Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Meandering From Torture to Mr. Spock (another transfer)

Posted by Gerald on June 1, 2007

In The Economist last week there were two stories that caught my eye.  One discussed a recent survey the Pentagon’s mental-health advisory team administered to about 2000 soldiers and marines in
Iraq.  4 in 10 believed that torture should be permitted if it would save the life of another soldier.  Only slightly less believed torture should be used to extract important information about Iraqi insurgents, and less than half believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect (language straight out of the Geneva Conventions.)  The longer the soldier or marine had been in
Iraq, the more likely they were to favor the use of torture.  The second story dealt with an incident in
Afghanistan that we are all likely to hear more about in weeks to come.  A Marine counterterrorism unit operating near Jalalabad suffered a suicide bomb attack.  They responded by shooting up civilian vehicles along a 16km stretch of road, killing 19 civilians and wounding 50 more.  Much like the Haditha incident in 2005, the marines involved then tried to cover up the incident.  The American military command has apologized and paid reparations to the families involved.  Still, Hamid Karzai warned that Afghan civilians’ patience with foreign troops was “wearing thin” and the Afghan parliament’s upper house called for a cease-fire, negotiations with the Taliban, and a date for the withdrawal of foreign troops.


All of which leads me to Jack Bauer and the Republican presidential debate.

Last night I watched the less-than-thrilling conclusion to the most recent season of 24.  I’m not going to review it or to discuss why this season sucked (at least not now).  During this season there were episodes where Bauer and the CTU folks “did what they had to do” to get the information.  This led to a small flurry of news articles about torture in 24, and its impact on American military personnel.  This was related, of course, to the ongoing debate in our country raised by Gitmo, and Abu Grahib, and secret prisons in
Eastern Europe, and shipping folks off to countries we usually condemn on human rights grounds.

This also came up during the recent Republican Presidential debates, when the moderator asked the candidates if they would condone torture if it would save American lives.  Some said “yes,” some found ways to say “yes” without saying “yes” by using other phrases that all actually mean torture.  And then we had the one guy in the group who had actually been tortured.  He, oddly enough, seemed to oppose the whole thing.

Whether we are looking at the questions raised by the Pentagon, the fictional situations in 24, or the moderator’s question, there is always one assumption.  That the person being questioned absolutely does have some vitally important information that absolutely will save the lives of many people.  Here is a problem.

The advocates of torture nod at the idea that it is morally wrong, but make a utility argument that the greater evil is the death of innocent victims or American servicemen.  “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one,” to quote Mr. Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (he might have borrowed that.)  So, break out the waterboard and go to work, Jack.  The weakness here is that humans don’t operate in a universe where outcomes are that certain, although many seem to think they do.  All those folks we’ve grabbed up and sent to Cuba (and there is some historical irony in itself) MIGHT know about the “next 9/11” but they also MIGHT know a really good recipe for couscous and that
America is the Great Satan – and that’s it.  Unlike Jack Bauer, we never really KNOW that someone else KNOWS something, we just believe they do.  The straw man of certainty is the great lie, and we have let it guide our policies for far too long.

So what does this have to do with Iraq and
Afghanistan?  Those soldiers who were questioned in
Iraq were shown a straw man and asked to comment.  People who have been in danger themselves and who have seen others like themselves die in sniper attacks and roadside bombs were asked if they would be willing to hurt one of their enemies to save themselves and their friends.  I actually think it is a testament to these people and their ideals that LESS than half said yes.  For those that did say yes, well, I’ve never been in a war but I don’t see how that experience can’t wear down a person’s humanity a bit.  A military reflects the society that produces it, good and bad.  Some of those people were probably a bit low on humanity to begin with.  Throw in stress, fear, uncertainty, and the realities of how humans behave in groups and we have the incident outside Jalalabad, or Haditha, or, for that matter,
My Lai.  This is inevitable, and so we get to the reactions of those facing our guns, and the thin patience of the Afghan people.


One Response to “Meandering From Torture to Mr. Spock (another transfer)”

  1. Heidi said

    Since at least the Nazi camps and the resulting experiments on authoritarianism coducted by Stanley Milgram in the early sixties, we should be already have become aware that the need obey and the need for military desensitzing to killing people will create this kind of behavior. That’s why human rights agreements were written. That’s why the Geneva Convention exists. It’s an attempt to reign in some of the excesses that are bound to follow armed conflict and war. It’s the nature of the beast. War is hell. And so on.

    It’s one of the reasons that chickenhawks are so eager for the plunder of war – they haven’t been there. I suspect some of them lack the basic empathy for others that would prevent them from being sociopaths.

    As a corollary to that, I don’t think they really understand what those circumstances can do to people. Look for some pretty angry vets over the next few years. Maybe the American public will listen to them.

    Meanwhile, it looks as though the Iraqi parliament may set some timetables for our withdrawal. It will be pretty hard to continue to argue for the occupation then.

    BTW, I’ve tagged you for Random 8.

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