Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Words Made Me Do It


A number of smart, insightful posts have turned up in recent days, working over the abhorrent prisoner abuse news out of Abu Ghraib; I'm not sure I have a lot to add.  I'm still not ready to dig my heals in on the whole issue; haven't come to many firm conclusions about what's happened, although I do find Mike's mention of command failures to be compelling.  Jenny's reading of Shaviro's post is interesting, too, for the suggestion that many of the young folks who follow the enticements of recruiters have few other post-secondary options, have vexed experiences with power and aggression, and find, in the recruiter's pitch, something promising.  

Lynndie England has become the poster child for U.S. military recklessness, gone to abuse and photo op celebrations of abuse.  In one story (whose link is down), England's uncle said, basically, she was just following orders.  Another story from the Baltimore Sun, describes England as a "paper pusher"; she's also termed a "scapegoat" by a family friend.  So what the world needs now is a resurrection of Stanley Milgram's experiment on subjects' willingness to inflict harm by subduing conscience in deference to authority: agentic shift. It's the same sort of critique applied to Adolf Eichmann who was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death.  Note: Some accountability went to his superiors, too.

I mention Eichmann because the corollaries are considerable.  And since Eichmann's role surfaced during the Nuremberg trials, I thought the following connection was good enough for the blog.  See, Mark Bowden's Atlantic Monthly report on "The Dark Art of Interrogation" seems almost prophetic now, in light of the torture.  In October 2003, Bowden's piece ran with its premise that coercive discomfort, while not exactly "torture," is militarily useful.  It saves lives, it enables intelligence officers to head off plots, and it's vital to criminal interrogation.  Fine. The project was eerily predictive as I re-read it over the weekend, during the garage sale when I needed something interruptible. From Bowden:

The official statements by President Bush and William Haynes reaffirming the U.S. government's opposition to torture have been applauded by human-rights groups--but again, the language in them is carefully chosen. What does the Bush Administration mean by "torture"? Does it really share the activists' all-inclusive definition of the word? In his letter to the director of Human Rights Watch, Haynes used the term "enemy combatants" to describe those in custody. Calling detainees "prisoners of war" would entitle them to the protections of the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the "physical or mental torture" of POWs, and "any other form of coercion," even to the extent of "unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind." (In the contemptuous words of one military man, they "prohibit everything except three square meals, a warm bed, and access to a Harvard education.") Detainees who are American citizens have the advantage of constitutional protections against being held without charges, and have the right to legal counsel. They would also be protected from the worst abuses by the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment." The one detainee at Guantanamo who was discovered to have been born in the United States has been transferred to a different facility, and legal battles rage over his status. But if the rest of the thousands of detainees are neither POWs (even though the bulk of them were captured during the fighting in Afghanistan) nor American citizens, they are fair game. They are protected only by this country's international promises--which are, in effect, unenforceable.

And this:

The Bush Administration has adopted exactly the right posture on the matter. Candor and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be banned but also quietly practiced. Those who protest coercive methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a useful climate of fear. It is wise of the President to reiterate U.S. support for international agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators to employ whatever coercive methods work. It is also smart not to discuss the matter with anyone.

Apart from sensationalizing passages, it's a strong article for context, for digging into the semantics of "torture," splitting out what it is and what it's not, in legal terms.  "Torture," in this sense, is avoidable--duck the Geneva Compact, dodge international law and the Constitution, play the slippery terms.  

As I looked into Bowden's article and what follows, I was especially taken by the letter from Stephen Rickard, Director of the Nuremberg Legacy Project, an effort to memorialize historic atrocities of war.  Rickard's letter shows up in the Jan/Feb 2004 Atlantic Monthly, an issue with the White House Chiefs of Staff, including Don Rumsfeld, on the front.  In his letter (scroll down to "Interrogations"), Rickard defends the Bush Administration's definitive stance on torture and coercion:

Mark Bowden's article "The Dark Art of Interrogation" (October Atlantic) is an important survey of calculated cruelty. But when Bowden argues that the Bush Administration's position on the legality of "torture lite" (so-called "stress and duress" interrogation) is ambiguous and should be, he is wrong on both points.

Bowden correctly notes that Administration officials said for months that no detainee was being "tortured," but failed to rule out "cruel, inhumane, or degrading" treatment. Both are prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and international law. Specifically, he cites an April letter from William J. Haynes II, general counsel for the Defense Department, to Human Rights Watch, which ruled out only "torture," and says, "Haynes's choice of words was careful--and telling."

It'll be interesting to see how the Nuremberg Legacy Project responds to the atrocities now upon us, U.S. culpability in the fiasco, and the currency of it all.  So many other atrocities of war have been set against years of discovery.  Eichmann, for example, was pursued for years before he was tried in 1997 for crimes nearly fifty years past.  And while I'm not sure recent events match Eichmann's crimes, I recommend a quick read through Bowden's story and some of the letters of response.  If nothing else, they affirm the drastic shifts in meaning stemming from context: the meaning of these months-old articles has been overhauled in the last ten days.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at May 11, 2004 8:37 AM to Media

I read Bowden's article, and while I'll acknowledge appreciating its careful nuance and thoughtfulness, I still found it somewhat chillingly cavalier. To me, the slippery slope from coercion to torture is a very real danger; depriving a prisoner of sleep is an act that itself moves the boundary between depriving a prisoner of sleep and beating him up.

I'm glad you bring up Eichmann. I certainly don't buy the "just following orders" argument, but I'll point out that Eichmann was a Lieutenant Colonel, a field-grade officer, in charge of hundreds of people. Lynndie England is a PFC, at the very bottom of the junior enlisted chain, in charge of no one. I'm extremely disappointed that the first person on trial is Specialist Jeremy Sivits, another junior enlisted soldier, in charge of no one. From news reports, it's quite clear that these abuses were known and encouraged all the way up the chain of command. The generals and colonels and majors need to be held to account, as well -- and in some ways, their actions seem even more reprehensible than those of their subordinates. (But not entirely: I think it's much harder to hurt someone when you can see their face, and that's why I'm so disturbed by the photos with Lynndie England.)

Posted by: Mike at May 11, 2004 10:04 AM

I agree with you, Mike, about Bowden's being somewhat cavalier. When I first read the article in October, I thought it was eery; for all this it glazed over, it did a decent job of nailing the semantic turns in international policy, such as, "Let's just not _call_ it torture." Those are jagged, dangerous turns, indeed. And as this plays out with GWB backing up Rumy and so on, I'm ever more suspicious of the Administration's wordplay. The chain of command dynamics are disconcerting, as well--a shameful, cruel, inhumane acts will be shouldered by the expendable ranks. And it affirms that American foreign policy is skating precariously on that slippery slope--oiled by semantics that have germinated into logic, even ideology.

When I saw the October AM issue in our garage sale junk, my first thought was *geez, that article was really before its time*. But after glancing through it again, I found it even more alarming: the article wasn't anticipating a hypothetical future at all. It was accounting for much of what was already known about the loose edges of interrogation practices. Maybe the only thing new about the torture scandal is that the digital images are delivering it with unprecedented, striking alacrity to a horrified public.

Posted by: Derek at May 11, 2004 10:45 AM