Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Tormentors

Parapundit links to a Mark Bowden (Blackhawk Down) interview on the use of torture. Bowden uses the word "coercive interrogation" to refer to the whole spectrum of pressures which can be applied to a suspect to extract information or cooperation. Many types of coercive interrogation are actually legal, even when more distressing to the subject than traditional physical violence. "In fact, the word 'torture' does not even apply when interrogators employ only moderate physical and psychological pressure, Bowden argues". But Bowden less interested in the ironies of torture than whether "coercive interrogation" should be used -- and perhaps used more often -- in the War on Terror.

Bowden begins by noting that coercive interrogation fell into almost total disuse in the period before September 11:

It's fairly clear that starting in the mid-1970s, when there was a general crackdown on the CIA, the United States stopped using coercive methods of interrogation for a long period of time—although I believe they started up again after September 11.

That provides the setting for the question he really wants to pose: is coercion ever justified if it will save lives. He sets forth his position this way:

I set out to do this story without any clear idea of how I felt, other than a sense that in certain circumstances it seemed that torture was the appropriate thing to do. But I hadn't made a serious study of the matter, and I really didn't know how I would feel about it when I got to the end of writing this article. So what you see in the course of this article is me wrestling with the implications of torture and the current situation and what I really think about it. Like any sensitive person, I don't relish the idea of inflicting pain on someone, or making someone miserable. But by the same token, if you can save lives—if people are plotting mass murder and you have a chance of preventing it—it's hard to argue against whatever methods work. And so I wanted to know how I felt about it, what exactly I was talking about, what was being practiced by people today and whether it was legal or not. Those are the questions that I've tried to answer. And I know the Administration, judging by its reluctance to cooperate with me in any way, was not particularly eager for me or anyone else to do this.

Bowden comes to the conclusion that "coercive interrogation" beyond certain strictly defined limits should never be legally permitted but quietly practiced when absolutely necessary. He argues that maintaining "coercive interrogation" as contrary to policy will ensure it will be resorted to only under extraordinary circumstances -- when those who apply it feel so situationally compelled that they are willing to run the risk of imprisonment to attempt it.

So I agree with Jessica Montell, the very articulate activist I interviewed in Israel, in saying that if the law bans torture, at least those people who are practicing coercion have to face the possibility of being held accountable for their actions. The law acts as a constraint on the use of coercion.

Randall Parker disagrees. He thinks this dualistic attitude is not only mentally dishonest, it also forces low level subordinates to assume the legal liability for pursuing tacit national policy. "The public shouldn't be allowed to morally have it both ways. Ditto for leaders. This is corrupting and unfair to those who protect us and dishonors them." Under this dictum, any coercion applied to a terrorist must be explicitly authorized by policy as exercised by responsible officials.

Yet moral issues aside, is explicit authorization for coercion even practical? The usual examples used to justify coercion normally involve scenarios when innocent lives can be saved by extracting time-critical piece of information from a ruthless enemy. This best describes tactical interrogation, which often occurs opportunistically, in the field, far from any judges, ombudsmen or lawyers, under conditions of uncertainty and unbearable time pressure. But any time an interrogator can afford the delay necessary to authorize coercion is a circumstance he almost certainly doesn't need to use it. And for that reason Bowden may be right. Almost any conceivable system of authorized coercion will be unjustifiable, given the time overhead and the availability of alternative compulsions within broadly legal limits. And almost any morally justifiable act of coercion will arise in circumstances which often cannot even be foreseen and where obtaining the necessary permission is impractical.

While conceding the justice of Randall Parker's argument, the most practical attitude is probably Bowden's. Excessive coercion should remain illegal except in circumstances so grave that nobody gives a damn.