Why We failed In Iraq (from the collected works)

(This opinion piece appeared in the Retriever Weekly on April 19, 2007.)

Previously, I mentioned that the United States made a mistake in invading Iraq. Not because they failed to find any “weapons of mass destruction”, which I believe Saddam had the smarts to get into neighboring Syria long before the first American humvee rolled across the border.

No, the sin the U.S. committed in Iraq was in assuming that they were bringing with them something better for the Iraqi people. It’s easy to understand why Americans might have felt this way. After all, Hussein was a brutal tyrant who oppressed most of his population, and was responsible for a bushel basket of “crimes against humanity” during his reign as dictator.

Even so, we were wrong in thinking that we had something better.

This idea that the American style of government is the greatest in the world, and that it’s only a matter of time before all people bask in its warming rays, goes way back to the heady days after the American Revolution.

In 1789, with the American experiment still in its infancy, the French Revolution unleashed forces that not only overthrew a monarchy, but also resulted in mass executions in a virtual police state. Yet despite this, many of our founding fathers rejoiced at the news. People like Thomas Jefferson applauded the French people and downplayed their excesses – all because he believed they were emulating the American experience in republican democracy.

Our history is replete with American attempts to export our representative form of government to other nations, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. As the targets for Americanization shrink, they tend to become less and less industrialized – places like Iraq.

The truth is that some peoples, in their present state of development, are not yet ready for a parliamentary life. Religious and sectarian rivalries, tribal ties and ethnic hatreds run too deep in some countries, and only a strong-arm dictator can keep the lid on the boiling pot. It may not be pretty to watch, and it certainly goes against all of our republican instincts, but sometimes, tyranny is better.

Such a case was the old Yugoslavia, led by Marshal Josip Tito from 1943 to 1980. Tito’s Yugoslavia was technically a Communist state; however, Tito remained independent of Stalin and the U.S.S.R. The important thing to note was that Tito’s dictatorial rule kept the Serbs and the Croats from killing each other for four decades. Shortly after he died, Communism fell; Yugoslavia became a republic and then disintegrated into the nations we see today. Ethnic “cleansing”, mass murders and genocide followed shortly thereafter. Remember Slobodan Milošević? The lid was off the pot.

In Iraq, Saddam was another run-of-the-mill dictator, a strong man who had his political enemies killed early on and then ruled with terror and violence. Nevertheless, it worked. Iraq was stable. There were no competing Sunni and Shi’a militia trying to kill everyone in the country as fast as they could. Then, in April 2003, we got rid of Hussein.

Since that time, it is thought that hundreds of thousand of Iraqis have died in sectarian violence. Now Uncle Sam struggles desperately to keep the lid on the pot. If we ever pull out, the lid will be off the pot, with cataclysmic results. A formerly stable nation in the Middle East is now the focal point of regional instability, and threatens to become the first battleground of the next world war.

The lesson that should have been learned by now is that representative democracy is not the appropriate form of government for every country, and that, for some nations, a brutal tyrant may be the lesser of many evils. In Iraq, we rid the world of a brutal, evil regime, this is true. However, for the Iraqi people, the brutal, evil regime may have been the lesser of a great many evils, and now, four years post-Saddam, they and we will have to live with those evils for many years to come.


On Government-Sponsored Torture (from the collected works)

In this essay, I will address the moral issues that pertain to the justification for government-sponsored torture as a means of extracting information, in this case the government being the United States. I will demonstrate that while torture might be an effective method for gaining such information, it is by no means a fool-proof method, and the infrastructure required to maintain an efficient torture program would inevitably be subject to corruption and would become detrimental to both the individuals involved and, in the long term, to the United States itself.

When torture is discussed in America, there only seems to be one setting in which most people believe that the practice would be justified, and that, of course, is the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. In this scenario, a terrorist has planted a time-bomb in a public place, and only torture can make him reveal the information necessary to stop the bomb. The choice presented is very narrow: the rights of one terrorist versus the rights of perhaps thousands of innocents. In this scenario, a majority of Americans agree that torture is, in fact, justified.

The reason most people accept torture at this point is that most people are utilitarian in thinking; that is, they seek the option that “maximizes total aggregate happiness.” (Allhoff, 245) This school of thought weights the offended right of one against the offended rights of many and favors the many. The opposite school of moral thought is that of deontology, which teaches that people should never be treated as merely as means to an end, and that regardless of the circumstance, a person’s rights must never be violated. (Allhoff, 246) This protection of individual rights would not be abrogated by that person’s participation in criminal or violent activity, no matter how heinous that activity may appear. (Allhoff, 248) In fact, it would be argued that it is exactly those people who we find most offensive that are in the most need of our protection, because public sentiment so willingly denies them sympathy.

Most Americans tend to reject the absolutist nature of deontology, and are more comfortable in the more practical elements of utilitarianism. Alhoff argues that torture is permissible under the following conditions: “…the use of torture aims at the acquisition of information; the captive is reasonably thought to have the relevant information; the information corresponds to a relevant and significant threat; and the information could likely lead to the prevention of that threat.” (Allhoff, 255) No doubt, most Americans would tend to agree with this rubric.

Once the legality of torture is established, the discussion of which tortures are themselves permissible ensues. For example, how much pain is too much pain? Allhoff sets the bar at “the minimum trauma necessary to obtain the desired compliance.” (Allhoff, 256) What is, after all, a minimum amount of pain? Since pain thresholds vary from person to person, setting an objective standard is impossible, so this would be left to the interpretation of the torturer, who is necessarily in a conflicted position from which to judge what pain has exceeded the “minimum”; in these situations, restraint is rare, while “escalation is the rule.” (Luban, 1447) Even if one could imagine a scenario whereby this threshold would be observed, myriad other problems present themselves, one of which Allhoff himself recognizes, the problem of misinformation. (Allhoff, 258)

Since most interrogations are largely “fishing” expeditions, it would be a comparatively easy thing for a detained individual to reveal “misinformation”, or inaccuracies designed to mislead the interrogators. Soldiers and other combatants are routinely trained to do just this by their governments, and it may not be known for months or years exactly what information was true and what was not. Under torture, prisoners would be far more likely to tell the interrogators what they think they want to hear, whether it is true or not, complicating the information gathering process.

Another complication is that genuine information that has been obtained through conventional investigatory methods can almost never reveal exactly what any one prisoner may be withholding, or even a group of prisoners. Therefore, since the interrogators do not know what it is exactly that they are looking for, it would become necessary to torture nearly everyone to be sure that all pertinent has been obtained, and then to cross-check that new information against the torture-acquired information just obtained from other prisoners. If there were any conflicts between accounts of tortured prisoners, more torturing must occur, so that confirming information can be extracted, which must then be cross-checked again, ad infinatum. Eventually, those prisoners that have survived would be saying almost anything to avoid increasing pain. Deciphering the truth from the lies would be nearly impossible. It seems that torture is a poor interrogation method at best.

From my perspective, however, the real problem with legalized torture is the creation of a permanent state-sanctioned torture infrastructure. This new government bureaucracy would by necessity be populated with individuals who would be trained to inflict pain on their fellow humans while feeling nothing themselves. Because of the chain of command, they would be automatons executing decision made from above by people who have no direct contact or responsibility for the individuals being tortured. (Luban, 1447) The current poster child of this “torture culture” is Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where ordinary American soldiers committed terrible crimes against prisoners. This outcome is not remarkable once torture is institutionalized, and would be replicated on a far greater scale if torture in general becomes an acceptable interrogation tool. (Luban, 1452)

The persons who would be part of this culture of torture would themselves likely become psychological casualties, as …”virtuous people are probably not involved in the intentional and coerced causation of pain and suffering in other human beings…” and could be considered”…damaged goods.” (Casebeer, 268) The difficulty of soldiers returning from combat assimilating into normal society has already been well documented. One can only imagine the difficulty to be encountered when one’s occupation is to torture and maim professionally.

This culture of torture clashes not just with American values, but also more directly with American identity. Since the founding of this nation, Americans have always considered themselves a “city on a hill”, a shining example of the greatest aspirations of humanity and even perhaps morally superior to the “old world”. In past wars, Americans have prided themselves on not retaliating against an enemy they considered ruthless and barbaric. When the enemy committed crimes against soldiers and civilians, retaliation was still frowned upon. (May, 317) The enemy was not treated as they deserved to be treated, but as human and vulnerable. (May, 318) When those wars were over, veterans were welcomed home having not just vanquished an enemy, but also having reinforced American values and identity. If the United States were to establish the legitimacy of institutionalized torture, that identity would be rapidly eroded.

In my view, torture must be prohibited at all times not just because it is ineffective as an interrogation tool and it complicates other more conventional interrogation practices. In a free society, a society where people grow up secure in the belief that they have value as individuals, a society that believes it has values to offer the world, torture is a lethal threat. American identity depends upon the belief that we are morally better than nations that routinely torture, and we must recognize that government-sponsored torture does great damage to the individuals who direct and inflict it. Torture may damage the bodies of terrorists; it would certainly destroy the soul of America.