Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tortured argument

As you probably know, Alan Dershowitz wrote a piece in which he cited the example of the Nazis in order to argue for the efficacy of torture. Larisa Alexandrovna wrote a scathing response to this argument, titled "Alan Dershowitz: Was He Against Nazi Practices Before He Was for Them?"

Dershowitz has now attacked Larisa, who has mounted her own defense. Dershowitz:
I am against torture on moral grounds despite the empirical evidence that may sometimes produce life-saving and self-proving information. I also believe that since torture is being used and would be authorized by any president in a real ticking bomb situation, democracy requires accountability rather than deniability. Understandably her blog does not link to my article in the Wall Street Journal, because the last thing she would want anybody to do would be actually to read what I have said.
Larisa condemns as a "blatant lie" the allegation that she did not link to the original WSJ article. She goes on to say:
The moral argument cannot be qualified by providing support of the workable results for the thing that you find immoral to begin with. In other words, I cannot argue that murder is immoral, but then also state in the same argument that in some cases, the best way to kill someone would be to shoot them.
This hits the nail.

I encourage readers to take a look at the WSJ piece. Dershowitz does indeed briefly say "Although I am personally opposed to the use of torture..." The effect is a little like Nixon saying "But it would be wrong" when he suddenly remembered the microphones.

Dershowitz cannot deny that his piece argues in favor of giving torture legal sanction. The very title is "Democrats and Waterboarding: The party will lose the presidential race if it defines itself as soft on terror." Words like that create a stench which lingers long after Dershowitz has offered his ex post facto lawyerly arguments.

Side note: Any Democrat who considers taking advice from a WSJ editorialist deserves a broom handle's conk on the cranium. And anyone who writes anything for the WSJ editorial page -- a toxic waste site if ever there was one -- stands outside civilized discourse.

Although Dershowitz doesn't offer any complaints about the Wall Street Journal, he does lambaste the "censorship" allegedly exercised by the Huffington Post.
Several weeks ago I submitted a blog about a debate being conducted by the Oxford Union regarding the one-state versus the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My main point was that the Oxford Union had shown anti-Israel bias by selecting as one of its speakers supporting the two-state position, a virulently anti-Israel writer named Norman Finkelstein who supports Hezbollah which demands the military destruction of Israel. In making my point about the bias of this selection, I had to show the readers who Finkelstein was and what his positions on Israel were.
This is horsecrap, as anyone familiar with Finkelstein's work can tell you. Actually, even if you've never heard of Norman Finkelstein, you should be able to spot the contradiction in this paragraph. If Finkelstein argues for a two-state solution, then, obviously, he thinks Israel should be a state -- thereby making hash of the implication that he supports Israel's destruction.

For the record, I have previously made clear that I support a one-state solution -- a non-Jewish state, in which all persons directly affected by its government's directives have equal voting rights. The very concept of a "Jewish state" is racist and indefensible.

That position allows me to point out the proverbial "elephant in the living room" -- the great unspeakable fact which Alan Dershowitz will not acknowledge and which my friend Larisa Alexandrovna does not discuss at great length: Israel systematically practices torture.

Dershowitz would argue otherwise, of course. As my readers know, strained rationalization is my favorite form of humor. Creationists will argue that cavemen rode dinosaurs, Holocaust revisionists will argue that the ovens were built to bake bread, and 9/11 freakazoids will argue that the collapse of twin towers began at the impact points because the conspirators knew that the jets would hit just those spots. When zealots get well and truly dug in, the citation of mere fact won't shovel 'em out.

But for those of you interested in "mere fact," start here:

(To read the rest, click "Permalink" below)
Here's a typical account, given by a 1 5-year-old Palestinian, Riad Faraj, who was arrested for throwing stones in late 1987. "They handcuffed and beat me during the journey to Fara'a [a military prison in Nablus]. Once we arrived, they took me to a 'doctor' for a 'checkup.' I found out later that this 'checkup' is to locate any physical weakness to concentrate on during torture. They paid particular attention to my leg, which was once injured and was still sensitive. Before they began interrogation, they asked me if I was ready to confess. They then hanged me by my wrists, naked, outside in the cold, and gave me hot and cold showers alternatively."
Now let's go to the BBC:
An official Israeli report has acknowledged for the first time that the Israeli security service tortured detainees during the Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, between 1988 and 1992.

The report, written five years ago but kept secret until now, said the leadership of the security service Shin Bet knew about the torture but did nothing to stop it.

The report did not detail the torture methods used, but human rights organisations say some detainees died or were left paralysed.
Dershowitz may offer a "That was then; this is now" strained rationalization. To prove that Israel does not torture now, he would, no doubt, cite Israeli sources. Back to the BBC:
Security agents were also accused of lying to the courts about their actions.
What kind of credibility can we extend to a party with an established willingness to lie in court?

Now let's look at what a Rabbi has to say. In the December, 1998 issue of The Progressive, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb recounted the story of "George," captured without charges, who was kept handcuffed in a chair for 120 days with his head covered by a sack soaked in urine and shit.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Palestinians are arrested every month, and as many as 80 percent of those undergo this form of interrogation, which falls under the category of `torture' by all international definitions.
Perhaps you think 1998 is ancient history. This is from a Ha'aretz piece from 2007:
The report contains the testimonies of nine Palestinians who were arrested by the Israel Defense Forces and Shin between 2004 and 2005, including one that charged police investigators with committing severe sexual abuse.

According to A., during questioning a police investigator held his legs in the air, and inserted an object into his rectum.

"While the investigator inserted the 'object' into my rectum and removed it, he pulled my genitalia, as if he wanted to rip it out," said A. "He told me that he wanted to cut it off and throw it to the dog - this lasted at least 10 minutes. The whole time I yelled out in pain."
A different prisoner, Louay Ashkar, said he sat during questioning on a chair with a bent backrest, with both hands tied behind the chair and each leg tied to chair leg.

"The investigator would push my chest backward until my head reached the floor, and then grabbed my bound hands and pull me to him," said Ashkar. "I lost consciousness because of the pain, especially in my back."

According to the report, Ashkar's legs are paralyzed due to the damage his spinal chord suffered.
Also see this Countercurrents piece:
In 1999 the Israeli High Court “banned” the practice of torture, but despite the “ban”, torture practice continues unabated. Systematic torture, including a policy of hooding and stressing all Palestinian detainees has been routinely used in Israeli prisons for decades. The practices follow a “well-defined set of steps and guidelines … selected to inflict extreme physical pain and mental anguish without causing … traceable physical injury”. Torture and ill-treatment of Palestinians continued to be systematic and state sanctioned.
A joint report by the Public Committee against Torture in Israel, the Palestinian rights group Law and the Swiss-based World Organisation against Torture contends that the September 1999 High Court ruling has been regularly flouted, particularly since the Intifada (Uprising) began in September 2000. According to B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, torture of Palestinians at the Gush Etzion police station continued from October 2000 through January 2001. ”Testimonies given to B'Tselem indicate that these are not isolated cases or uncommon conduct by certain police officers, and information received by B'Tselem raises the serious likelihood that torture during interrogations at the Gush Etzion police station continues”[3]. “[T]hey torture almost all the Palestinians they could. It was in the System. The moment you start, you can’t stop”, said one researcher working with B’Tselem.
If you visit the website of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, you'll see a Flash presentation which tells the story in a few grim, compelling images.

One could go on -- and on -- but for now, let me close by citing the most horrifying allegation of all, which comes to us by way of former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky. (His books were banned in Israel. If Dershowitz opposes censorship, why doesn't he say anything about that?) The following comes from The Other Side of Deception:
That was where I would come in as a military police officer; my job was to take the prisoners to a holding facility in Nes Ziyyona, a small town south of Tel Aviv. I’d always assumed that it was an interrogation facility for the Shaback. We all knew that a prisoner brought there would probably never get out alive, but the brainwashing we’d gone through in our short lifetimes had convinced us that it was them or us; there was no gray area.

It was Uri who enlightened me regarding the Nes Ziyyona facility. It was, he said, an ABC warfare laboratory–ABC standing for atomic, bacteriological, and chemical. It was where our top epidemiological scientists were developing various doomsday machines. Because we were so vulnerable and would not have a second chance should there be an all-out war in which this type of weapon would be needed, there was no room for error. The Palestinian infiltrators came in handy in this regard. As human guinea pigs, they could make sure the weapons the scientists were developing worked properly and could verify how fast they worked and make them even more efficient.
Ostrovsky's motive for lying would be...well, what, exactly?

I do hope that Dershowitz or some other apologist will favor us with an argument that human CBW experimentation does not fall under the legal definition of "torture." As noted above, strained rationalization is my favorite form of humor.


Anonymous said...

I guess poor Alan "my pussy hurts" Dershowitz got his 'feewings' hurt. It's amazing how these wingnuts always re-frame these arguments into a "you shamed me" crybaby routine.

Larisa's argument is unassailable. He knows it. Now he's hiding behind some bullshit, 19th century "crazy woman" defense. Pathetic. We are laughing at you Dershowitz, and all ya'll professional victims.

AitchD said...

Two or three years ago Dershowitz spoke at a bookstore to publicize his book, "Rights From Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights", which C-SPAN's BookTV covered. It looked to me like he was wearing an armored vest under his jacket and sweater. In a bookstore. In a bookstore?

I can think of a situation in which I would torture someone, but I hate the thought of it. If Larisa Alexandrovna cannot think of a situation in which she would torture someone or 'permit' it, then she should recuse herself from arguing against torture per se, which is not the same as saying she shouldn't pursue her good and righteous missions.

No one in less than a book-length argument is competent to argue about the profound flaws within the human character. Every reasonable person knows that behaviors cannot be legislated to disappear.

As long as justice in the United States condones capital punishment, its people will be morally suspect, and its laws will be ultimately inhumane.

Why is torture indefensible but having thermonuclear weapons defensible? Why possess those civilization-ending weapons without also implying the threat of using them?

Ironically, the more humane and civilized we become, or aspire to become, the less tolerant we become about dehumanizing and humiliating behaviors, and the easier it becomes to define as torture things we never classified as torture.

The recent arguments in Congress and the Executive branch included the most significant point that if you define and list everything you consider torture and therefore beyond the pale, and make illegal and punishable, you cannot punish what hasn't been listed; and people who are wont to torture will find a way and also a lawyer who will defend them.

I don't know about you or Lisa, or anyone else, but I won't condemn the US military and the OSS for atrocities and torture during WW2 only because the US Congress formally declared war -- on behalf of the people. Such is the nature of sovereignty, democracy, and survival. If I take that to its logical place, it means that the US Congress has a lot to answer for about torture -- more than the DOD, the CIA, or the military.

We didn't have these debates before we agreed to let 'zero tolerance' become a standard for many kinds of behaviors (including harmless ones). Well, when you embrace zero tolerance and also have easy, instantaneous mass 'gotcha' exposure, you've got the worst of all possible worlds. But we don't have the brains to handle it or the emotions to cope.

Joseph Cannon said...

"If Larisa Alexandrovna cannot think of a situation in which she would torture someone or 'permit' it, then she should recuse herself from arguing against torture per se, which is not the same as saying she shouldn't pursue her good and righteous missions."

I think this argument is beside the point. Look, we can all think of situations where we might commit torture or murder. The death or imminent death of one's child, for example. In hot blood, we might do as passion demands, and to hell with the law.

That pretty much covers, I think, the "ticking time bomb" scenario that matters so much to Dershowitz and to the Bush administration defenders -- but which has never, so far as I know, occurred in real life. If I felt convinced -- absolutely convinced -- that torturing someone would DIRECTLY prevent the deaths of thousands, of course I would do it. And I would not care about the legal consequences I might suffer.

But Dershowitz is talking explicitly about putting such actions under the color of law. A very different matter.

Let me repeat: The ticking time bomb tableau has never occurred in real life. Yet "24" and arguments like Dershowitz's have convinced many that this highly dubious scenario is somehow a matter of great moment. Why?

As everyone with any sense can tell, this argument is pure rationalization. It is an excuse what is going on in Gitmo, Uzbekistan, or Israel's prisons.

Suppose I asked you "You'd kill someone who killed your child, wouldn't you?" Suppose you say yes. Suppose I then go on to proclaim "Well, that gives me the right to kill the folks next door because they insulted me." My argument would be pretty damned unconvincing, wouldn't it?

I've been reading Henry IV, Part 3 -- a play which is much more fascinating than I ever suspected it would be. The most brutal scene Shakespeare ever wrote occurs when Clifford, a lieutenant of the rightful King Henry IV, slays Rutland, the 12-year-old child of Henry's rival, the Duke of York.

The boy, an utter innocent, prays for mercy. Clifford coldly replies: "Thy father killed my father: Therefore die." And he runs the boy through with his sword.

Clifford no doubt goes to his dying day (an act or two later) convinced that vengeance justified his act of murder. But even he would never have argued that murder ought to be LEGAL.

Just because we can contemplate committing an act doesn't mean we can contemplate changing the law.

Anonymous said...

Quite right, Joseph, but there's another argument which I think is implied by yours, but which deserves to be featured on its own.

To put it simply (if perhaps unfashionably), human beings are moral agents. They have the ability to know right from wrong and to make decisions based on the difference. They recognize when they have behaved badly and feel pangs of conscience.

Governments, in contrast, are soulless robots. They have no moral sense, no conscience, no ability to feel guilt or remorse. They are like computers, that can be programmed to behave in useful ways, but when there are bugs in their programming -- or simply unforeseen eventualities -- they quickly turn into monstrosities.

As a result, governments make good servants but bad masters. As long as they are set to productive tasks, they can be a force for good. If they are allowed to grind along unsupervised, they can have unfortunate destructive consequences. But the moment they are allowed to subvert the individual human conscience -- as when they sanction killing or torture in times of supposed crisis -- they become an active force for evil.

That is why the question of whether someone would kill or torture to protect their own loved ones has no relevance to whether they would agree to allot such powers to the government.

AitchD said...

You meant to write 'VI' (the First Folio calls it "The third Part of Henry the Sixt, with the death of the Duke of Yorke." Sixt without the h. Before 1 Folio, it was known as "The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, and the Death of King Henry the Sixth") It's second only to Titus Andronicus among Wagner's favorites of Shakespeare, isn't it? Just a wild extrapolation on my part. Anyway, if you haven't read Glynne Wickham's "Early English Stages" (it's slightly briefer than the Warren Commission's full Report), it would probably be exciting for you if you can find a good summary or precis. Theaters had to compete with the bear- and bull-baiting amusements across the river. Would you say that Shakespeare also thought that scene was his most brutal?

Joseph Cannon said...

You're right. I DID mean to write VI -- sorry! I try to be careful in the posts, but I dash off these comments far too rapidly.

I have no idea what Wagner thought of 3Hank6 (as the property is known in Hollywood). There was a Quarto edition of parts 2 and 3 together under the omnibus title "The Contention" between something or other. I'm too lazy to look it up the rest of it right now.

If the stabbing of young Rutland isn't WS's most brutal scene, the award must go to the "Iron Chef Italy" bit in Titus. In real life, Rutland was 16 or 17, not 12 as he is in the play. So you know that Sweet William really was going for the gut.

Charles D said...

I find it disgusting that my local Borders and B&N carry Dershowitz' inane, indefensible lies about Israel but refuse to carry the rational, clearly reasoned refutations of those lies by Norman Finkelstein.

Like you, I favor the one-state solution but I doubt that will come up in Condi Rice's Annapolis talks.