Of two minds

A couple of days ago, I was having lunch with a friend who works for the Maine Council of Churches. Between discussions about the nigh-unto-religious power of Oprah and the Worst Television Show of All Time we talked about the Bush administration, and how the progressive community should press for investigation of the various abuses that took place while Bush was in office. It is truly depressing to think that we, as a nation, need to be reminded that torturing people is fundamentally immoral, but apparently some people haven't gotten that memo, so remind we must.

Anyhow, the question of how to investigate the Bush administration's abuses yields a great many sub-questions. One particularly pressing question is whether to investigate with an eye toward prosecution, or with the ultimate goal of truth-seeking as an end unto itself. I think that I favor the former. I objected strongly, for example, to granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications industry during the FISA debate, and joined with much of the Left in being disappointed by Obama's capitulation on that point. Similarly, I find the following report by the Inspector General's office (via TPM) to be thoroughly galling:

The evidence in our investigation showed that Schlozman, first as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General and subsequently as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Acting Assistant Attorney General, considered political and ideological affiliations in hiring career attorneys and in other personnel actions affecting career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division. In doing so, he violated federal law - the Civil Service Reform Act - and Department policy that prohibit discrimination in federal employment based on political and ideological affiliations, and committed misconduct. The evidence also showed that Division managers failed to exercise sufficient oversight to ensure that Schlozman did not engage in inappropriate hiring and personnel practices. Moreover, Schlozman made false statements about whether he considered political and ideological affiliations when he gave sworn testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee and in his written responses to supplemental questions from the Committee.

Schlozman is no longer employed by the Department and, therefore, is not subject to disciplinary action by the Department. We recommend, however, that, if criminal prosecution is declined these findings be considered if Schlozman seeks federal employment in the future. We believe that his violations of the merit system principles set forth in the Civil Service Reform Act, federal regulations, and Department policy, and his subsequent false statements to Congress render him unsuitable for federal service. [emphasis mine]

As TPM reports, no prosecution was undertaken. Schlozman's big punishment appears to be that he (probably) won't be able to work for Uncle Sam again. Cry me a river.

When it comes to some of the more egregious human rights violations, Andrew makes some good points. [Warning -- as is often the case, Sully includes a graphic picture to help prove his point, so don't click it if you're squeamish.]

Remember: even the Pentagon concedes that a dozen prisoners have been tortured to death by US interrogators. Human rights groups put that number at close to a hundred. Most of the techniques we saw displayed at Abu Ghraib were authorized by the president and vice-president. And they monitored the waterboarding sessions very closely and then sat around while the CIA openly destroyed the taped evidence of them - evidence that would prevent anyone from ever believing this wasn't torture.
It is beyond naive to believe that the history of the United States is devoid of terrible, unforgivable injustice. We repeatedly and obviously fail to live up to the ideals upon which the nation was founded. But if we seek a more just future, and hold out any hope that those ideals are in any way attainable, we cannot decline to prosecute those responsible for dismantling the various checks and safeguards that support what remains of our moral authority. As much as I would love to believe that the long national nightmare of Bush's presidency is soon to be over (to paraphrase some other guy in a similar situation), it is insufficient to simply turn the page. Much as antibiotics will not penetrate an abscess until the infection is drained, we cannot expect justice to reassert itself without seeing how deeply we have failed and at what level the decisions were made, and without holding those responsible to full account.


  1. Torture is immoral because it violates human rights? Hell, war is even more immoral by that standard. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing you tolerate military action given sufficiently compelling circumstance, despite knowing it is inevitable innocent children will die as a result. If so, why is torture always wrong when the greater evil of war can be justified by circumstance?

  2. John, you're comparing two things that are not equivalent. Sometimes war is a necessary evil, one that involves the violation of certain human rights as a tragic but often unavoidable consequence. Because of these violations war should be entered into with great caution and due solemnity. However, the death of innocent children is not a desired end, and should be considered a horrible loss when it occurs.

    Torture, on the other hand, is an intentional violation of human rights for the purposes, purportedly, of extracting information. (That there is a punitive, revanchist aspect can hardly be plausibly denied.) There are other, more effective ways of getting the information desired, but it takes more work and time to get it. The violation of the rights is central to the function of torture, not peripheral and unavoidable, and so it is not comparable with war.

  3. I'm not saying torture is equivalent to war. War is far, far, far, worse than torture with respect to any measure of human rights.

    Human rights are violated by both war and torture. If respect for human rights leads one to conclude that torture must be ruled out under all circumstances, a fortiori war, with its far greater scale of human rights violations, must be ruled out under all circumstances.

    In short, if war (which is far worse than torture) can be a necessary evil, the claim torture cannot likewise be a necessary evil has a very high burden of proof to be rationally accepted. I don't see that you have made that case.

  4. Your argument relies on the assumption that torture can sometimes be necessary because there are times when it is the only way in which some other catastrophe can be prevented. If Manhattan can be saved from annihilation by torturing someone, then I think it's a ridiculous sacrifice to ask of Manhattan in order to eschew torture. But this argument relies on a situation that, by all accounts, never happens. Information gathered is frequently unreliable because people will say anything to make the torture stop. Rarely (if ever) is the threat so imminent that the only means of preventing disaster is to torture. By relying on torture, we compromise both our moral standing and the quality of our intelligence.

  5. Whoa, who is arguing for relying on torture? I'm certainly not, and the US isn't AFAICT. In fact, the use of torture is almost always counter-productive. For example, the US treats POWs quite well, as this encourages surrender and discourages fighting till the last man. The US chooses to do this even when dealing with non-signatories to the Geneva Convention, because the tactical and strategic benefits outweigh the costs. It isn't primarily a question of morality or legality (see below) unless the enemy agrees to forgo torture as well. I'm perfectly happy for AQ leadership to remain fearful that they may be captured and tortured if they do not publicly and effectively disavow torture as well. Having said that, it would be a horrible error for the US to use torture for any but the most exceptional cases. And of course, it cannot be used at all against an enemy who respects the Geneva Conventions.

    But, as a question of legality, I can't see placing torture completely off-limits without any guarantees from our enemies that they too will rule out torture. You know the Geneva Conventions are binding only when *both* sides play by the rules (see article 2, which reads "[High Contracting Parties] shall furthermore be bound by the Convention in relation to the [non-signatory] Power, if the latter accepts and applies the provisions thereof.")

    Morally, I do not see how one can accept the necessity of war as the least worst action and at the same time deny that torture can ever be the least worst action.

    Thanks for taking time to present your view, and I hope I haven't horrified you too much in presenting my view as a guest here. I think we agree more than we disagree on this topic.

  6. I think that torture should always be illegal. Assuming the absolute worst case wherein a nuclear device is about to go off in some major metropolitan area, and we happen to have the guy who knows where and he's not talking, then I think torture may be the least horrible option. But it should still require an investigation. If it is obvious that there was no choice but to extract the information coercively, then presumably the person doing to torturing would be vindicated.

    This was patently not the case with Abu Ghraib, nor (I daresay) in the various other times it has been used over the past eight years.

    And thank you for keeping the conversation going. It's good to have readers!