Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, June 17, 2005

Donald Rumsfeld defends Guantanamo. I'm convinced, up to a point.

It seems to me that people are conflating the issues of Guantanamo and torture. Maybe I'm missing something, but the incidents I hear reported from Guantanamo sound risibly mild, e.g. "Koran abuse." At Guantanamo, the scandal is that the prison is outside both American and international law. The prisoners have the rights neither of defendants in an American court nor of lawful prisoners of war. Guantanamo has the flavor of legal limbo and thus of arbitrary power, which we have reason to be suspicious of even if for the moment it is being used humanely. Rumsfeld acknowledges this:

The real problem is not Guantanamo Bay. The problem is that, to a large extent, we are in unexplored territory with this unconventional and complex struggle against extremism. Traditional doctrines covering criminals and military prisoners do not apply well enough.

The really shocking incidents of torture come from Abu Ghraib and Iraq. Here the scandal is at a more visceral level: people have been tortured to death by agents of the US armed forces. I'm not an expert on this; I don't know if those are facts or allegations. But torture to the death is the most extreme, horrific case of cruelty, an echo of 1984. Personally, I find it absurd that some people use Abu Ghraib as an argument against the war. Obviously, the fact that Saddam Hussein was far worse doesn't justify torture by US forces in the least. Equally obviously, the fact that Saddam was far worse does mean that the war was a good thing from the anti-torture perspective. It reduced the amount of torture in the world. But if we want to keep up the good work, we should purge the practice of torture from our armed forces.

I suspect that for much of the public, and for liberals in particular, Guantanamo has become the symbol of all the abuses committed by the US in the war on terror, including torture to the death. So perhaps the distinction between the legal scandal of Guantanamo and the human scandal of Abu Ghraib deserves emphasis.

UPDATE: Check out Nato's informative comment.


  • It's a fact that people have died in US custody while undergoing some very tough interrogations. Was it torture? It was definitely mistreatment, at least. Did the interrogators ever intend to kill their detainees? That would be counterproductive, so probably not. The worst cases of abuse that most closely fit the definition of torture were not actually during interrogations, but were perpetrated by non-interrogators who elaborated on what they thought were authorized "stress positions." Clearly they went well beyond any official order. However, I think it's clear that their actions were elaborations, not inventions.

    The ICRC reported many times to military and civilian leadership regarding abuse, and no action was taken. Many of the same abuses were reported to the UK, and they stopped it more or less immediately. US soldiers reported the same abuses up through their chains of command, eventually culminating in the Taguba report, which was relatively damning for an internal investigation. Still nothing seemed to happen - i.e. the guidance given to interrogators remained the same. Then some photos make it into the press, and everything changes in a hurry.

    It should be noted that interrogators are given relatively frequent reviews of their techniques and procedures for feedback purposes. The interrogators I know were usually less aggressive than the rules allowed. Certainly those in Abu Graib violated even the loose rules, but neither can we simply say that the problem is an isolated one. That the rules have since been changed radically implies to me that the rules themselves - made by some very high-ranking figures - were the problem. Yet those in high places seem to have felt relatively little heat. This is a betrayal to all the hard-working interrogators out there who consulted on the law and tried to make sure they weren't going too far but were given bad guidance - it makes it look like it was all/only their fault. That makes me extremely angry.

    Yes, I know the General in charge of Abu Graib was relieved of her command, but that was for lack of oversight, not incorrect oversight. She didn't make up the interrogation rules. I believe Rumsfeld himself is largely responsible.

    So that's one soldier's opinion.

    Speaking of which, I've updated my blog with Iraq commentary for the first time in a while. you'll probably find it supporting a lot of what you've been trying to say lately.

    By Blogger Nato, at 10:42 PM  

  • It seems strange to me too that Guantanamo has become such a lightning rod for controversy, when the true outrages have taken place not there, but in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The case of Canadian Maher Arar, I think, was a low point, but has received very little publicity in the US. It also seems that the incidents or purported 'Koran abuse' have greatly overshadowed more serious abuses, such as this:

    "Dilawar, 22, was said to have been chained to a ceiling by his wrists for four days, and then beaten on his legs more than 100 times during a 24-hour period. He was being questioned about an attack on a US air base, but the report says most interrogators believed him to be an innocent taxi driver who simply drove past at the time of the attack."

    Very very sad. The BBC report (here details the outrage of President Karzai upon hearing of the abuses. He later requested that all US troops in the country be put under Afghan command(!).

    By Anonymous Andrew, at 12:03 PM  

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