Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On Torture

Security guru Bruce Schneier blogs two pieces on the use of torture. Both begin with the same take on the pragmatic argument: the stories of American abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been Al-Qaeda in Iraq's most effective recruiting tool. I don't dispute that point, rather the conclusion drawn from it. Here's why: most of what the Muslim world believes about Guantanamo is complete fabrication, and the infamous abuse at Abu Ghraib was a "black swan", perpetrated in the dead of night by a handful of irresponsible lowlifes operating miles outside their job descriptions. Don't get me wrong here: I'm not arguing that there haven't been systematic violation of American principles at both locations. There have been abuses which people ought rightly be upset about, but those aren't the cases that have captured the jihadi imagination — or the U.S. public's, for that matter — and this is the great irony. Abu Ghraib = Lynndie England, and Guantanamo = flushed Korans, even though one was unforeseeable and the other never happened. I'm bringing all of this up to make the point that the number of foreign jihadists flooding to support Al-Qaeda in Iraq has had little to do with any particular torture or abuse of detainees; if Abu Ghraib hadn't happened, they would have made it up, as they have in other cases. So the "pragmatic argument" really doesn't take us anywhere.

Happily, both pieces move to the moral argument, which I find far stronger. And a lot simpler. Whether or not torture is a useful tool in counterterrorism (and the relative safety of such torture-happy places as Egypt attest it can't be wholly discounted) is completely irrelevant. Even if by aschewing torture we're fighting with one hand tied behind our back, it's still the right thing to do. We can still win that fight, and when we have, we will still be America.

1 comment:

Shane said...

To draw an extreme example - we can all think of hypotheticals in which bad policy increases the murder rate, or good policy decreases the murder rate. The politicians deserve credit or blame, but 100% culpability still lays with the actual murderers. In the case of torture, policymakers will need to answer to the consequences of their decisions, and ask themselves sincerely whether they could have reasonably done more to prevent abuses.

Now, it really disturbs me how little regard the Bush Administration had towards public opinion (both at home and abroad), because this is one of those cases where low public opinion undermined our strategic goals.