Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Is our children learning?"

“It far outclassed what we’ve done,” said Steven M. Kleinman, a former Air Force interrogator and trainer, who has studied the World War II program of interrogating Germans. The questioners at Fort Hunt, Va., “had graduate degrees in law and philosophy, spoke the language flawlessly,” and prepared for four to six hours for each hour of questioning, said Mr. Kleinman, who wrote two chapters for the December report.
This is from a report on an evaluation of interrogation techniques used since 9/11. The report found, among other things, that the techniques being used "are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable," and the "interrogation methods — possibly the most important source of information on groups like Al Qaeda — are a hodgepodge that date from the 1950s, or are modeled on old Soviet practices."

We already know the military is concerned about the impact of such shows as "24," which make torture seem like the only way to deal with terrorists (but then, when every new horror show that comes out presents torture as a form of entertainment, e.g., "Saw I-III, Hostel I-II, The Hills have Eyes I-II, what surprise is "24"?) But maybe it will make a few old Cold Warriors sit up and take notice if we say we've become the enemy we opposed for so long, and are becoming the enemy we oppose now. And if that doesn't work, there's always the good old argument from utility: meetings with intelligence officials and in a 325-page initial report completed in December, the researchers have pressed a more practical critique: there is little evidence, they say, that harsh methods produce the best intelligence.
But consider the comment about the questioning of German prisoners by those who "'had graduate degrees in law and philosophy, spoke the language flawlessly,' and prepared for four to six hours for each hour of questioning", and the subtle racism of this justification for torture:

A. B. Krongard, who was the executive director of the C.I.A., the No. 3 post at the agency, from 2001 to 2004, agreed with that assessment but acknowledged that the agency had to create an interrogation program from scratch in 2002.

He said officers quickly consulted counterparts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other countries to compile a “catalog” of techniques said to be effective against Arab and Muslim prisoners. They added other methods drawn from those that American troops were trained to withstand in case of capture.

(That last reference to "methods drawn from those that American troops were trained to withstand" is a reference to SERE. The article takes the very safe route of not acknowledging any public reporting on SERE until the release of a Pentagon report on May 18. But Jane Meyer was reporting on SERE two years ago. NIMBY for the NYT, I suppose.)

I don't think we had an interrogation system in place when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the threat to the US was much more substantial then. But somehow we managed to create an interrogation system which worked without resort to "Behavioral Science Consultation Teams" or individual interrogation programs designed by medical doctors, or legalistic reinterprations of the word "torture".

I don't want to jump to a condemnation of violence used as entertainment, but when I see something like this I have to wonder: could Olivier and Hoffman perhaps have done better simply to play Shakespeare?

Mr. Krongard even recalls receiving a proposal for help with questioning Qaeda suspects from an American dentist who said he “could create pain no human being could withstand.”
There's an irony here: Shakespeare lived in a world where torture was commonplace, and those who threatened the public peace wound up with their heads affixed to London Bridge. Lodovico's last speech in "Othello" makes it clear what lies ahead for Iago:

[To IAGO] O Spartan dog,
More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!
Look on the tragic loading of this bed;
This is thy work: the object poisons sight;
Let it be hid. Gratiano, keep the house,
And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor,
For they succeed on you. To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard: and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate.
But Shakespeare seldom shows torture on stage, or tortures his characters even in the course of a play. The most famous scene I can think of, gouging out the eyes of Gloucester in "Lear," is clearly presented as an act of barbarous evil, not as a justified treatment of an enemy. Now, however, having removed torture from our everyday existence, from the accepted practice of the state, we've made it part and parcel of our entertainment. It is still evil, but it is evil that is meant to sustain our attention for almost two hours. And is it really too much of a leap to say that, having done so, we now easily make it part and parcel of our security apparatus, our need to defend ourselves? The US military, as I noted, doesn't seem to think so.

I'm not so sure this descent into barbarism is so surprising, nor so abrupt.

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