Wednesday, 23 June 2004

Rumsfeld Approval

No, this article is not about how popular or otherwise he is. It's about what interrogation techniques he approved at the infamous Abu Ghraib jail.

Now many commentators, including the highly respected and influential Normblog, have suspected the worst. Given the evidence so far, and America's less-than-untarnished record in the past, that's not surprising. I'm sure my Favourite Marxist is far more familiar with some of the shamefully dirty tricks pulled by fanatical anti-Communists during the Cold War than I am. I certainly haven't had the courage to commit myself 100% to saying he's wrong in his suspicions. I would never have believed the Abu Graib pictures had I not seen them, and once bitten, twice shy.

But now more evidence is in, enough for me to stop fence-sitting, or, if you prefer, waiting till I know enough to make an informed decision.

From CNN :
The memos to and from Rumsfeld show that though the water-boarding technique was on a list of requested aggressive tactics, Rumsfeld did not approve it, officials say.

The list of requested aggressive tactics included:
  • Convincing a detainee that death or severe pain could be imminent for him or his family
  • Exposure to cold weather or water
  • Use of a wet towel or dripping water to induce a perception of suffocating.
  • Mild, noninjurious physical contact such as grabbing someone's arm, poking them in the chest or light shoving.
Only the fourth tactic -- mild, noninjurious physical contact -- was approved.
I think that puts things into their proper perspective.

On a different but related matter, one issue is, that it's by no means clear that the strictures of the Geneva Convention apply, or should apply, to the prisoners who were at Abu Ghraib. For example, the victims - and I use that word advisedly - shown on the photos were not 'Illegal Combatants', 'Terrorists' or 'Enemy POWs'', they were common-or-garden Crims. Thieves. At worst, Kidnappers-for-ransom. It's not even clear whether they were convicted, interned pending trial, or just plain interned having been caught-in-the-act. Some may even have been wholly innocent of any wrongdoing, though given the publicity of the event, and that no-one has credibly claimed innocence, this is unlikely. But irrelevant, anyway.

The Geneva Conventions do not apply to normal Criminal prisons. Nor should they, enemy POWs should be treated far better, they've done nothing dishonourable. The norms of simple human decency though most definitely should apply, no matter what. Under the less-than-peaceful and rather chaotic conditions at Abu Ghraib, with MPs who were criminal prison guards in civilian life, the conditions for criminals should have been pretty much like any US penitentiary. And I'm very much afraid that they were.

The problem is that there are four categories of internees, who should be treated quite differently both as a matter of Law and as a matter of Right.

First, there's the enemy POW, who should be accorded the full protection of the Geneva Accords, with no shilly-shallying of moving prisoners around to avoid ICRC inspections. They certainly shouldn't be put in with criminal prisoners.

Then there's the common-or-garden Crim, who should be treated with as much human decency as is practicable under the circumstances (which may not be much, in some cases). Some will be so sociopathic that they can't be treated as anything other than dangerous beasts.

Thirdly, there's the 'militant', the Terrorist or other "illegal combatant" who has forfeited all rights under the Geneva Accords. Customarily, they have been summarily executed. What the Law says is that they should be treated as POWs until a properly constituted tribunal has determined that they are indeed 'Illegal Combatants', in which case pretty much anything goes, consistent with basic humanity. Feeding them into plastic shredders is right out (though until quite recently, this was legally OK too, a horrid thought), but shooting them is fine. The Guantanamo Bay detainees are in this category.

Finally, there's what I'll call the 'Nuremberg' internees, those civilian or military personnel thought to be guilty of 'Crimes Against Humanity', be it waging aggressive war, genocide, or other matter most properly dealt with by an International Court of Justice.

In practice, timely intelligence from POWs and Terrorists can save lives. There's a big temptation to torture such prisoners in order to find out when and where your own troops are to be ambushed. Such a temptation should be discouraged very strongly indeed, and should result in a Court Martial of the people concerned. But.... I'm not saying it's wrong under every circumstance. Consider an actual case, where an officer watched while his men beat a prisoner(a terrorist), took out his pistol, fired it next to him , and threatened him that the next bullet would be in his head. The Terrorist immediately gave information that saved many people's lives, civilians and military. The interrogator was Court-Martialled, and cashiered.

This is how it should be. Any commanding officer not willing to flush his career down the toilet to save his own men is not worth spitting on. He's an unavoidable casualty of war, but at least he gets to go home safe in wind and limb.

Of course, circumstances alter cases. Had the terrorist not confessed, the officer would not have been justified in, say, shooting him in the knee. Had the internee been a genuine POW... then the officer concerned should have gotten a hefty jail sentence, but I for one wouldn't be certain he'd acted dishonourably, even though committing a War Crime. And where does Torture begin? Is a light smack to a toddler's hand when he reaches for a boiling kettle 'Torture'? How about a temporary 'removal of priviledges' in a prison when one crim smashes a window in a fit of rage? What about threatening a suspect with a more serious charge if he doesn't confess to a lesser one? What about imprisonment itself?
How do we stop from sliding down the slippery slope till we reach the oubliette where lurk the rack, the branding-iron, and the thumbscrew?

One touchstone I have when deciding this is, does the act corrode the soul of the actor as well as the victim? But even then, there are graduations, it's not a binary yes/no, there are degrees. Some form of coercion or punishment is neccessary for society to function. The question is, how do we restrict that to the absolute minimum required, and who judges what that minimum is? I wish I knew. Until then, we'll have to cobble along with maximum-security prisons that are hellholes where the vicious and thuggish only get to prey on the other vicious thugs cosily and comfortably away from public attention, and other such circumstances none of us like to think about, but which we rely on for our own safety.

If someone kidnapped my soon-to-be-three-year-old son Andrew for vivisection, and refused to say where he was being held... yes, I'd threaten his kids, but wouldn't actually flay them in front of him, or indeed, harm them in any way. There are limits. I'd have no qualms about introducing the perpetrator to a bouquet of Dendrocnide moroides though as his starter-for-ten, and take it from there. Someone would have to fit his artificial limbs, wipe his eye sockets, change his colostomy bag etc. all services he'd need if he was a bit slow in talking. (Are you nauseated yet? I am.) I'd plead guilty to aggravated GBH afterwards of course, but alas, with no evidence of contrition.

We all have a little bit of Uday in us. And if there is a God, I pray to him that my bit remains deeply, deeply buried. 'Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil' as they say. So spare a thought for the jailers of some of the people in Iraq and elsewhere. For some, these disturbing moral questions aren't hypothetical.

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