Friday, May 07, 2004

POW Backlash? Radley provides a useful roundup of the pro-war dismissal of the Abu Ghraib issue. I agree with his criticisms, even though I've been pretty dismissive myself. But I'd like to use Radley's post as a springboard for clarity. Alan Dershowitz was on NPR this morning (I'll try to rouse myself to link when they put it up; it was a short clip anyway), and he managed to make the point pretty succinctly. I'll have to paraphrase: He said that the problem here is not what we did to Iraqi POWs. In fact, we may need to use some forms of coercion, including humiliation and threats, to do the job in Iraq, to gather intelligence, to ward off attacks. (Dershowitz has famously written on the justified uses of torture.) The problem, said Dershowitz, is that we are having this conversation now, rather than two years ago. We need to decide, at the highest levels, where we will draw the line on coercion, and enforce that policy. Instead, the government is deliberately vague as a matter of policy, which emboldens those who execute policy at the hands-on level to improvise until they are caught.

I would imagine Radley's already seen it, but everyone crying about torture at Abu Ghraib should sit down with Mark Bowden's Atlantic article on torture and shut up until they've read it and formulated a clear, bright line on torture. After that, if someone still wants to make POW camps a coercion-free zone, I'll accept that opinion -- though I think it a ridiculous and poorly reasoned policy. But too much of the head shaking and tongue clucking over the issue has come from people who haven't thought it out.

I think humiliation, disorientation, discomfort, sleep deprivation, and the like are totally fair game. Even a certain amount of non-deadly force and pain is completely reasonable. Solitary confinement, darkness, "cells of little ease": these are within bounds. Threats of death and threats of actual torture draw up next to that line I draw. Beatings cross the line. Besides, I think physical torture is of little effect anyway. A person in the throes of such suffering will say whatever makes the pain stop. That kind of torture is solely for the satisfaction of the captor, and serves no tactical purpose other than to instill fear in those not yet captured.

In other words, Muslims with panties on their heads, laughed at by infidel women, and led on leashes is not only acceptable, it is probably the most highly effective of the humiliation techniques for these prisoners, since both women and sex are, to some extent, unclean.

Again, I need to emphasize that these same acts of humiliation, when done for sport or to "blow off steam," are unnecessary, unproductive, and dishonorable. At the very least, they call for non-judicial punishment. Similarly, if prisoners are obviously not in a position to yield quality intelligence, these tactics are gratuitous. I would guess that only about 10-20% of the POWs can offer us anything of value. And we know who they are; the rest we are just keeping off the streets.

So there are some crimes to be prosecuted here, and some acts that we should, maybe, be ashamed of. But, to take things up to Radley's level of rhetoric, let's have some f*cking perspective.


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