If I Write About It, I’ll Feel Better

I’m starting to notice a trend among far right bloggers. Instead of insisting that particular interrogation techniques like waterboarding are not torture, and that what the rest of the world calls torture is not torture at all but simply “aggressive interrogation,” bloggers on the right are starting to acknowledge — sometimes tacitly, sometimes outright — that torture is torture.

And that torture is not necessarily a bad thing when the torturers are American.

Donald Douglas, who keeps a blog called “American Power,” falls into the “outright” category:

The left blogosphere has erupted in anger this morning upon news that U.S. government interrogations at Guantanamo Bay may have been modeled on Chinese Communist techniques from the 1950s.

Eric Martin’s indignation is classic:

Shame. Profound and bitter shame. I want more from my country than for our top government officials to go diving in the dumpsters of Communist regimes in order to recycle discarded manuals on torture. And for all you apologists and semantic hair splitters that insist on dancing the torture/not torture two step: you’ve been had. Not that you’d know it or admit it.

Anyway, there’s a presidential election this November. One of the candidates, John McCain, wants to continue to permit our government to engage in a policy of torture gleaned from observing the methods employed by brutal Communist regimes. The other candidate, Barack Obama, doesn’t.

Tough choice.

Martin’s profound simplicity is mirrored by many other antiadministration bloggers. One lefty commentator notes that this story “captures the moral failings of Bush’s war on terror.”

But does it? Is the application of torture as state policy so easily reduced to knee-jerk moral condemnation?

I don’t think so.

Mr. Douglas’s argument for why he doesn’t think so comes down to nothing more fancy than the fact that John McCain and “political scientist Jeremy Slater” both say that torture may sometimes be necessary. If you’re looking for anything more nuanced than that, you won’t find it at Douglas’s place.

Ed Morrissey falls into the “tacit” category. He doesn’t come right out and say he supports torture, but he doesn’t have too much fault to find with it, either. His explanation for why it’s no big deal that training classes at Guantanamo used Chinese Communist torture regimens as teaching material goes like this:

The question is whether Biderman’s chart was used as a template for tactics at all, or whether it served as a conceptual look at techniques and their limits. The Times appears to be less clear on how the chart was used:

The documents released last month include an e-mail message from two SERE trainers reporting on a trip to Guantánamo from Dec. 29, 2002, to Jan. 4, 2003. Their purpose, the message said, was to present to interrogators “the theory and application of the physical pressures utilized during our training.”

The sessions included “an in-depth class on Biderman’s Principles,” the message said, referring to the chart from Mr. Biderman’s 1957 article. Versions of the same chart, often identified as “Biderman’s Chart of Coercion,” have circulated on anti-cult sites on the Web, where the methods are used to describe how cults control their members.

This material got presented, therefore, in an overview of what drove SERE, and the concepts used in training Americans to resist torture and mistreatment. This became important because the Gitmo interrogators saw evidence thatAQ detainees had received resistance training prior to their capture, and needed some indication of what that training may have prepared them to resist. The trainers noted in their overview that the individual physical pressures had to be evaulated and determined appropriate before implementation, but the overall point was to emphasize the total “captive environment”. The trainers also noted that the physical pressures actually mattered much less than the psychological pressures.

The question, now as before, is which of these techniques actually came into play, not whether they appeared on a chart in a classroom setting. According to the support materials provided by the Times and their actual reporting, it’s not clear that any of the objectionable techniques were used — although with the use of waterboarding an established fact (and used prior to this briefing by SERE trainers), one can certainly assume that at least some of them did get used. That should be a matter for closed-session investigations by Congress and the DoD. Apparently, no one has found any evidence outside of this training briefing.

Shorter Ed: Well, they taught the Al Qaeda technique for bomb-building in class, but there’s no evidence any of the students actually built a bomb, or tried to blow up the student center.

But that’s not even the worst. The worst is this (with my bolds):

The Times notes that the Biderman article title emphasizes “false” confessions, but I suspect that the Pentagon worried a lot more about preventing the release of real intelligence through POW interrogations. False confessions cause embarrassment, but the uncovering of factual intel costs lives and harms military objectives.

“False confessions cause embarrassment.” Embarrassment? To whom? Why, to the interrogators who tortured those false confessions out of the prisoners, that’s who! It’s kinda mortifying to have to admit you tried to drown someone, or forced them to stay awake for two weeks running, or kept them in a cell the size of a box with no lights, no windows, no sounds except for endless recordings of crying babies, and no human contact for months on end, and that you finally got their minds to break and got them to confess to the terrorist attack you knew they were planning, and then– oh.my.GOD! — IT WAS A FALSE CONFESSION! They didn’t, actually, really, know anything about any terrorist plot! (Oh, for you technophobes, the specialized term for that is “INNOCENT.”)

How EMBARRASSING for the administrators!

Needless to say, there is no need to concern ourselves about, or even think about, the kind of suffering that must have been inflicted on that prisoner to make him confess to something he didn’t do or to knowledge he didn’t have. That… that… thing in there is only another piece of subhuman scum vermin (as one of Ed’s readers kindly pointed out) for whom one need not feel even as much concern as one might feel for the fly you swat in the kitchen.

6 Responses to “If I Write About It, I’ll Feel Better”

  1. Cernig says:

    If D.Douglas is using Jeremy Slater as a source then he’s being incredibly intellectually dishonest. Slater makes it quite clear he’s arguing from strict utilitarian grounds, not the absolute morality that Douglas always says he believes in. Slater also argues that the process should be inside a legal framework, with “torture warrants” issued by civil judges based upon some form of extreme “just cause” and explicitly states that the secret system practised by the Bush administration is both harmful and illegal. He can’t agree with Slater’s argument and his previous moral positions without paradox. I wonder if he explains that to his rightwing readers?

    However, Slater’s argument is deeply flawed even on a utilitarian basis. For instance, he argues that torturing innocents is no more problemmatic than imprisoning innocents, yet makes no argument that these two things are a difference in degree rather than kind. The counterargument, of course, is that prison is meant to be for rehabilitiation and unhazardous to life and limb (that it often isn’t is a failure of the extant prison system, not of the concept) whereas torture is intended to cause harm and pain – making it indeed a difference of kind, requiring a far more rigorous argument for ignoring possible harm to innocents than Slater’s analogy provides. Neither does Slater address the question of what would be proper compensation for wrongful torture – whereas the legal system pertaining to imprisonment allows for penalties ranging from hefty financial compensation in accidental cases to trial and imprisonment for deliberate ones. Would Slater, and thus Douglas, be OK with similiar but even heavier penalties for those government agents who torture or arrange the torture of innocents?

    A good example of why political scientists shouldn’t do moral philosophy.

    Regards, C

  2. Bryan says:

    Kathy, have you gotten around to writing why you think waterboarding is torture? I’d like to hear the specific rationale you would use.

  3. Kathy says:


    I think you may have misunderstood the title of my post. “If I Write About It, I’ll Feel Better” was not a reference to a future post I was going to write. It was really a self-referential title: When I’m very angry or upset about something, it helps me to write about it. I was feeling that way when I read some of the response on the right to Christopher Hitchens’ experience being waterboarded. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I said to myself, If I write about it, I’ll feel better. That became the title of the post. Kinda silly, I know, since probably no one else “got” the title’s meaning except for me.

    I don’t really have anything more to say about why waterboarding is torture, beyond what Hitchens wrote in his article and my commentary on it. Waterboarding is really a misnomer, as Hitchens himself said. It should be called what it is: drowning, or attempted drowning.

  4. Kathy says:

    Bryan, not Byron. I’m sorry.

  5. Bryan says:

    I figured the title had something to do with anger you were feeling, but my question did not stem from any misunderstanding of the title. It stems from the fact that your writing indicates that you understand waterboarding as torture. Based on that indication, I am expressing curiosity regarding the foundation of that understanding.
    Don’t trouble yourself over the name thing. I’m not easily offended. Though I do appreciate your concern.

    Your last comment may be a good place to start. You call waterboarding attempted drowning. Yet the longest reported session of the modern waterboarding technique is about 30 seconds in duration (Hitchens’ experience by his own report was considerably shorter than that). Is it possible to drown somebody in that length of time?

  6. cha2 says:

    To: bigurl

    Time can’t measure
    The inner ambiance of
    Real friendship

    Though I’ve known you
    Just a time ago
    It felts that your already
    A part of my peculiar life. . .

    Every run of seconds
    I know and I hope
    That everything is true. . .

    0ne of my weakness is
    My friends. . .

    I am afraid that
    I would be making a fool
    Of my self again

    It hurts the deepest
    Part of me and it
    Lingers in every blood that
    Runs in my veins
    Remembering that everything
    I’ve done in making a home
    Is not good materials

    That’s why everytime
    Ii ’m making a home I’ll start it
    With a prayer. . .

    Prayer is indeed powerful!

    Thank you for entering the home I was about to build!


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