Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Accepting Prisoner Abuse

Eric Martin has a fantastic post up on Total Information Awareness that catalogs the standard prison abuse justifications employed by administration apologists. He also makes sure that you understand just exactly how ridiculous all of these excuses are. If you care about this issue at all, it is absolutely required reading.

Of course, the most puzzling thing about the apologist perspective is how little sense it makes. After all, can't we all agree that beating prisoners to death is something that is beneath us all? You'd think. But clearly a wide swath of America is willing to accept almost any rationalization before making a principled moral stand.

What does this mean?

I believe that there are two possible explanations. The first is partisanship. In an act of supreme party loyalty, many are willing to overlook the obvious sin in order to prevent gains by the opposition. To these individuals, whatever evil that takes place in a detention center is dwarfed by that which would be imposed by Democrats if they were allowed to take power.

The second explanation is less Machiavellian, but considerably more sinister. There is a form to each line of argument in defense of coercive interrogation techniques. First, the treatment of the detainees isn't all that bad. And second, we need the information that these techniques provide. Now, what's important to note here is that the first justification is completely dependent upon the second. No matter how mild the interrogation is, it's pointless if it yields no vital information.

The funny thing is, I never hear much talk about the second half of the argument. Sure, people assert the need for the information. Sometimes they speak about it as though it is a foregone conclusion that these techniques are productive. But it's never critically examined in any way. On the other hand, many have claimed that information thus obtained is of dubious value.

So, if it isn't important to conclusively demonstrate the value of coercively extracted intelligence, then it really isn't part of the justification. Either the value of the acquired information exonerates the abuse or... the abuse justifies itself.

And this is, I believe, what really makes this practice OK for most people. In this instance the detainees are mere receptacles for American vengeance. While most are factually innocent, to many they represent none other than the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Once this connection is made, any conduct would be tolerated, if not enthusiastically endorsed.

Ultimately, that's what this is about. Everything else is window dressing. If one starts from the position that "they deserve it," nothing else really matters. If we get usable information, that's great. If we don't, at least there's some payback.

As ugly as that is, it makes sense. And until there's some consciousness about this, there will never be true accountability.
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