Friday, February 15, 2008


I heard part of a BBC interview the other day on NPR wherein U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia proffered a justification for "so-called torture" (yes, his characterization), specifically alluding to actions such as "smacking someone in the face" (again, his exact words), or jamming sharp objects under the fingernails, or waterboarding. He drew a constitutional distinction between torturing convicts as punishment vs abusing detainees in the course of vital interrogation during this time of intractable, pandemic Terrah.

He, of course, trotted out the "known imminent threat" scenario, a tried-and-true "got'cha" gift that apparently keeps on giving.

I continue to find it perversely amusing that officials, who nearly always petulantly refuse to "answer a hypothetical," nonetheless trot them out without fail when convenient.

First, "known imminent threat" is an oxymoron. The befitting use of the term "threat" in this context is "hypothesized risk of unknown -- and frequently unknowable (or simply irrationally imagined) -- magnitude." "Risk," on the other hand, properly refers to potential adverse outcome of calculable mathematical dimension (however imprecise or otherwise arguable the estimation). As one who has spent much of my professional career working in quantitative risk analytics (a good bit of it at the forensic level), I worry ongoing about the slovenly state of empirical sociopolitical discourse.

Second, the only "known imminent threat" to have occurred within our borders during the past seven years
-- one pertaining to a "ticking nuclear time bomb" --, was found residing within the screenplay pages of the Fox TV "24" series.

Look, if you intend to assert the presence of "a clear and present danger" justifying extreme defensive countermeasures, say so unequivocally. Spare us the weasely and contradictory "known imminent threat" canard.

Moral (and war crimes) considerations aside for the moment, the utility of torture (always euphemistically referred to as "enhanced interrogation methods" by the Bush administration) hinges on several underexamined assumptions: [1] the "threat" is exigent and potentially horrific; [2] the detainee is an indisputably identified Bad Guy in possession of relevant threat-extinguishing information, and; [3] the extractive techniques will work.

We'll examine all of this shortly. Stay tuned. For now, consider the quite recent aggregate opinion of 43 retired U.S. military generals and admirals.

Ruminating on the foregoing, [1] What about the ostensible omnipresent "threat"? I, for one, will stipulate that it exists -- in the sense that we can assume that these bin Laden types would love to hit us again, and are working on it (though I would take issue with hyperbolic assertions of "grave," and "existential"). But when the administration vaguely asserts that their murky "enhanced interrogation" methods have "prevented numerous
post-9/11 attacks," I require specifics. Which, conveniently, will never be forthcoming. We are supposed to take it on faith. Among other apologies is the inevitable well-worn "we-cannot-risk-revealing-source-and-methods."

"Trust us"?

Our own government has never, and would never, lie to us in the service of political expediency, right?

[2] Various estimates peg the proportion of terrorist detainee "false positives" at as much as 90%. Go ahead; torture innocent and guilty alike. See what obtains, long-term (principally more intractable, and actionable hatred of the U.S.).

[3] How can you reliably determine that torture "works" (on the small cohort of true positives collared)? First, it simply cannot be studied empirically in controlled experimental fashion (e.g., a la Milgram or Zimbardo), and second, the bulk of relatively subjective yet "expert" opinion says otherwise -- unconfirmable "success" anecdotes notwithstanding.

Even the Israelis know the latter, a populace as experienced and in-the-direct-line-of-fire as they come.

When speculating on what torture is much more likely to serve to accomplish (beyond even more inflamed hatred toward us), we need but listen to the 43 generals and admirals cited above:
"We believe it is vital to the safety of our men and women in uniform that the United States not sanction the use of interrogation methods it would find unacceptable if inflicted by the enemy against captured Americans."
We go to Mr. Cheney's recommended "dark side" at our own peril. The potential utilitarian upside appears, by all rational accounts, to be highly dubious to nil, while the likely aggregate negative pragmatic and moral consequences should be self-evident upon the most concise of clear reflection.

Men like Dick Cheney are not "stupid," in the intellectual sense. Why, then, do they persist?

Oderint dum metuant? It should be beyond obvious by now that our enemies are not cowed by our bluster. If anything, it is utterly plausible that it just adds to their determined hatred of us.

Far too much of this argument has focused the proper constitutional limits (if any) to Executive authority regarding ancillary aspects of the conduct of this "new type of war." Bush administration apologists push the envelope all the way, claiming that the Commander-in-Chief's "unitary" power is plenary, trumping even international laws and treaties concerning the confinement and treatment of captives. While I, among many, find that position utterly specious on both legal and moral grounds, I find the relative inattention toward the dubious efficacy of such actions equally deplorable.


The President claims not only the authority and the imperative to do as he deems necessary with our detainees, he argues the exigent necessity to monitor the communications of anyone, anywhere, all without any independent oversight.

Yeah, but if we just had all of the hay, we'd know exactly where the terrorist needles are. They're right there in the hay!

Again, beyond questions of the proper extent of constitutional executive branch legitimacy, will any of this stuff work for its intended purpose?

More to come, stay tuned.

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