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Larisa Alexandrovna

Larisa Alexandrovna

Posted: September 1, 2009 03:47 PM

The Torture Apologist's Fallacy


Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has a column called "Torture's Unanswerable Questions, Torture's Ugly Debate", in which he employs the self-Socratic method to subtly argue against prosecuting America's war criminals. He introduces us to the issue of torture and the debate around it as follows:

"Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing -- no, anxious -- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy."
Let's just call "Ishmael" a suspected criminal or convicted criminal, because that is what a suspected terrorist or a convicted terrorist is, regardless of their ethnic background or religious views. It is precisely this way of introducing the so-called unanswerable questions about torture that shows Cohen's true leanings.


"Ishmael" could easily be called Terry Nichols or Scott Roeder or any number of extremists, who work within a larger movement or alone and who are all ready to kill and even die for their cause. "Ishmael" is not someone who needs to be invented unless the person inventing him thinks that terrorists only come from one ethnic background.

Mr. Cohen then goes onto to demonstrate exactly why beltway journalists have so entirely polluted the torture issue:


"This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?"

You see, the "business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter." Yes, so very complicated, that until the Bush administration, the legal definition of torture was well understood and not so easily manipulated. What Cohen is claiming to be his own inner struggle with this very complicated issue is really his very subtle illustration of the choice he has already made.

Or as he puts it: "I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture. The one thing I know is that ideology does not provide an answer."

Before I delve into why Cohen's "I am torn" farce is just that, a farce, I would first like to offer him a word of advice for his own sanity. I urge Mr. Cohen to give up his quest for "absolute security." There is no such thing. There are countless ways by which the elements, criminals, fate, disease, and so forth can attack any one of us and at any time. Not until we are fully dead and buried are we ever truly safe and even then, only our rotting bodies can be afforded that luxury as we know not what lies after death for our souls.

Or as William Shakespeare so eloquently wrote in Julius Caesar:

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once."

And we are after all now seeing what the acts of cowards like Dick Cheney have produced, are we not?

The Assumptions

The torture apologists straw-man is entirely built around certain assumptions, the argument crafted to focus on questions of urgency and safety -- rather than questions at the very root at why we have the rule of law to begin with. So before one can ask if torture works, such as Cohen does in his inner battle for answers, they must first assume the following -- guilt, intention, and knowledge:

1. The assumption that the officer arresting someone is absolutely never wrong and always acting within the law -- police officers, FBI agents, CIA officers, prosecutors and everyone in between are never, ever wrong or ever corrupt. Moreover, considered from another perspective, someone arrested in connection with a crime -- even convicted of a crime -- is always guilty.

You must first assume guilt before you can even begin to ask if torture actually works. Otherwise if the police or FBI or CIA, etc., got it wrong -- as in Murat Kurnaz's case -- and arrested/detained someone based on flimsy evidence or worse, to deliver a suspect for political reasons, then we are guilty of torturing innocent people instead of saving Americana lives. The question of whether torture works or not becomes a moot point. Here is another example of an innocent person we tortured, Khalid El-Masri.

2. The assumption that a thought will always lead to an act. According to this assumption, wishing someone dead is the same thing as killing that person. Believing someone or something is evil is the same thing as destroying that evil through violent means. Hating what America stands for equals blowing America up. Believing abortions to be the work of the devil and evil, as Roeder did, equals committing murder and acts of terrorism.

You must first assume that the person who is being tortured is in custody for valid reasons based on real evidence before you can even begin to venture into asking if torture actually works or not. Otherwise, if we are torturing someone for simply having a particular belief, then we are entering into thought-crime territory that puts all of us in danger.

3. The assumption that a person who is a member of a group, be it ethnic, religious, political, etc., will know all the plans of that group. All Muslims living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., for example, were involved in or were aware of plans to attack the US. All members of the pro-life movement support violence in order to stop abortions, the way Roeder did.

You must first assume that the person being tortured absolutely has information to provide before you can debate the issue of whether torture works or not. Because if the person being tortured actually knows nothing, then we are at best going to waste our time chasing dead ends and at worst, torturing an innocent person.

4. The assumption that a person in custody -- be it in a domestic prison or in a military facility outside of US borders -- is a monster and is therefore not worthy of human rights protections. But then again, what term would you use to describe someone who tortures innocents? Monster.

One has to assume all of these things first before they can even begin to ask if torture works or not. Because if a person in US custody is presumed innocent until proven guilty, then it does not matter whether or not torture works, does it? We don't torture innocent people, right?

The Answers

So for people like Cohen -- who claims to struggle between saving American lives vs. torture, it seems they have already assumed that the only people being tortured are absolutely guilty; found so on substantial and tangible evidence; and brought to justice not for their beliefs, religious or ethnic background; but done so because of an investigation conducted legally by officers and agents who are not remotely corrupt; and absolutely know when and where American lives will next be lost.

Mr. Cohen, that is no struggle you are having - not when so much assumption is first required on side of the argument in order to give it equal weight with the other side of the argument.

The one thing Mr. Cohen is right about is that " ideology does not provide an answer." That is true. What does, however, provide an answer is the rule of law and the history of such abuses on which the Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws are based.

The answers are already there for us. Torture is illegal, immoral and to be prosecuted. No guess work is needed. No theories are needed or venturing into some hypothetical like "your child's life" is in danger. The Geneva Conventions and other conventions and covenants against torture -- which we are a signatory onto -- already give us the very answers that Mr. Cohen claims to be struggling to find.

Cowards -- like Dick Cheney -- have led us here and other cowards -- like Richard Cohen -- now protect them, while the rest of us watch and wonder how much longer before we are finally reduced to a nation populated entirely with cowards.

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