Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Torture Apologia Chart

It can be difficult keeping up with all the torture apologist appearances and their BS du jour. Generally, they rotate through the same old long-debunked arguments, although occasionally they try out new lines of defense and attack. Some, like Clifford May on The Daily Show, try the "shotgun" approach combined with the style of a pushy car salesman – don't stop talking, talk over everybody else, change the subject if challenged, you-don't-buy-that-well-how-about-this, what can I do today to get you in the seat of amnesty for war criminals, friend?

Typical of torture apologists, it's a disingenuous performance that makes much more sense if one realizes he's arguing from a conclusion, not larger principles - don't prosecute or investigate any of the culprits. Because of this, torture apologists frequently offer extremely convoluted and even contradictory arguments. As I've written before, their defenses normally fit into a pattern of descending denials: We did not torture; waterboarding is not torture; even if it is torture, it was legal; even if it was illegal, it was necessary; even if it was unnecessary, it was not our fault. Leading torture apologist David Rivkin has argued both that waterboarding isn't torture and conceded that it is - with different audiences. Scott Horton recently highlighted some of the contradictions in Dick Cheney's big "I saved the country through torture" speech (and several other sites picked up on another key Cheney inconsistency). Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick captured this dynamic beautifully with Lindsay Graham at the Senate hearings on prisoner abuses in May:

All morning, Graham clings to the argument that he believes in the rule of law. And as he does so, he explains that the lawbreaking that happened with respect to torture: a) wasn't lawbreaking, b) was justifiable lawbreaking, c) was lawbreaking done with the complicity of congressional Democrats, d) doesn't matter because al-Qaida is terrible, or e) wouldn't be lawbreaking if the Spanish police were doing it.

These contortions would be merely comical if it weren't for the extraordinary damage done, and the Beltway pundit consensus that no one should be held accountable. And the more torture apologists can muddy the waters and confuse the public, the more likely they can prevent a full investigation and possible criminal trials, and the less likely they will be forced to offer the same weak defenses in court.

What follows is a chart of torture apologist arguments, the text of the chart, and an explanation. I might make a sort of annotated version later, with more detailed explanations, rebuttals of the major arguments, and links. But many fine sites have offered detailed debunks of individual arguments in the past, and I've given my shot in "Torture Versus Freedom." (This is also in part a companion to an earlier piece, The Torture Flowchart.) Regardless, if you like visual aids to dissect your daily dose of hackery - and somewhat busy, low-res charts - here ya go.

The Chart

(Click or go here for a larger view.)

Here's the text:

We Did Not Torture

A. We did not torture because:
1. SERE training proves these techniques are not torture.
2. OLC memos say it isn't torture.
3. "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" are not the same as torture. (Just look at the name, guys!)
4. These techniques do/did not cause permanent or lasting harm.
5. Psychologists said it was all right.
6. If you call it torture, you will have to prosecute (and you don't want to do that).
7. It's unpatriotic to say Bush officials authorized torture.

We Did Not Break the Law

B. What we did was legal because:
1. OLC memos say it isn't torture.
a. They were sound legal positions.
b. They were written in good faith.
2. There's no precedent for prosecuting such abuses.
3. American legal statutes are unclear on torture.
4. The Geneva Conventions:
a. Define torture vaguely.
b. Do not apply to these prisoners (nor do other legal protections).
5. Torture is in the eye of the beholder.
6. Psychologists said it was all right.
7. When the President does it, it's not illegal.

We Did Not Endanger the Country

C. What we did was necessary because:
1. We were panicked after 9/11.
2. There was an imminent threat (and only this would work).
3. There might have been an imminent threat.
4. The CIA requested these techniques.
5. We obtained key information that saved lives.
6. We obtained confessions necessary to justify a war.
7. Abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo:
a. Were the result of a few bad apples and not official policy.
b. Should not be conflated with our "interrogation" of high-value prisoners.
c. Did not radicalize insurgents who attacked American and coalition troops.
8. Bush kept the country safe.

We Were Not Reckless

D. We treated these prisoners decently, because:
1. Extreme techniques were only used when other methods didn't work.
2. This was an emergency (tick tick tick…).
3. Waterboarding was only used on three prisoners.
4. These methods were never used more than necessary.
5. These techniques do/did not cause permanent or lasting harm.
6. These were bad people who deserved far worse. (Why do you care?)
7. They don't observe the Geneva Conventions, why should we?
8. Guantanamo is like a holiday resort.
9. Reports? What reports? (Red Cross, Senate, JPRA, etc.)

We Were Not Immoral

E. Torture is not immoral because:
1. Torture is not inherently immoral.
2. It is immoral, but in special circumstances, it's necessary.
3. These people are not like us and do not deserve humane treatment.
4. Treating these bad people harshly or humanely does not:
a. Dissuade their fellows from bad conduct.
b. Affect our relationship with allied countries.
c. Endanger our troops.
5. The prisoners aren't saying what we want them to say.
6. Torture is a kindness, giving prisoners an excuse to confess.
7. We needed to justify a war.

We Are Not Arrogant

F. Torture opponents are more sanctimonious than torture apologists because:
1. Remember 9/11. (9/11! 9/11!)
2. What we did was necessary.
3. What we did worked.
4. Torture "works" (in general).
5. Compared to rapport-building techniques, torture is:
a. More effective (obtains information humane treatment will not).
b. Quicker (it's an emergency).
6. The Constitution is not a suicide pact (civil liberties are a luxury).
7. They want the enemy to win and hate America.
8. All of the abused were guilty; all of the tortured were bad men.

We Should Not Be Held Accountable

G. Prosecutions (and/or investigations) would be bad because:
1. It would criminalize policy differences.
2. It would create a chilling effect on counsel.
3. It would infringe on the powers of the presidency.
4. Holding leaders accountable would:
a. Create a bad precedent politically.
b. Disgrace America.
5. It won't happen again.
6. The torturers have learned their lesson.
7. It would be divisive (Broder and Rove will be upset).
8. Both parties are (equally) culpable.
9. It will reveal our secrets to the enemy.
10. We're all going to die if you do! (And it'll all be Obama's fault)

You'll notice some repeats and overlaps, and I've tried to use a rough color scheme, but feel free to improve on this sucker if you find it at all useful. Red roughly corresponds to authoritarian arguments, fear-mongering, bullying and bigotry. Somewhat contradictory to those are the claims of responsibility and utility in blue. Green is for legal matters, and purple is mostly for arguments about politics and fallout (often a mix of authoritarian and utilitarian pitches). Black is for particularly noxious, immoral arguments (all of which have actually been made, unfortunately).

I've got "We were panicked after 9/11" in grey (C1), separate from the more bullying, don't-challenge-us, "Remember 9/11!" (F1). Personally, I think "we were panicked after 9/11" would be the most compelling argument for mitigating a sentence in court, but the problem – for the key figures, at least - is that the evidence and timeline simply don't sustain a defense of "good faith." (See Marcy Wheeler's invaluable "The 13 who made torture possible" and her torture timeline for more, as well as Digby's recent post, "Panic Artists," on Richard Clarke – who was recently trashed by Dick Cheney.) The Bush administration was repeatedly warned off this course, but ignored counsel, squelched and punished dissent, hid what they were doing (even from some of their own people), and reportedly started torturing at least some prisoners only after they wouldn't "confess" to the Al Qaeda-Iraq connection the Bushies wanted to justify a war with Iraq. That level of evil and abuse of power shouldn't be blithely excused, especially before a full investigation. I think mitigation and forgiveness also depend on some recognition and admission of wrong-doing by the culprits, and Cheney and the gang are instead warning doom, attacking all critics and insisting they were right, dammit. Why should anyone believe they won't abuse power in some way again if they can? There are indeed true believers in the cause (Torture! War! Monarchial powers!) but it's very easy to be both a zealot and a liar, and the many lies and omissions in prominent torture apologist arguments just don't support a "good faith" interpretation, either. Most every torture apologist argument really seems to boil down to two items – (G10) 'We're all going to die!' and (D9) "Reports? What Reports? (Red Cross, Senate, JPRA, etc.)" (in its own special yellow at the bottom center). The strategy is to keep everyone afraid and to ignore/hide/challenge the growing mountain of damning evidence. But this chart can certainly be improved.

I'm a bit facetious with a few items, but torture apologists often advance arguments implicitly rather than explicitly (normally to get someone to concede a false premise). I've featured a few arguments that torture apologists try to avoid altogether – I've yet to hear anyone (not even Bill Kristol or Dick Cheney) come right out and use the defense, "We had to torture to justify our beautiful war, dammit!" However, our mostly complacent media hasn't forced many torture apologists to justify that stance or refute that explosive charge. Nor has the media forced many torture apologists to respond to accounts that American human rights abuses radicalized many of those who attacked and killed American and coalition troops in the Middle East. David Waldman, Matthew Alexander and a handful of others have made one or both of these points in media appearances, but the media as a whole has somehow shied away from these items, even though they're clearly newsworthy, make for attention-grabbing headlines, and are kinda important.

In any case, I think I've covered most of the major arguments, and wouldn't you know it, nearly all of them are problematic, severely flawed or outright false. I might post a revised version later, recapping the many existing debunks and rebuttals, organized per argument, or might handle most of that yet again through a future torture apologist roundup. This chart probably works best as an oversized bingo grid – watch a torture apologist and see how many arguments you can spot! Rebutting every one of Cliff May's rapid-fire bullshit arguments would probably be great training for a TV appearance, although I think pinning him or another apologist down would be even better: How do you respond to the bipartisan Senate report, and the charge that torture was used to obtain confessions to justify the Iraq War? How do you justify abuses that have directly lead to attacks on American and coalition troops and made that war of choice even worse? If the law requires that credible allegations of torture be investigated, what possible reason is there not to investigate? (Wouldn’t a failure to do so set a dangerous precedent that some people are above the law?) If what Dick Cheney and you are saying is true, wouldn't a full investigation (or even a trial) exonerate everyone?

(Actually, the Tom Tomorrow cartoon Digby linked earlier says it all better.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo and Blue Herald.)


marieburns said...

Excellent work. But you missed one I heard Stuart Taylor pull the other day. I call it the Michael Dukakis Excuse after the moment Dukakis lost the election because he responded like an automaton to the question, "Wouldn't you want a guy to get the death penalty if he raped/murdered your wife?" or something like that.

The Dukakis Excuse goes like this: "Wouldn't you want a guy to be tortured to find out where he was keeping your wife/child whom he had kidnapped & who remained in harm's way?"

The problems with the excuse are (a) yes, you would, but you might not be the right person to make the decision; (b) we tortured people to get them to give FALSE information about a made-up Saddam-bin Laden connection, not to get information that would save anybody; (c) torturing people elicits what the torturer wants to hear, not what the truth is; (d) not torturing people is more likely to get accurate, perhaps useful, information.

Anyway, great work -- I linked it on www.RealityChex.com -- & I'll be back!

Batocchio said...

Marie, thanks, and you're exactly right - some apologists frame the "debate" in very charged, personal terms, mainly because they need to keep things rooted in fear and paranoia. Blogger Montag's pointed out that what he personally might do in some extremely unlikely scenario should not then dictate law or policy. Andrew Sullivan's made a similar point, that one might run a red light in an emergency, but that doesn't mean we should make running red lights legal. I say the culprits should make their case in court under oath. I've got much more in the Torture Versus Freedom post, but I like your rebuttal of Taylor, an odious guy.

George said...

I'm irritated by the way the media continues to talk about torture as a "partisan disagreement". This only helps torture supporters

Anonymous said...

If the Republican Party had one brave leader among them they would reason in the following manner. Torture should remain illegal, because its illegality reflects well on the entire nation when human dignity is recognized. Therefore, misleading attempts by the perpetrators and their mouth pieces should be seen as actors in war crimes. The principle protects how Americans view themselves, it reduces the likelihood of American soldiers being tortured, and helps to reduce the applicability of anti-American propaganda that leads to violent acts against Americans, civilian and military alike.

If the stolen baby or the ticking time bomb were realities the leader who authorized such actions should be brave enough to go to court and face charges for those actions. If, in fact, they were justified. If justification could be proven to a jury comprised of Americans, there is no doubt that any punishment would be mitigated by the necessity.

The apologists want people to accept their use of torture as necessary on faith. Only a damn fool would accept such an approach.

Paul said...

One rationale under G would be that the CIA people who conducted torture were heroes. Thus, it would be wrong to prosecute those acts.

Ian Welsh said...


Anonymous said...

Straw man. The techniques used don't fit the dictionary definition of torture. If you want to stretch the dictionary to cover them, then you need a new word to describe what most people think of when they hear the word torture. Sawing off appendages and heads, feeding people into shredders, and traditional Native American rituals such as burying up to the head. Those are not comparable to sleep deprivation, insults, waterboarding, or even forced viewing of Fox News. So... what will the new word be?

Anonymous said...

To expand on the last point, imagine that opponents of abortion insisted on using the word "infanticide" and that almost all the media complied. The abortion argument, already a very difficult one, would become impossible. That's why "torture" is not the right word to use in this debate. It adds a distracting argument about the word to the real argument about the policy.

James said...

Identifying a person who would torture a child as somebody that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn is captured in the moral statement, "It is wrong to torture a child." From which it follows that I or you should not torture a child.
How does it follow? Remember, "[t]o say that S is prescribed for A, but A has no reason for action to bring about S, is incoherent". From the fact that "people generally" have good reasons to oppose child-torturing does not imply that you or I have reasons for action to stop child torturing.

Mike said...

I think that being able to identify certain types and categories of argument definitely renders said arguments utterly null and void. Arguments are only valid if you've never heard them before.