Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nothing Worthwhile

Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of France and later Emperor of the French, and without question a remarkable general and great homme de guerre, had the following to say about torture:  "The barbarous custom of having men beaten who are suspected of having secrets to reveal must be abolished.  It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile."

Most would agree that Napoleon was not a terribly squeamish fellow and not one to hesitate to kill vast numbers of men who stood in his way on the battlefield.  He is known to have committed what would today be considered a war crime by ordering the massacre of between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners of war during the siege of Jaffa.  He was not an especially delicate, namby-pamby, pacifist sort of fellow.  He was ruthless in the pursuit of his goals and in waging war.  He was also, by all accounts, almost frighteningly intelligent.  His assessment of torture as barbarous and worthless thus must be respected, even by the most virulent of our many arm-chair generals.

A report on the interrogation techniques employed by Central Intelligence Agency has been released, and it is not such as to redound to the credit of that organization.  Regrettably, that organization is closely associated with our Great Republic, and its conduct is taken by many to be the conduct of the United States.  So there has been concern, which is probably well-founded, that it will lead to our nation as being considered something less than the last best hope of the world.  Whether it will result in violence towards U.S. soldiers and citizens remains to be seen, at least at the time this is being written.

The potential for violence is of greater concern, to me, than the potential for disillusionment.  That the CIA engaged in questionable interrogation techniques and even torture in some cases has been strongly suspected by if not known to many for some time now.  Some, unfortunately, even glory in it, or at the least consider it a necessary evil.  I think this is to take an extremely selfish and short-sighted view.  Those who applaud torture are generally those who are unlikely to be tortured.  But as they sow, so shall those who put themselves in danger on their behalf reap.  An enemy who considers himself to be subject to torture by us will be inclined to torture us if they can. 

So the disillusionment of the world with the practices of our City on a Hill in pursuit of information is likely something we are confronted with already.  That such disillusionment will be bolstered or considered supported by this report is not a significant worry.  If violence will result, as it seems many believe will be the case, that is another thing.  It would seem to make more sense to prosecute or punish torturers and abolish torture than to flaunt instances of torture, particularly where violence is likely to result.  And of course flaunting them for political purposes is inappropriate; but I'm not convinced that is what is taking place.

I take it as a given that we should know what is done in our name.  Such knowledge is required for any honest and honorable assessment of our policy and ourselves.  A determined ignorance of such things is sought only by the weak and the callous among us.  If we are going to sanction torture, we should damn well know what torture is rather than seek to wrap ourselves in scented cotton-wool and leave the dirty work and knowledge of it to others.

Most of all, however, we should know that if we sanction torture we must expect that others will torture as well.  We can't pontificate when others engage in it without being hypocrites, and contemptible ones at that.  We should also know, though, that the efficacy of torture has been doubted even by such as the Corsican Ogre. 

Should we accept, without question, the claims of those who torture that the torture was necessary and produced valuable results?   I would say no, if it was accepted even by Napoleon that it was useless.  We should put them to the proof.  And what if the proof is provided?  Is the torture then justified?

The intentional infliction of great pain in the form of torture would not be justified merely by the fact that valuable information is obtained, because torture by others would in that case be justified.   The assessment to be made and the factors to be weighed are not so simple.  We would render ourselves and others subject to torture if we accept such a rationale.  Following orders has also been justified as valuable, because it contributes to order and efficiency, and we've seen the results.

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