Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Waterboarding and Right-Wing Logic

In their continuing "shorter" series, Gavin M. at Sadly, No! offers "Shorter Uncle Jimbo":

The counterterrorism expert Malcolm Nance wrote an informative, definitive and persuasive piece for Small Wars Journal titled Waterboarding Is Torture, Period which nonetheless fails in that I shall keep on quibbling smugly over the definition of torture.

Here's "Waterboarding is Torture… Period" by Malcolm Nance (he's since added a ton of links) and here's "My Increasing Support of Waterboarding" by Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive. (Yes, that is his real post title. Oh, and here's one of my earlier posts on torture, "Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar," which explores the subject and links several significant pieces on it.)

Who is Malcolm Nance? Here's his blurb at Small Wars Journal, but as a SERE trainer his qualifications to speak on the issue are pretty strong. His piece itself is extraordinary, and should be read in its entirety. (Go ahead. This post will wait.)

Let's look at a key excerpt:

There is No Debate Except for Torture Apologists

1. Waterboarding is a torture technique. Period. There is no way to gloss over it or sugarcoat it. It has no justification outside of its limited role as a training demonstrator. Our service members have to learn that the will to survive requires them accept and understand that they may be subjected to torture, but that America is better than its enemies and it is one’s duty to trust in your nation and God, endure the hardships and return home with honor.

2. Waterboarding is not a simulation. Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team. It does not simulate drowning, as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning.

Pretty blunt and clear, right? Apparently not to Uncle Jimbo. Let's go to the key section of his post:

[The Nance article] was an excellent piece. I still think so, it was informative, definitive and persuasive. It just didn't and won't persuade me. I disagree on the judgment that the act of waterboarding fits the proper definition of torture or even the more restrictive definitions employed by human rights groups and the left.

Without going into the whys of that, let me pose a simple question.

If waterboarding is torture and torture is illegal, then didn't Congress break the law every year when they passed a military budget that contains funds specifically dedicated to conducting waterboarding as a matter of course?

Mr. Nance conducts waterboardings professionally or did, and yet he believes that the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies? I have a very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept. Congress banned the use of torture in the Detainee Treatment act of 2005. So, if it is torture we shouldn't be doing it to ourselves, but if Congress authorizes the military to do it, then it can't be torture. Congress is not allowed to authorize money for patently illegal activities, therefore their knowing authorization explicitly says that waterboarding is not torture.

How many bizarre arguments can you spot?

Uncle Jimbo disagrees that waterboarding is torture. Acknowledging that waterboarding is torture but arguing it's necessary would make more sense (even if that argument fails miserably as well). But asserting that waterboarding isn't torture is extraordinary for anyone after reading Nance's piece; as Nance points out, it's been an infamous torture technique for centuries. Readers can decide for themselves how much credibility Uncle Jimbo has after that one, especially since he chooses not to go into the "whys" of his views.

Uncle Jimbo next argues that torture isn't illegal because he claims Congress authorized it. Perhaps he can point to the line item for "funds specifically dedicated to conducting waterboarding"...? The U.S. has been and still is signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture. The Constitution's 8th Amendment bans "cruel and unusual punishments." The Uniform Code of Military Justice has long banned torture as well, and has regarded waterboarding specifically as a war crime. It's also not as if this sensible stance has been some big secret. In contrast, it was a surprise and shock to learn that the U.S. would torture, and that the Bush administration had authorized torture in secret memos. As Hilzoy points out, this was "an absolutely radical, 180 degree change in US detention and interrogation policy." And when even the Secretary of State and National Security Advisor in Bush's own administration only learned about such memos — that directly affected their jobs and our nation — from a newspaper report two years after the fact — it's probably safe to say that Congress might not have been aware of what was going on. Uncle Jimbo himself mentions the DTA of 2005, which merely reaffirmed that torture was illegal — and which Bush signed against his will, and to which he affixed a signing statement regally claiming he could ignore the law just passed. Afterwards, the Bush administration issued new memos redefining torture. As Uncle Jimbo might say, why would Bush need to do any of that if they weren't torturing anyone? In any case, the Frontline episode "Cheney's Law" can bring him up to speed on most of the key points.

But I fear I've made the mistake of presuming that Uncle Jimbo was arguing in good faith and in line with common sense. Uncle Jimbo is actually arguing that because Congress authorizes the military budget, and that in turn funds SERE training, which subjects selected military personnel to waterboarding, waterboarding cannot be torture. Wow. Jimbo's the latest of several right-wing bloggers to argue along these lines. It's, um, sorta clever parsing I suppose, but somehow various shades of "crazy" and "immoral" spring to mind instead. Let's return to the heart of Uncle Jimbo's argument:

Mr. Nance conducts waterboardings professionally or did, and yet he believes that the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies? I have a very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept.

Insert your own snarky comment.

I don't buy that Uncle Jimbo doesn't understand the difference between training select American personnel to withstand torture in case they're captured and subjugated to such horrors on the one hand, and our government torturing people as a matter of course and entrenched policy on the other. As do many right-wingers and torture apologists, Jimbo also assumes here that everyone detained is guilty and an "enemy" (unless he's instead just offering a straw man argument in bad faith). We wouldn't want to discuss the many innocents we know we've abused, tortured or rendered to be tortured, now would we?

Only because he's not the first nor shall be the last to offer such arguments, let's dissect this further. Jimbo's argument yet again ignores Nance's article, where Nance explains at some length the history of waterboarding, the purpose of torture, and how it's been applied. As we've covered before, torture is designed to elicit a confession, not the truth. It often produces lies to justify imprisonment, execution or other goals. In contrast, as Nance explains, "SERE was designed to show how an evil totalitarian, enemy would use torture at the slightest whim." SERE attempts to help these personnel withstand possible inhumane treatment in the future. It's not designed to break them physically, emotionally and mentally, as torture is. The U.S. military also employs safeguards to try to protect the trainee from permanent harm. As Nance explains:

Waterboarding is a controlled drowning that, in the American model, occurs under the watch of a doctor, a psychologist, an interrogator and a trained strap-in/strap-out team... A team doctor watches the quantity of water that is ingested and for the physiological signs which show when the drowning effect goes from painful psychological experience, to horrific suffocating punishment to the final death spiral.

Despite all this monitoring:

Waterboarding is slow motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of black out and expiration –usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. Its lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threaten with its use again and again.

I'm reminded of Rumsfeld's statement that "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing [at Gitmo] limited to four hours?" Rumsfeld's aides had to point out to him that he could choose to stop at any time, move about at will, and so on. A torture victim has no way of knowing when their ordeal will end, if ever, and in most cases has reason to fear winding up dead. They have no control, and generally no avenue of appeal, no matter how innocent they may be. Military personnel undergoing SERE know there will be an end, even if fear understandably takes over during the actual training, which is brutal. In addition to the physical dangers of undergoing such training, Nance points to another grave one:

Many waterboard team members, even in training, enjoy the sadistic power of making the victim suffer and often ask questions as an after thought. These people are dangerous and predictable and when left unshackled, unsupervised or undetected they bring us the murderous abuses seen at Abu Ghraieb, Baghram and Guantanamo.

Jimbo writes that "the procedure is fine for our troops, but somehow not fit for our enemies." We've discussed why that's specious on several levels, but here's another. Jimbo yet again ignores one of Nance's key points (emphasis in original): "If you support the use of waterboarding on enemy captives, you support the use of that torture on any future American captives." Nance is hardly the first to point out that an American policy of torture endangers the same troops Jimbo claims to support. At best, Jimbo is arguing backwards and offering a false equivalency (although I think that's far too kind). Furthermore, not everyone in the military undergoes SERE training. Anyone training in SERE knows, at least in a general sense, what they're getting into, and there's some element of volition. Like Gavin M at Sadly, No!, I find it really hard to believe that Jimbo doesn't know this. Regardless of his motives, Uncle Jimbo's essentially arguing that a triathlete choosing to go for a long run is the same thing as being subjected to the Bataan Death March.

Not that it should even need to be said, but obviously terrorists should be pursued and legitimate suspects should be interrogated, but torture is immoral, ineffective and counterproductive. It's kind of amusing that Uncle Jimbo respects Nance enough not to attack him, but still refuses to be persuaded by reason. What's not amusing at all is that Jimbo's mentality is shared by powerful people making horrible, disastrous decisions on an important issue that most folks figured out long ago. (It would be nice, too, if Uncle Jimbo and those of like mind at least acknowledged that theirs is a minority view, contrary to history, the law, expert and popular opinion, and so on, but that's probably far too much to hope for.)

Sadly, No! dispenses with Uncle Jimbo more succinctly and with more wit and snark, while Nance's exceptional piece effectively refutes every aspect of Jimbo's response more authoritatively than I can. I did want to note two definitive elements of Jimbo's piece in closing, though.

The first is a signature conservative move, the distraction/dodge. Jimbo chooses not to discuss the "whys" behind his "disagree[ment] on the judgment that the act of waterboarding fits the proper definition of torture." That's because he really can't. He cannot refute Nance on the substance. But if he introduces a ludicrous argument that Congress has somehow legalized torture despite clear laws to the contrary, perhaps you won't notice. Perhaps it will stall or derail the pretty definitive case Nance makes, or otherwise "muddy the waters." It's a tactic we've explored many times before . (The deflection of blame from the directly culpable Bush administration is also a nice, familiar touch.)

The second element is a dynamic we explored in "Jack Bauer versus Maher Arar." Once again, liberals, independents and rule of law conservatives have stepped up to directly take on an argument of torture apologists, in this case the ridiculous assertion that waterboarding is not torture. Once again, those same apologists have either ignored, or in Jimbo's case side-stepped, extremely strong refutations of their views and have refused to consider the very real consequences of their positions. Whatever the root causes of element one, that distraction/dodge tactic, it isn't a fluke — it's a definitive characteristic of movement conservatism (as Digby likes to say, it's a feature, not a bug). Either Jimbo's "very hard time wrapping my brain around that concept" isn't an act, he's in something akin to Bush's happy, self-constructed bubble, or he's simply arguing in bad faith (not that any of those possibilities is exactly a revelation). I trust that most people can judge Nance versus Jimbo on their own. Still, it's useful to dissect how the game is played, and know if someone's living in the reality-based community or not when you're combating bullshit.

Update: Welcome, Crooks and Liars readers! If you're so inclined, I have a follow-up post here.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


navyswan said...

I just wanted to point out that standing for long periods of time without being able to move can lead to kidney damage and other terrible medical problems. Whenever these apologists make excuses for torture, I lose hope for humanity. How sick must someone be? Waterboarding is without a doubt torture.

Batocchio said...

Navyswan, that's a good point, especially since I only mentioned prolonging standing in passing. I was mainly focusing on Rumsfeld's cluelessness. You're right that it can have serious consequences. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

The saddest part? A gentleman like Nance ends up in some sort of cyber-debate with a clown calling himself Uncle Jimbo.