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Monday, 06 June 2005


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Hi David, just a few quick points before I disappear for the week.

Firstly number 3: It strikes me that you've shot a straw man. I'm not aware of any even remotely mainstream thinker who thinks we should appease Al Qaeda. Anyway how could we even if we wanted to? Their demands are so extreme! We'd have to demolish our democratic institutions and replace them with hardline Islamic law. I know you like to hang around on some pretty batty websites, but still... Even people who are in favour of the wholesale destruction of Israel (and I stress I'm not one, though I do have huge misgivings about the current Israeli administration's actions) take that line because for whatever reason they find themselves in agreement on that particular point with Al Qaeda, not out of a cowardly desire to capitulate to the terrorists.

Now having said that, there are plenty of people (e.g me) who think that we have to be damn careful not to actively serve as a recruiting sergeant for Al Qaeda. This is a rather different point. Rampaging around the middle east, killing Arabs by the thousand, and publicly wiping our arses on the Koran (so to speak) are the sort of activities which will inevitably lead to a bolstering of the AQ ranks. AQ is an ideology, more than an organisation. And it is an ideology precisely for Muslims who hate the west. I realise that AQ-adherents will hate us whatever we do, but by providing large numbers of Muslims with cause (often just) to hate us, it's clear that we'll cause AQ-numbers to swell, which is precisely what we're not meant to be doing. Invading a country on the basis that it was a supporter of AQ would be about the most counterproductive thing we could possibly do. If we're at peace with the Arab world then the appeal of Al Qaeda, its numbers, and the corresponding level of threat it poses will be far lower.

The second point is that I don't accept your distinction between "harsh treatment" and "torture".
You say:

"Torture is any act applied to the body of the prisoner likely to physically damage or disable him, or her, for an extended period of time... Harsh treatment, on the other hand, is any application of discomfort from which a healthy man or woman would recover almost immediately on cessation of the treatment. Thus, sleeplessness, cold, hunger, thirst, hooding, etc."

I'd advise you to go back to the drawing-board here, because they're a myriad possibilities which fall between these two stools. You specifically deny the possibility of treatment which doesn't physically damage the subject, but which does do serious psychological harm to them. This is especially important when you factor in indefinite detention. Keep someone cold, sleepless, hungry, and hooded for a few days and yes, it's no more than harsh treatment. But keep them locked up for years, applying such treatments on a regular basis, and you'll cause lasting psychological damage. That's exactly what's happening in Guantanamo, and I call it torture, whether or not you ever lay a finger on them.

I'm struck by your touching faith that everyone who's imprisoned in Guantanamo really does pose a serious security risk. For sure, some individuals in there do. Equally certain is that others do not. The process by which they got there is deeply unreliable as evidence of their guilt. As you hint, the security issues are perceived to be so great that it must surely be better to lock up a few innocent people, than make the mistake letting go of any potential "information goldmines"? That brings us to the unpleasant reality: the leader of the free world is currently engaged in the detention and torture of innocent people.

Incidentally, this is where the Gulag-comparison comes in, it's nothing to do with the Koran-flushing specifically. I have no wish to defend it, however. It's hyperbole, but it's certainly nearer reality than your Butlins/Auschwitz-metaphor (though having said that, if you went to Butlins on a week when the in-house entertainment was Chuckle-brothers, then you might not be too far off...)

"This is a severe difficulty for those of us who maintain that our way of life is fairer and more just than our enemies. I recognise the implicit hypocrisy of the situation"

I appreciate your candour on this point. You at least seem to regret us flushing "due process", "habeus corpus", and other fundamental freedoms of our democracy down the loo. Others, I get the impression, have long thought such things overrated.

You talked at one stage about "what we stand for". If a commitment not to indefinitely detain and torture innocent people isn't part of that, then what is?

I've already replied to some of your other points over at Shot by Both Sides:

I disagree with the fundamental premise that we are in an us (US, UK) vs. them (Islamic world) scenario. A different, and in my opinion more valid view of 9/11 and the current situation pits violent radicals (both Islamic and Western) against the vast majority of people in both worlds who want to live their lives and see their children grow up and prosper.

Osama bin Laden surely had no notion of being successful in defeating the US with the attacks on 9/11. Despite his wealth and his organization he did not possess an army. By attacking the US, he was looking for an ally in George Bush in his attempt to radicalize the center on both sides -- to get the normally peace-loving folks of the US to want blood. GWB, of course, was only to happy to oblige, and overreached by invading Iraq. Now Osama had GWB as an ally, as the bungled invasion and occupation of Iraq has radicalized untold thousands (millions?) of Islamic people.

Why have there been no attacks after 9/11? Surely, we cannot believe that the added airport "security" we see here in the states has thwarted all attempts?

It seems more likely to me that there have been no attacks because they are not necessary. GWB and Rumsfeld continue to supply all the radicalizing power with pictures from Abu Ghraib, and of course the torture.

From this perspective, the torture of these people is a disaster for the center, the people who want to live their lives. But it is a boon to the violent radical. The question for each of us is, whose side am I on?

Larry, I am glad you agree with my #3, but I think you under-estimate the number of people who would not! Of course, they don't come right out and say they want all the Jews slaughtered, what they call for is a 'one-state solution', which means in the real world, the Jews being totally over-run by the likes of Hamas, et al. How long would you give them?

Your second main paragraph seems to imply that we in the west cannot undertake any military actions against anyone for fear of acting as a recruiting sergeant for AQ. I am extremely sceptical of that notion. I remember all those 'old middle-east hands' who warned that the 'Arab street' would erupt when we attacked Iraq. Well, blink and you would have missed it! Then you go on to say that invading countries that support AQ is ineffective. I think the operation in Afghanistan was extremely effective and has utterly disruped AQ for some time.

I must be honest and admit that I don't know exactly the details of how prisoners are handled in Guantanamo, but I would take a serious bet that what I call harsh treatment is not enforced beyond the period required for interrogation. That is not to say that it is the Cuban Hilton, but 'harsh' in my terms, I think not. Those techniques are used specifically for breaking the prisoner's will to resist when intelligence gathering is the priority. Highly trained interrogators don't waste their time questioning people who have been cleared through their system, they simply hand them over to the guards who are responsible for holding them as detainees under strict imprisonment. Their treatment then should be strict, but nothing more, and any infringements by the guards should be punished.

You worry in case mistakes are made, and that innocent men are held in detention. That is reasonable, to a certain extent, so long as you hold in mind that we at war, and that human error is not just a peace time proclivity. The authorities must be as reasonably sure as they can be, but we (and you) cannot second-guess their every decision. As for fair trial, it would be virtually impossible for any terrorist detainee to be found guilty following an intelligence-type interrogation. We cannot let these people go, and so detention is the only alternative.

Now to Jack. He writes, quite correctly: "By attacking the US, he [bin Laden] was looking for an ally in George Bush in his attempt to radicalize the center on both sides -- to get the normally peace-loving folks of the US to want blood." So, I can only ask him how many 9/11s there would have to be before Jack thought it reasonable for the US/Uk to retaliate? Two? Six? Ten? It's nonsense, of course, one was enough, and it spoke volumes along the lines of: We hate you and we will continue to murder you as long as you exist. Faced with that implacable threat, there was, to repeat a famous quote, 'no alternative'. And part of the reason why there have been no further 9/11s is due in no small part to the invasion of Afghanistan, and the intelligance operation based on the very interrogation techniques discussed above.

Retaliation against Afghanistan: justifiable, justified, and successful.

Retaliation against Iraq: unjustifiable, overreaching, and a boon to terrorists everywhere

After 9/11 the world was on our side, we had the potential for organizing broad and deep cooperation with virtually every nation on the globe to identify and destroy terrorist cells.

Iraq ended all that with one fell swoop, and isolated us.

Reports of torture and rendition serve to further isolate us, to further weaken our position in the proclaimed "War on Terror", and to undermine the efforts of decent, professional troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I simply cannot be convinced that information gained by means of torture can ultimately ever offset the resultant negatives it produces: loss of moral authority, increased numbers of terrorists, increased hatred among them, and deeper isolation in the eyes of the world community.

Jack, I'm glad we can agree on Afghanistan. I think you, and indeed, several others have misunderstood the imperative that lay behind the Iraq invasion. I assume you're not one of the 'stupids' who thought it was about Iraqi oil! It had much more to do with *Saudi* oil. Saudi is in a perilous condition, with a sick king, and a turbulent and radical middle-class. We, by which I mean the west, depend to a huge extent on Saudi oil, and there are people hoping to seize power in Saudi who would rather burn it than sell it to us! The effects would be catastrophic, including a return to a 3-day week, millions unemployed, power cuts and so on. Thus, it was essential for the Americans to have a very large military base right on the border.

There were, and still are, some other good effects from the invasion, which are being felt in Damascus and Tehran. I do not think the aftermath of the war was handled well by the Americans who were, and still are, I think, confused by this chimera of creating democracy. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I doubt whether it can be made to happen. Of course, it is an irony that this policy emanated in large part from the neo-cons, many of whom were former Leftists!

I am slightly confused by your final paragraph. I am not suggesting that torture should be used, except in vary rare, extra-ordinary circumstances which can be described as a 'ticking bomb' scenario. As I stated in my post, harsh treatment applied to healthy men and women for the purpose of gathering intelligence, is not torture.

We should have just put the troops straight into Saudi!

No, that would have been premature. It is enough, for the moment, that they are right next door. Anyway, for the 'lawyers' amongst you, there would have been no 'legal' reason to invade Saudi, as there *definitely* was for Iraq.

What if we'd asked (very nicely) if we could put them into the UAE?

Re: Confusion on last paragraph.

Although you had explained that torture is only to be used in extra-ordinary circumstances, there are all sorts of hazy lines there, including what constitutes torture and what constitutes extra-ordinary circumstances. You articulate some examples for each, and there certainly is room for disagreement on the definition of torture.

While you say you do not advocate torture, the gist of your post to define it (relatively) narrowly, attack criticisms of its usefulness, and then allow it in some cases.

I agree that torture is in the eye of the beholder. But let us set aside what the interrogators and the prisoners define torture as (surely they lie will tend to the extremes of the spectrum). Let us instead consider the point of view of those people that are most important: the people who we are attempting to win the hearts and minds of.

In the eyes of these people, "It would include the application of psychological pressures, including insults to the subject's religion, if that was thought likely to achieve the effect required." is a serious problem. As is fake menstrual blood, naked pyramids, etc.

As Bush-supporter and columnist David Brooks observes:
Guantanamo is “a daily defeat” and “This is not only a war against individual terrorists, this is clearly a war for public opinion in the world and especially the Muslim world, and there’s no question that what’s happening is a defeat.”

Amnesty notes: "There have been at least a hundred prisoner deaths, including 27 homicides, according to doctors.”

Assuming (hopefully) that not all torture has resulted in death, that's an awful lot of ticking bombs that we must've defused.

I am not weasling out of the point you made concerning conditions at Guantanamo, but we must agree to differ on the credibility of Amnesty International. I view them with the same degree of scorn as you view the American government, so beyond that, there isnot much to say. There should be no 'harsh treatment', let alone torture, inflicted on detainees who have cleared the interrogation process. I think you need to understand that in the military, the interrogators are from an entirely different branch than the guards. I f guards have exceeded their duty, they should be punished.

You persist in claiming that "there are all sorts of hazy lines" between what I call 'harsh treatment' and torture, despite my, apparently ineffective, attempts to clarify my definitions. I cannot be specific on the exact conditions that qualify as a 'ticking bomb' scenario that would justify torture, suffice to say that it would be the very strong suspicion that a prisoner had knowledge of a forthcoming atrocity. Torture could only be applied *after* the use of harsh treatment had failed, and only with the written authorisation of high command.

"So what is harsh treatment and what is torture. Undoubtedly the answer is in the eye, or the perception, of the observer."

On this we are in total agreement!

While defining the distinction between what is harsh treatment and what is torture may be an interesting exercise for you and me to examine, the very nut of your post, it seems to be is "the prickly conundrum of how a democracy should treat its terrorist prisoners".

Now the way I understand your view is that harsh treatment (as defined by you) is OK and torture (as defined by you) is acceptable in cases where a known atrocity can be averted. That is a fine and defensible opinion to hold, although (as is obvious by now) I disagree on where the line should be drawn.

Where you and I think the line should be drawn however does not really get at "how a democracy should treat its terrorist prisoners".

The fact is that naked people on dog leashes, naked human pyramids, and electrodes being applied are all morally repugnant to the vast majority of humanity. Yes, the prisoner "would recover almost immediately on cessation of the treatment." but the damage to the democracy is inflicted none the less.

We're those prisoners still being interrogated? To the world at large, and to the Islamic world in particular, it does not matter.

We are asking how a democracy should treat prisoners, and the answer -- for practical reasons as well as for moral ones -- is with humanity.

Jack, allow me to re-iterate:

1: A democracy must be allowed to defend itself.

2: Against the threat of modern terrorism that defence must include the right to detention without trial for those prisoners who fail to provide the information they unboubtedly carry. (Obviously, therefor, if a prisoner does 'cough', then he can face due process.)

3: In order to get at that information which is vital to our safety, the interrogators should have the right to inflict harsh treatment which I have defined above. It is clear that such treatment by its very nature obviates any chance of a trial, and the result will be detention for such time until the authorities decide the prisoner is of no further risk.

4: Torture may be used in very rare circumstances as defined above.

5: Whilst in detention, the prisoners must be treated in all respects with decency, although the actual details of how they are kept will differ from a normal civilian prison in that freedom to associate might be curtailed. The nearest civilian equivalent, I guess, would be a high security prison for dangerous convicts.

You draw attention to that military prison in Iraq which, as I understand it, was a case of slack management combined with reservist prison guards getting out of control. If I may say so, it does a dis-service to your argument to take one detestable incident and draw a general conclusion. The fact is, Jack, that you and I are not really that far apart. I hope that thought does not ruin you Sunday lunch!

I can never tell, in a debate conducted by email or blog post, whether my correspondent is missing my points or intentionally ignoring them. I see by your last post, that likely think the same of me.

As such, this seems to be as good a point as any to call this one off and let what we have already written stand.

I enjoyed the 'conversation', and I think we edged closer together on a serious topic that we approached from diametrically opposite directions. Thanks, Jack.

I am heartend, at least, that my post on the use of "that" and "which" met with little resistance.

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