Monday, May 18, 2009

Thoughts On Torture

In 1983, one of my brothers was a Marine, serving in the ill-fated "peacekeeping" force that Ronald Reagan sent to Beirut, Lebanon to expedite Israel's departure from that country, which it had invaded the year before.

In October of that year, two young militants drove up to a concrete barracks building that many of the Marines were living in, in a truck with over a ton of explosives and ignited it. Fortunately, my brother was not in that building, and not one of the 241 soldiers who were killed. His unit was living in tents about a mile from the barracks. He did, however, spend several days participating in the desperate efforts to get the handful of survivors out from under thousands of tons of concrete rubble. The experiences of dealing with the bodies of guys he'd known and watching others die in front of him have badly damaged him.

Years later, he told me that this wasn't even his worst experience in Beirut. The situation, he had told me, was chaotic; there were many factions fighting one another, and some of them sniping and shelling the Marines occasionally. His most terrifying experience, he told me, was one afternoon when he was catching a nap in his tent. A mortar shell from one of the many factions dropped near his tent. The concussion knocked him out of his cot-- and knocked his glasses off of his face. Like me, he is severely nearsighted. As the dust from the shell settled, he frantically searched for his glasses. He thought that the camp was being overrun by one of the factions, and the thing he feared even more than being wounded was being captured. If that had happened, it would not have been by a regular army that was abiding by the Geneva Convention. The time it took him to find his glasses, probably less than a minute, seemed like a lifetime.

Capture is one of the inevitabilities of war. When we send our sons, daughters, fathers, mothers off to fight in a war, there is the possibility that they will be captured. The Geneva Accords were enacted to assure that POW's would be treated humanely.

During World War II, members of Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, made regular inspections of the POW camps that Allied prisoners were held in, to make sure that the conditions were relatively humane-- and that torture was not being used. Their concern was a practical one. They wanted to make sure that Luftwaffe members who were prisoners of the Allies would not be tortured. They hoped that if Allied prisoners were treated well, their captured colleagues would be too.

When I volunteered for Amnesty International, I learned a lot about torture. For one thing, it doesn't work as a means of obtaining information. Another thing I learned is that it usually has nothing to do with obtaining information to begin with; it's usually a means of social control, for instilling fear in the populace.

Another discovery that people who have studied torture made is that when torture is systematized, it attracts people who like to torture-- it attracts sadists and sociopaths. Ideology, ethnicity, nationality are all irrelevant. People who torture share a pathology that transcends all of those things. Also, it was discovered that the torturers usually end up more psychologically damaged that their victims.

There's a lot of debate going on right now about torture. It turns out that people our forces captured were tortured. If anyone tries to claim "waterboarding" is not torture, I think they should be subjected to it and then asked if they've changed their opinions. The stories that are coming out are surreal-- the two Al Queda suspects that were waterboarded hundreds of times. One wonders about the mentality of those who would do this-- after, say, the 115th time you tortured a guy, and he still hadn't "cracked," you say "Yeah, I've got him right where I want him! Another 20 or 30 times, and he'll give up the information!"

There's a lot of finger-pointing; who knew what, and when. And in the middle of it all, is a smug asshole, Dick Cheney, claiming that the torture saved hundreds of lives-- despite the fact that they tortured false information out of people to justify going into an unnecessary war with Iraq. An unnecessary war that's cost thousands of lives-- American, Allied and Iraqi.

The eight years of George W. Bush's presidency have damaged this country on so many levels-- economically, politically. Centuries old alliances are frayed. The economy is in tatters. And maybe worst of all, we've lost our moral compass.

One of the things that happened as the last administration hurtled us toward the disastrous war in Iraq was that those of us questioned it were called "unpatriotic." I can take being called a lot of things-- "liberal" seems to be an insult in the eyes of those people. But "unpatriotic" is one thing I will not abide. I'll hold my patriotism up to any flag-waving Republican's any day. You see, there are principals that this country stands for. They're enshrined in a remarkable document called "The United States Constitution." You know, the thing that an incoming President swears to uphold while taking the oath of office. In it, there are certain guarantees and protections that no law-- and no government official-- can take away. I'm willing to fight-- and die-- to protect that document.

You see, that's what separates us from them-- we have the rule of law. When we stray from that, we lose what's best and most important about our country. The war against the people who perpetrated 9/11 is a difficult one. It's not against a regular army. It's against a bunch of fanatics and sociopaths, headed by a megalomaniac.

I've mentioned in a previous post, that one of the stated purposes of using terror as a tactic is to cause the enemy to overreact, compromising his own principles, even coming down on his own people. And at first, Bin Laden and his cronies were successful in this. The "Patriot" Act, torture, illegal seizures and imprisonings, military tribunals that were kangaroo courts-- all of these things were leading us down a really bad path. But slowly, quiet heroes have righted things-- the lawyers appointed to the detainees, federal judges, legislators and others have been reinstituting the rule of law that was wiped away by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove. These other people see that the marginal benefit gained with these tactics were not worth the long-term damage they did to our society, to our souls. They see that in order to retain the most important aspects of our society, of our civilization, we can't let anything, even the horrific events of 9/11/01, make us give that up.

Because, goddammit, we are the good guys.


Churlita said...

Great post, even though it's sad and embarrassing what went on under Bush.

Patrick Kissane said...

Johnny, I think you know that I do not like and will not support Rahm Emanuel for the position of dog catcher. What started that? It was a discussion over torture and the detention of prisoners held in Cuba at the height of the Bush regime's powers that convinced me that Emanuel was an opportunistic jerk. Although he was in a safe seat, he would not attempt to rock the boat, to point fingers and to question authority.
When I asked him why there were no Congressional inquiries into the administration's tactics of indefinite extra-territorial detention (i.e., Cuba. We didn't know about all the other crap yet) without judicial review he replied that he didn't want to go there.
As someone replied in a similar situation, you're already there. It was not just the Republicans that participated in this extraordinary destruction of American values, but also the media and also the minority- opposition party. Shame on the Democrats for sitting quietly for years and allowing the destruction of our values without raising a question simply because it was good politics. Shame on them now for not exposing these criminals to the light of day.

LegalMist said...

Well said. I agree that one of the worst things the Republicans did was to try to label as "unpatriotic" anyone who disagreed with them. This country was founded on the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to petition the government for redress of wrongs... in other words, the right to dissent. It is downright patriotic to discuss issues, and even to disagree with the policies of those in power. It is unpatriotic to label those who would speak out in dissent as "unpatriotic."

vikkitikkitavi said...

Really good and thoughtful essay, Johnny. I think it's worth noting that the U.S. has a long history of torture, and it didn't start under BushCo. We've been sending people to other countries to be tortured for years, and giving disproportionate amounts of foreign aid to those countries for years. Even the current definition of torture as proposed by Clinton and adopted by the U.N. specifically and purposely excludes many methods developed by the CIA.

Obama has been a huge disappointment in this regard.

Powderhornhockey said...

Oh Johnny there are very few black and white issues to me, torture is one . No torture, never. I had an uncle in Stalag 2 during WWII, a cousin who spent the 40's in Ireland's Cura. The Geneva Convention is what keeps our kids, brothers and sisters safe.

No torture, not now, not ever, not in my name.

Mnmom said...

Excellent post Mr. Yen. I agree 100% and I'll hold my patriotism up against anyone's any day. I'm a defender of the Constitution as well. I hate that we're even debating whether torture is OK or not.

Erik Donald France said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your passionate and cogent take on torture. Very well done, man.

Bubs said...

Great post!

Interestingly enough, we prosecuted Japanese for war crimes after they used waterboarding against our POW's. We also court martialed and discharged our own soldiers for waterboarding during the Vietnam war.

Good lord, how did we end up here?