Double think

There’s a very interesting item on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. It’s about the British service personnel who were held by the Iranians and the prevailing double-think about confessions obtained under duress.

Here’s the problem: the Royal Navy folks were captured and subjected to some forms of duress, as a result of which they said all kinds of foolish things on Iranian TV — such as the admission that they had trespassed on Iran’s sovereign territory. Nobody believes this: the Brits knew exactly where they were. They’ve been using TomToms (as it were) for aeons. So when they arrive home, all kinds of accommodating noises are made; the poor kids had to say these idiotic things simply to get their tormentors off their backs, etc. etc. But it didn’t mean anything really.

One of Sullivan’s readers made an astute comment about this:

Meanwhile, the U.S. position is that torture (or torture-like) techniques garner valuable information as opposed to false statements engineered to end discomfort. Anybody else see a disconnect here?

Sullivan responds:

Count me in – but the public doesn’t seem to grasp this. It’s especially telling since we dismiss the statements of the captive British soldiers as the fruit of coercion even though their treatment was like a bed and breakfast compared to what has taken place at Abu Graib, Camp Cropper, Bagram or Gitmo. Why are we unable to make the same assumptions about other coerced testimony?

One possible answer is simply that as long as the victims of torture are not white or Western, they are not seen as fully human victims of torture – and therefore none of the rules we apply to full human beings count. Since any information from sub-humans is sketchy anyway, why not torture it out of them? It’s as legit as anything we’re likely to get out of them by conventional techniques. “Treat them like dogs” was General Miller’s express instructions at Abu Ghraib. And he saw the prisoners as dogs. In fact, if animal shelter workers in the West treated its dogs as some US forces have treated some detainees, they’d be fired for cruelty.

The scenario changes instantly when the victim of coercion is white or an allied soldier. It’s striking, isn’t it, that the only cases of torture in Gitmo and elsewhere that have had any traction in the wider culture have been people who do not fit the ethnic profile of Arabs. Jose Padilla is Latino; David Hicks is Australian. When they’re tortured, we worry about the reliability of the evidence. But when we torture “information” out of men called al-Qhatani or Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the information we get is allegedly saving “thousands of lives.” How do we know this? Because the torturers, i.e. the Bush administration, tell us so. And so the circle of cognitive dissonance tightens until it becomes airtight.

Spot on. This is not a criticism of the Royal Naval hostages btw. They did what most of us would have done in the circs. There are strong moral arguments against torture. But there is also a very good pragmatic argument against it, namely that people will say anything — anything — to stop the torture. Ergo, you cannot believe anything they tell you under such circumstances.