Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hysteria from Reason

Cathy Young’s Op Ed column in Monday's Boston Globe, entitled “How Much Torture is OK?” is her response to a far superior piece in the Weekly Standard by Charles Krauthammer. Young’s column is unreasonable and (dare I say it?) hysterical. It is too bad Globe readers have to put up with 2nd rate columns like this. The key point Young makes is here:
Krauthammer concludes that McCain's uncompromising stance is partly for show. He urges us to abandon ''moral preening" and honestly admit that sometimes, ''we must all be prepared to torture."
Yet what good will such honesty accomplish? Yes, a ''no torture" stance is likely to be qualified with tacit acknowledgment that, under narrow and extreme circumstances, the rules may be bent. That seems vastly preferable to open endorsement of torture. If we start with a ''thou shalt not torture" absolute, we are likely to be vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the premise that torture is sometimes acceptable, there's no telling how low we're going to go on that slippery slope.
What good will such honesty accomplish? Just one little thing, Cathy. It will bring these actions of government under the rule of law. Instead, what you propose would give bureaucrats the self-determined authority to, as you say, bend the rules under narrow and extreme circumstances. Tolerance of such practices outside of existing rules is not a formula for 'vigilance'. On the contrary, it is exactly this sort of confusion about what was and was not allowed that was the infection precipitating the Abu Ghirab abuses. Krauthammer correctly rebukes the Bush administration for this when he says:
The Bush administration is to be faulted for having attempted such a codification with the kind of secrecy, lack of coherence, and lack of strict enforcement that led us to the McCain reaction.
Once you have placed such action outside the rule of law, Cathy, you will find the slope very slippery indeed. Cathy, a contributing editor of Reason magazine, is here contributing instead to foolishness.

Just for the record, below is the text from Krauthammer’s superb Weekly Standard article with his recommendations, which do not at all constitute the "open endorsement of torture" charged by Young. The contrast with Young's work shows all too clearly the lesser quality of Globe Op Ed columns, including those written by their token conservatives.
Begin, as McCain does, by banning all forms of coercion or inhuman treatment by anyone serving in the military--an absolute ban on torture by all military personnel everywhere. We do not want a private somewhere making these fine distinctions about ticking and slow-fuse time bombs. We don't even want colonels or generals making them. It would be best for the morale, discipline, and honor of the Armed Forces for the United States to maintain an absolute prohibition, both to simplify their task in making decisions and to offer them whatever reciprocal treatment they might receive from those who capture them--although I have no illusion that any anti-torture provision will soften the heart of a single jihadist holding a knife to the throat of a captured American soldier. We would impose this restriction on ourselves for our own reasons of military discipline and military honor.

Outside the military, however, I would propose, contra McCain, a ban against all forms of torture, coercive interrogation, and inhuman treatment, except in two contingencies: (1) the ticking time bomb and (2) the slower-fuse high-level terrorist (such as KSM). Each contingency would have its own set of rules. In the case of the ticking time bomb, the rules would be relatively simple: Nothing rationally related to getting accurate information would be ruled out. The case of the high-value suspect with slow-fuse information is more complicated. The principle would be that the level of inhumanity of the measures used (moral honesty is essential here--we would be using measures that are by definition inhumane) would be proportional to the need and value of the information. Interrogators would be constrained to use the least inhumane treatment necessary relative to the magnitude and imminence of the evil being prevented and the importance of the knowledge being obtained.

These exceptions to the no-torture rule would not be granted to just any nonmilitary interrogators, or anyone with CIA credentials. They would be reserved for highly specialized agents who are experts and experienced in interrogation, and who are known not to abuse it for the satisfaction of a kind of sick sadomasochism Lynndie England and her cohorts indulged in at Abu Ghraib. Nor would they be acting on their own. They would be required to obtain written permission for such interrogations from the highest political authorities in the country (cabinet level) or from a quasi-judicial body modeled on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (which permits what would ordinarily be illegal searches and seizures in the war on terror).

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