said...

Then there is the advocacy of ceaseless collective punishment:

April 23, 2009

I told you so, damn it

" 'Congressman, the crossings are no longer completely closed. There are many items that are being transported through the crossings. There are, as you know, some items that the Israeli government does not permit to cross,' Clinton responded. 'The best way for us to help the people of Gaza is for Hamas to cease its rocket firing on Israel, to abide by the quartet principles, and the same principles that were adopted by the Arab peace initiative, which I have reiterated several times here today.' " *


-- As'ad AbuKhalil

Anonymous said...

April 23, 2009

Senate Leaders Oppose Inquiry on Interrogation

Senate Democratic leaders said they would resist efforts to create a special panel to investigate harsh interrogation methods.

[Beyond freedom and dignity, and all that jazz.]

Anonymous said...

April 23, 2009

Senate Leaders Oppose Inquiry on Interrogation

At a meeting of top Democrats at the White House Wednesday night, President Obama told Congressional leaders that he did not want a special inquiry, which he said would potentially steal time and energy from his ambitious policy priorities, and could mushroom into a wider distraction by looking back at other aspects of the Bush years....