Posts Tagged ‘American Jacobin’

When Obama Should Torture Osama

Monday, April 27th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I feel compelled to respond to Michael Scheuer’s op-ed in the Washington Post. A friend of mine who is in military intelligence brought the story to my attention with an approving comment.

Scheuer is a interesting thinker who have lived and breathed the world of Al Qaeda since before anyone else knew its name. His analysis is always interesting – but his opinions are usually marred by his constant imputation of base motives to anyone with whom he disagrees on policy grounds. This often makes him sound like a political hack rather than an intelligence analyst. In his most recent op-ed, he claims that Barack Obama is “a genuine American Jacobin” placing ideology above reality. (Scheuer doesn’t acknowledge that one of the worse abuses of the real-life Jacobins was their torturing of opponents.) Scheuer goes on:

[T]he president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

Scheuer believes that by ending American torture, the administration is “enthroning Obama’s personal morality as U.S. defense policy.” He argues that the bases for getting rid of torture are simply lies – that torture did not inflame Muslim anger and that it is effective. Scheuer fails to make either point convincingly.

His proof that torture did not inflame the Muslim world is that other things make them madder. (“[T]hey do not even make the Islamists’ hit parade of anti-U.S. recruiting tools”.) Certainly, American torture was not one of the core objections of Al Qaeda – but it did apparently inflame the insurgency in Iraq – as any student of history could have predicted, as torture has served a similar purpose in Algeria under French occupation and in Ireland under British occupation.

On torture’s effectiveness, Scheuer simply expresses outrage that Obama would implicity question the integrity of those who authorized torture. (“[T]he president used his personal popularity and the stature of his office to implicitly identify as liars those former senior U.S. officials who know…that the interrogation techniques have yielded intelligence essential to the nation’s defense.”) Scheuer point should be complicated by the fact that these officials now are seen to be liars because came forward to publicly castigate President Obama, at least in part on false premises – not because the president went out of his way to paint them as liars

Most inanely, Scheuer seems to think that it is merely Obama’s “personal morality” rather than a concern for Rule of Law and our national character that motivates him. This assumption of Scheuer’s part makes him look like a political hack – as Obama has always expressed his opposition to torture as a matter of law and national morality – rather than his own human queasiness. It’s hard to understand how Scheuer can get into the mind of an Al Qaeda operative and convincingly describe the motives of a terrorist but is unwilling or unable to convincingly describe the thought-processes of his opponents closer to home, such as the president.

But the most interesting point Scheuer makes is in his opening hypothetical situation- which he abruptly drops in favor of his piss-poor political analysis. 

The scenario Scheuer describes is this: we have captured Osama Bin Laden. He declares that he knows where and when a devastating nuclear attack will hit America, but he refuses to give any further information. Scheuer presumes torture is an efficient method of getting information, a kind of magical truth serum. This is the type of ticking-time-bomb scenario that theorists often discuss but has never yet happened in recorded history.

Under these circumstances, Scheuer explains, Obama must order Bin Laden be tortured.

Given this hypothetical example – and if torture was believed to be effective – even Obama would have to agree based on his public statements and liberal positions. This is what Scheuer does not understand. 

Liberals do not oppose torture merely because they think it makes us look bad in the eyes of the world or because it violates their individual ethical principles or because they do not believe America has ruthless enemies or because they instinctually take the side of America’s enemies – all of whcih either Scheuer or various other right-wingers have suggsted. Liberals oppose torture because they know history – and they know that even the great and good can be corrupted by power. That means, even America can be corrupted.

America was founded on a certain conception of the individual as having inalienable right that cannot be abrogated by the state. Because of this, America has always been able to differentiate itself from it’s enemies by the fact that it did not torture. While the British tortured Americans during the Revolution, our fledgling nation survived; as the American and Soviet armies marched across Germany our reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners led the highest value Germans to flee towards American lines to surrender to us. To highlight this fundamental difference with our enemies, Ronald Reagan championed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Liberals believe in the idea that is America – and refuse to preemptively surrender it out of fear. Liberals know that once a government is allowed to torture, it is a very slippery slope to tyranny. Which is why this torture debate has never been about the terrorists – it is about us.

Which is why I am sure that Obama would, and if not he should, order that Bin Laden be tortured in the hypothetical example above. But to preserve the Rule of Law and “the idea that is America,” he would not try to hide behind talk of “bad apples” and legalistic memos. He would have to take personal responsibility for this extraordinary and illegal use of authority – and once the crisis has passed he would have to appoint a special prosecutor to examine his actions and put them before the public in an open and transparent matter.

To preserve the Rule of Law, any one who ordered torture or who tortured would have to place himself or herself at the mercy of the public and law enforcement. 

Postscript: Antother thing that Scheuer fails to acknowledge is that George W. Bush’s torture regime was nothing like the hypothetical he offered. Torture did not work quickly – and indeed lasted for months in the publicly acknowledged cases. Interrogators had no ticking time bombs forcing their hand. And in fact, we also know that some false information gleaned from torture was used to justify the Iraq war. This is what torture has always been good for – not as a truth serum, but for extracting politically necessary confessions.

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