Sunday, September 24, 2006

How the Torture Policy Will Really Work
Amidst all the protestations from the pro-torture right about the need for "clarity" in interpreting the Geneva Conventions (a need that evidently never existed before this war and, for that matter, this election cycle, but never mind that for now), and various theoretical explications of why maybe torture isn't so bad, and more fevered notions of how we need to torture or else we're all gonna die, something important has been missing from the conversation. To me, this is first and foremost about American values and American claims to moral leadership in a conflicted world. It's sadly clear that the people now in charge of our country don't care a fig about our values and traditions--and it seems more likely than not that they envy the "operational freedom" of the terrorists to act as they feel they must. They see our values and our moral premises as a shackle, not a strength.

But I'm not even thinking, right now, about that. I'm thinking about how this is going to work in practice. Not in a movie script scenario where the hardened terrorist won't tell the particulars of the evil plot. But how it's going to work with the poor schmuck who's picked up in a sweep of a Baghdad neighborhood one evening right before curfew.

On a secure phone, the supervisor of the facility is being yelled at by someone who was yelled at by someone who was yelled at by someone who was yelled at by Donald Rumsfeld or David Addington. The supervisor has a career to consider; he's got a wife and two kids, and he's worried about how he's going to take care of them.

One of his deputies notices that this poor schmuck who the patrol just picked up looks like someone on a watch list. Or maybe he has the same last name but for one letter that might have been screwed up in a transliteration.

And the two of them figure, okay, there's now a policy in place that "harsh methods" are allowed. It's not really torture, because it isn't rape or Nazi Doctors stuff; they're just going to have to stand naked for 20 hours in a 50-degree cell with Megadeth's second album blasting at 130 decibels, on repeat. It's just discomfort.

Now, maybe this prisoner has an undiagnosed medical condition--high blood pressure, irritable bowel, a kidney problem. He can't go to the bathroom, so he starts to foul himself in the cell. Every half-hour, a contractor from Blackwater comes into the cell, motions to the guard, and the guard pauses the CD. The contractor asks a few questions that our poor schmuck doesn't know the answers to; when the contractor/interrogator doesn't get the answers he wants, he throws a few biffs and baffs, and now the guy has a bloody nose and a black eye. After a few hours, he goes home to his hotel, and another interrogator comes and starts the whole thing again.

This interrogator, though, thinks that she's much better at her job than the blockhead now on his way home for a late dinner and some pay-per-view; her daring, outside-the-box methods might involve grabbing the guy's balls, or trying to force-feed him a pork chop. Okay, maybe some pencil-necked lib lawyer would argue that this is "humiliating or degrading" under Article 3 of Geneva--but that lib lawyer will never know, of course. So why not? Rumsfeld's office wants intel.

This goes on for about a day. Then the prisoner is released, given some new clothes, maybe allowed to sleep for an hour before he's thrown out of the facility. There's another group of usual suspects since rounded up, and the whole thing starts again.

THIS is how the torture policy will work in the real world. Not ripping off fingernails until the turbaned terrorist finally admits where the nuke is. Just a lot of "banality of evil," that ultimately probably will create some real terrorists.

Maybe not until the next time we need to go into the middle east to test out some think tanker's theory about pre-emption, but it will happen, and our own sins will be revisited upon us.

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