The recently released Senate report on CIA Enhanced Interrogation Techniques has sparked an ongoing debate in popular media over what the implications and the reaction to the report should be. While the CIA stood to defend its practices and attempts to contest the report’s findings, around the world American servicemen and women braced for impact. After all, if a low-budget anti-religious film can serve as a pretext for mass demonstrations and violence or a puppet-sexed satire spawn a cyber-hack of epic proportions, you can only imagine what by any other name would be designated ‘torture’ might do across the world’s unfriendly populations.
A breed of individual, who calls himself a patriot, immediately contends that it doesn’t matter whether the CIA used torture or not: terrorists, targeting non-combatants and American soldiers, have waived their rights to a free and unmolested life. War is cruel, and security requires constant vigilance. This is not just a message we get from the Fox News crowd, who assure us that Americans should not get their feathers ruffled over this sort of thing. This is also a message we get in media: Zero Dark Thirty, 24, and in the Call of Duty franchise of video games, in which torture is portrayed as routine and explicitly condoned. Controversy is expected, but without conversation: the media makes it look unpleasant, but usually presents us with this formula:
Bleeding-heart Ineffectual: We can’t torture people.
Cynical Effectual: This is life, deal with it.
Sometimes we are thrown the image of a moral price in order to sell us on a neutral stance. Jack Bauer will pay for his sins with a miserable life or something like that. Sometimes the veracity of the information collected is left ambiguous, as in Zero Dark Thirty (I mean, SPOILER ALERT, they did get Bin Laden). Yet, in all of these there is a sense that we are just doing this because we have to. Time and all other options are off the table, and the big snatches occur with the clock literally ticking.
In this image we are confronting something that does not exist: the perfect terrorist. James Bond helped introduce us to villains who had the resources and sheer cunning to pull off intricate plots, and the unbelievable success of al Qaeda on 9/11 seemingly confirmed that such devious Agatha Christie-like extremists proliferate everywhere. In this case, the only way to break the enemy is to be like him and submit him to some very well-deserved discomfort. It doesn’t matter because he was a terrorist, and the utilitarian whole will deal with the deprivations of the rights of one foreigner. Plus, this is the only way to get information from otherwise secretive organisations, right?
In reality, a terrorist organisation is more like an office bureaucracy then it is like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. In order to export targeted violence to achieve political ends, a terrorist group needs executives, employees, meetings, accounts billable, and the like (maybe no Christmas party). The difference is that the terrorist organisation has a security and communications problem: as Jacob Shapiro lays out in The Terrorist’s Dilemma, terrorist organisations, like any company, require management to supervise employees (operatives) in order to achieve desired outcomes. That supervision (more regular contact) makes it more likely that the plot could be discovered and the whole organisation captured or killed, this makes it seem wiser to decentralize operations and cut down on contact.
Without supervision, however, employees do dumb things (eat out of the office fridge or shoot the local Sheik as the case may be), and the efficacy/strength of the group is lowered due to fallout in local branches. Often enough these branches split and form their own companies (and sometimes turn on their former employers). Witness ISIS, itself an offshoot of AQI (whose own relationship with AQ leadership was always strained), breaking off when it felt it no longer had much to gain from al Qaeda leadership and exposing how weak the ‘global terrorist’ network really was to internal fissure.
Why does this matter? It argues that what the Senate’s Report said about sources other than enhanced interrogation turning out better information is correct. Terrorist groups often slip up when creating local networks, are reliant on often tenuous communications, and have fairly rapid turnovers that make it hard for groups to be targeted, but also means groups are constantly being threatened by bad hires or unintentionally pissing off the wrong people. Hence, information got from taps, hacks, turncoats, plants, and the like can do a lot where simply roughing up someone’s intern might turn up limited or somewhat incomplete information on how the business runs and what its immediate goals are.
So that’s the argument that perhaps enhanced interrogation, whose positive results are usually contested, might not be effective. That issue aside, there is a more important reason: being implicated in enhanced interrogation undermines our moral supremacy, which in turn undermines our strategic viability.
America Does NOT Torture. That’s an interesting statement because it is actually universally agreed on by both the opponents and supporters of the CIA’s methods. If you are on the Fox side, you say America does not torture because it is irresponsible to equate water-boarding to the spikey things exhibited in a Spanish Inquisitor’s Dungeon. Moral relativism, which Fox New purportedly despises, is the defining feature of this argument. Americans love freedom from tyranny and oppression, and to protect it, they have to condone practices that otherwise would be tyranny if they happened to Cliven Bundy. That Americans are willing to give carte blanche to their government to physically harm individuals in order to preserve a system which prides itself on not letting the government physically harm individuals raises rather profound moral questions, which are usually silenced by simply going “that’s life” or rather “you can’t ask that question or you’re undermining democracy.”
I’d like to think most Americans take the stance that Americans do not torture because we find that practice abhorrent and because we associate torture with authoritarianism and the suspension of equitable justice. That, I would argue, is the better answer, and I think Senator McCain, himself a torture survivor, gave a magnificent speech decrying the interrogation techniques.
The issue here is that some leftist accusations go too far in the other direction. Conflating the United States of America with ISIS because of interrogation is not worthwhile for national dialogue, because America is not like ISIS (though both seem to have an issue with you smoking on the street). One also cannot reckon without the emotive factor of history: 9/11 killed thousands of Americans, and the nation needs catharsis. Channeled catharsis to be sure, but after suffering such a blow, it does no good to simply stand back to say “well we deserved that” like some intellectuals did. We do need to act or the national government and identity will falter in the face of un-directed anger.
The truth is that yes, we do need to be eternally vigilant, because we can’t simply pull out of world affairs (the generation of most terrorist activity against Americans) if we want to maintain the economic and political conditions that preserve our democracy. Americans must be willing to fight and do harm, occasionally for motives beyond mere territorial self-defense. While doing so, however, we must be true to the due process of our laws and make our nation an example of integrity. This reinforces to the public why our way of life is worth fighting for, and makes clear to the world that we practice what we preach. Americans captured more Germans then Japanese in the Second World War because the Germans believed that we would treat them better than the Russians would (some actually fled west to surrender), whereas the Japanese believed that we would take no prisoners, a pattern which in time became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even, to play Machiavellian Devil’s Advocate, when we need to “interrogate”, we must publicly excoriate such a position because it ruins the attraction of American virtues and our friendship. We may have a pre-existing cultural fault line with the Middle East, but we don’t have to make it worse by adding the explicit threat of prolonged physical abuse. Local peoples we may have to deal with, and who could provide us the links to the sloppy slips up of the local terrorists or insurgents, will be reticent to work with people who have a reputation for carting off suspects to secret prisons.
That Americans are labelled as torturers simply gives credit to what the enemies of our nation are saying about us, and they are morally flexible enough to turn their own abuses back on us. Right now, persons released from Guantanamo enjoy celebrity among the Taliban, giving their very own terrorist TED talks about their experiences. There is no scale here, as not one of them is saying “well it was bad, but it could have been worse”. Then American officials have to make the call about either then keeping them indefinitely in limbo (often by shipping them to other nations) without trial or letting them go home to be advocates for jihad. Two bad choices, but it would be easier to discredit the latter if their stories weren’t defended by national leaders as a necessity as opposed to a mistake.
Anyone who has read Daniel Pipes’ influential piece on the Middle East’s propensity for Conspiracy Theories knows that it is very easy for this sort of idea of America to predominate and makes our dealings there extremely difficult. It also makes it easy to manipulate public opinion against Americans and aids and abets our enemies in making fresh converts and dominating otherwise opposed populations. Goodwill is not a vestigial resource: one less enemy you have to fight means more resources can be used to deal with the enemies you already have (“One war at a time”, as Lincoln famously remarked).
In the end, no matter whether the enhanced interrogation worked or did not work or whether it was torture or not torture, Americans need to repudiate those who claim it doesn’t matter. It does matter, whether you are conservative or liberal, because America did use something the world sees as torture, and that hurts us strategically and is morally repugnant at home and abroad. Did terrorists who planned attacks on American soldiers deserve discomfort and physical abuse? Yes, they deserved it, and they deserve to be punished, but in a way which validates American values. Those defending enhanced interrogation are not doing America any favors justifying our hypocrisy, even if it were effective. I am not recommending kid gloves for the enemies of the United States, but we need to remember that war and politics are a continuum, and that part of politics is the art of looking good.
Let’s try to look like John F Kennedy, and not like Dick Cheney.