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Hornswaggle is an alternate spelling of hornswoggle, an archaic word that means to bamboozle or hoodwink. I take my pronunciation from the late Harvey Korman in "Blazing Saddles" --

"I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, conmen, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass kickers, shit kickers and Methodists!"

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A few more words on torture

I have some leftover thoughts on the torture memos that I wanted to clear out of the mental queue, even as I've already fallen behind the latest developments. I'll post them as responses to some of the people who have chimed in on the subject in the past several days.

Michael Hayden and Michael Mukasey: In their Wall Street Journal op-ed, they wrote the following about releasing the memos:

It will also incur the utter contempt of our enemies. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the people who beheaded Nicholas Berg and Daniel Pearl, and have tortured and slain other American captives, are likely to be shamed into giving up violence by the news that the U.S. will no longer interrupt the sleep cycle of captured terrorists even to help elicit intelligence that could save the lives of its citizens.

As dday noted over at Digby's blog, it's interesting that they seem to think we should sink to the level of our most depraved enemies. Maybe we should start sawing people's heads off too, since it's so bad-ass? It's as if Bush administration officials had a perverse desire to impress these people with how tough we are. Personally, I don't care whether they think we're tough. I just want to defeat them.

The United States must hold itself to a higher standard, without worrying about the impression it'll make on the most bloodthirsty members of al-Qaida in Iraq. We must meet this standard first and foremost because it's the right thing to do. But it's also in our national interest to show the world through our actions -- and not through our words alone, which was the Bush strategy -- that we are a decent and law-abiding nation.

We'll never eliminate terrorism. But at the margins we can bring down the number of disadvantaged youths in the Middle East who are recruited into terrorism by improving the image of the United States and demonstrating that we actually stand for democratic values.

Hayden and Mukasey's take here embodies the way in which the concept of "strength" was distorted during the reign of Bush and Cheney, where acting out of fear and unleashing our most primitive instincts was portrayed as being strong. If someone startles you by tapping you on the shoulder and you wheel around and deck him, is that strength? Or does the strong person have the clarity of mind to turn around first to see whether it's an Islamic terrorist or Phil from accounting?

The other thing about the Michaels' WSJ piece, of course, is their focus on Abu Zubaydah. They use him as the basis for their claim that torture produced results, but evidence continues to mount that this was simply not the case.

Ron Suskind reported that Zubaydah was mentally ill, as evidenced by his journal, which he wrote in the voices of three different characters. A Bush official has said Zubaydah was "crazy like a fox" and wrote that way to throw off his captors. I suppose that's possible, though I'm not inclined to give any Bush official the benefit of the doubt. But the idea that Team Bush was torturing a mental patient, all the while thinking he was a devious mastermind who was trying to outwit them with his special journal, is, putting aside the war-crimes stuff, some pretty fertile comedic territory. Did he use one of those four-color pens, with a different color for each voice? Or maybe it was a My Little Pony pencil with multi-colored streamers coming off the end?

Charles Krauthammer: Leaving aside his dismissal of whether the interrogation techniques described in the memos are actually torture, there's a logical fallacy that underlies his stated belief that the techniques are effective.

Krauthammer's argument, shared by many other conservative commentators, is that we haven't had another major attack since Sept. 11 -- ipso facto, torturing terrorist suspects a) was effective and b) prevented those attacks.

He does not consider the possibility that other factors are responsible, including the myriad other methods of intelligence gathering (legal and illegal), heightened security measures and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (I've never bought the "We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" justification for the Iraq War -- one does not preclude the other -- but clearly post-invasion Iraq has served as flypaper for thousands of thugs and al-Qaida recruits). Generally speaking, the impact of the political and institutional focus and resources that were brought to bear on the fight against terrorism following 9/11, the mother of all wake-up calls, cannot be overstated.

Mike Allen: He made an unintentionally revealing comment, referring to Salon's Glenn Greenwald, in his vapid response to criticism in the liberal blogosphere of his granting anonymity to a former Bush administration official who opposed the release of the torture memos:

Greenwald was very decent when we were on a panel together, so there’s a certain World Wrestling Entertainment element to these blog slams: It’s just business — everyone needs content.

Greenwald was polite to Mike Allen in person. Rather than infer that, although the world of political opinion leads to heated disputes, writers like Greenwald are capable of being civil to people with whom they have disagreements, Allen concludes that Greenwald can't possibly believe everything he writes.

This gets right at the pure cynicism that underlies the thinking of many Beltway journalists. Torture? Illegal wiretapping? Who cares? It's all just part of a political game. It doesn't occur to Allen that Greenwald genuinely believes in the principles he relentlessly espouses at Salon.

Also, quick note to Mike Allen: Andrew Sullivan is not a liberal.

Scott Shane: He's the author of several recent New York Times articles on torture. On Sunday, Shane took to the pages of the Week in Review section for a rather thin examination of the question: Why does torture bother us so much?

It's not that it's a bad question to ask, although he overstates the degree to which Americans actually seem to care about torture, it's that the piece is rather poorly thought out. I imagine he was extremely busy last week and didn't have enough time to devote to it. But if I were his Week in Review editor, I would have pulled the plug and told him to come back next week.

His general question is why all the horrible things that happen on the battlefield seem to affect us less than torture does. First off, I'm not sure Americans have been all that affected by the revelations that the U.S. tortured people. I certainly haven't noticed any "national soul-searching." What I've seen instead, sadly, is a lot of national shoulder-shrugging.

Secondly, there are some rather basic distinctions between what happens on the battlefield and when prisoners are captured. For one, soldiers who are engaged with the enemy are fighting for their lives, whereas captors are operating in a controlled environment. I'm sure there's all sorts of material on the history of combat that Shane could have consulted. I suppose it would have been interesting if he had delved into the question of when humans first decided that wars should be subject to rules of engagement and that prisoners should be given certain rights and not summarily executed, but that's not what he does here.

The specific point that Shane gets at concerns a drone firing a missile into a village in, say, Afghanistan and killing a dozen people. Why doesn't that upset us as much as torture, he asks?

Well, it's taking place thousands of miles across the ocean, for one thing, and it's human nature to feel less connected to those things that either you cannot see or occur in remote, unfamiliar places.

Furthermore, we are at war in Afghanistan, and we rely on drones, for better or worse, in part because we don't have enough troops to cover the ground there. It's terrible when innocent people are killed in these attacks, but there are particular reasons for the U.S. military's reliance on drones that have to do with operational constraints and other considerations. The use of drones is a thorny subject that's worthy of discussion, but the comparison is weak.

It just seems like a flimsy argument that Shane didn't have time to think through. Instead he gets a couple quotes from experts and calls it a day. And one obvious thing he doesn't mention is the psychological difference, as a member of the military, between pushing a button that causes a plume of dust and rock on a green night-vision screen and physically restraining someone and throwing them against a wall with a towel around their neck or simulating the sensation of drowning, while they beg for mercy. Kind of an obvious distinction there, and he doesn't even make it. He circles around the issue without actually seeing the point that needs to be driven home.

Marc Thiessen: Nothing really needs to be said about his despicable assertion that by torturing Muslims we're helping them fulfill their religious obligations. I do look forward to the articles destroying this line of reasoning, however, from people who actually know something about Islam.

Frances Townsend: Saw the former Department of Homeland Security official on CNN warning that releasing the torture memos will hurt the CIA's intelligence gathering efforts because it would send a message that the agency can't keep secrets. I don't recall hearing the Bush administration caring about that line of thinking, which is spurious in this case, when Valerie Plame was outed as a spy.

.: posted by hornswaggler 8:33 AM

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