Tuesday, June 05, 2007

FOX's 24, Terror Plots, and Attitudes Towards Torture

"I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo."
-- Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney

"You say that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time!"
-- Presidential Candidate Tom Tancredo

I used to be a big fan of FOX's TV show 24, at least during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but during the past year I began to have serious second thoughts as it became somewhat schizophrenic and increasingly disturbing.

On the one hand, the writers seem to want to point out the dangers of stereotyping, of scapegoating, and the potential peril of having ultra-conservative, Nixonian rogue elements working against the rule of law in the White House.

On the other hand, they glorify violence and torture, and worse yet, try to give the impression that torture actually works. Even if we were willing to throw our ideals and Constitution into the trash, interrogation experts from other western democracies seem to know better. They know that for the most part, it does not, or that it at least has points of diminishing returns and is often counter-productive. It was a bit disturbing to me to learn that Dick Cheney watches and likes this show... Who knew he had that kind of time on his hands?

Plus, on a less serious level:

- Having a nuclear device actually go off on American soil was way, way over the top...
- Having Jack kill fellow CTU-agent Curtis was wrong... just plain wrong...

The writers, the director, and Kiefer Sutherland himself (who plays the elite counter-terrorist "Mr. Fix-it" Jack Bauer) came under increasing criticism this season for the all-pervasive "finger-snapping" torture elements that could be found in the program week in and week out. It was being noted that US interrogators, officers, and troops were looking at the Jack Bauer model of interrogation as one to emulate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, with harmful results. The producers seem non-committal about where they are going to go with this. The 24-hour format of the show lends itself to this approach almost out of necessity.

Looking past the show itself, it leads to a larger question of how we actually come to look at the use of torture in our society in a post-9/11 world. You see the comments from two of the Republican candidates above. A little while ago, Mike McG had pointed out to me some disturbing numbers about how Americans, and Catholics in particular, look at torture. According to this Pew Study, 21 % of Catholics said that it was "often" justified to torture terror suspects and 35% said it was "sometimes" justified. This 56% majority number was sufficiently higher than the public as a whole (15% and 31 % respectively).

This, in spite of the fact that the Catechism states (no Inquisition wisecracks, please):

2297 ... Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

What are American now willing to accept? I can't recall where I read the following, but it was a narrative that went somewhat along these lines:

Imagine a Special Forces/Northern Alliance Team holding a group of three hardcore Taliban or Al Qaeda prisoners in late 2001, after then-CIA operative Cofer Black had insisted that "the gloves had been taken off."

(To the first prisoner)
"Where's Osama bin Laden"

"I don't know."

"Sorry, wrong answer." Bang

(To the second prisoner)
"Where's Osama bin Laden"

"I saw him in Khost about a month ago."

"Nope. Too long ago. That's not good enough..." Bang

(At this point the third prisoner starts talking and can hardly be stopped)

Alright, then. Where is Osama bin Laden in 2007? Still at-large, which underlines another problem with torture, even if one was able to equivocate over the moral issues associated with it. Tortured suspects have a tendency to tell their interrogators what they want to hear, if they can be made to speak at all, which means a lot of what you get out of tortured suspects is garbage.

An Atlantic article by Mark Bowden, The Dark Art of Interrogation, which is actually somewhat sympathetic to the Bush administration's approach towards interrogation in some ways, points out some of the pitfalls of using torture:

Fear works. It is more effective than any drug, tactic, or torture device. According to unnamed scientific studies cited by the CIA's Kubark Manual (it is frightening to think what these experiments might have been), most people cope with pain better than they think they will. As people become more familiar with pain, they become conditioned to it. Those who have suffered more physical pain than others—from being beaten frequently as a child, for example, or suffering a painful illness—may adapt to it and come to fear it less. So once interrogators resort to actual torture, they are apt to lose ground.

"The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself," the manual says.
The threat to inflict pain, for example, can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain ... Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression, whereas the materialization of the fear, the infliction of some form of punishment, is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out, and his resistances are strengthened.

Furthermore, if a prisoner is subjected to pain after other methods have failed, it is a signal that the interrogation process may be nearing an end. "He may then decide that if he can just hold out against this final assault, he will win the struggle and his freedom," the manual concludes. Even if severe pain does elicit information, it can be false, which is particularly troublesome to interrogators seeking intelligence rather than a confession. Much useful information is time-sensitive, and running down false leads or arresting innocents wastes time.

By similar logic, the manual discourages threatening a prisoner with death. As a tactic "it is often found to be worse than useless," the manual says, because the sense of despair it induces can make the prisoner withdraw into depression—or, in some cases, see an honorable way out of his predicament...

Religious extremists are the hardest cases. They ponder in their own private space, performing a kind of self-hypnosis. They are usually well educated. Their lives are financially and emotionally tidy. They tend to live in an ascetic manner, and to look down on nonbelievers. They tend to be physically and mentally strong, and not to be influenced by material things—by either the incentives or the disincentives available in prison. Often the rightness of their cause trumps all else, so they can commit any outrage—lie, cheat, steal, betray, kill—without remorse. Yet under suffi-cient duress, Koubi says, most men of even this kind will eventually break—most, but not all. Some cannot be broken.

"They are very rare," (an Israeli interrogator) says, "but in some cases the more aggressive you get, and the worse things get, the more these men will withdraw into their own world, until you cannot reach them."

On the Drudge website, I've noticed there is often a link to Newsmax, which is hawking a sensationalist book called The Day of Islam, by Paul Williams The blurb states:

FBI Director Robert Mueller, in an interview with NewsMax, confirmed Williams' main claim. Mueller said al-Qaida's paramount goal is clear: to detonate a nuclear device that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans...

Mueller told NewsMax that at times, the threat feels so real he lies awake at night thinking about the prospect.

Williams maintains that al-Qaida is not content on blowing up one nuclear device or even simply a "dirty" nuke — but wants to explode real nuclear devices in seven U.S. cities simultaneously.

Williams says these cities are New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Miami, Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles.

Suppose for the sake of argument, that the Williams book is credible. What if such a scenario was to unfold? What would the response of this country be? (Even if, apparently, a bunch of us posting and reading here wouldn't live to see the aftermath)

Is the fear that keeps Mueller awake at night the same fear that lets Americans accept the idea of torture, even if torture is part of what makes the scenario that is so feared more likely to occur? In addition, if such nukes did go off here, with no return address, what would the response be? What should it be?


crystal said...

Great post, Jeff.

I used to watch 24 too - there was one season of it in reruns on Bravo but I don't know which season. I was addicted to it for a while, but eventually it got to me (one scene of a guy being tortured with a chain saw).

the church forbade clerics to shed blood .... so they used to use maces when they fought in battles instead of swords :-)

I think torture is awful and not justified, even if it were to retreive reliable info, which it usually doesn't. You've inspired me - I think I'll write something about this too.

Jeff said...

Thanks Crystal,

Good article and link on your blog.

the church forbade clerics to shed blood .... so they used to use maces when they fought in battles instead of swords :-)

Ha! Yes, the clerical use of the mace! I actually heard that in an armor and weapons lecture at the Higgins Armory Museum in nearby Worcester. I think it's the largest collection or armor in the Western Hemisphere. Pretty cool museum.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a world where a bunch of Gitmo inmates simultaneously 'commit suicide'. Oh wait, that happened.

I just watched the PBS special about the inmates at Stalag Luft III who had the 'great escape'. Then they were shocked when Hitler broke the Geneva convention and had the gestapo shoot 50 prisoners in retribution. Somehow, real life takes 50 years or so to register with us.

Several prisoners suddenly decided to commit suicide

And we are told that they did so to embarass us. I'm really not to sure i believe that. This situation is getting out of hand. I have a better feeling, now, on where conservativism can lead us. This foaming at the mouth form of conservativism is, as Ron Paul says, anything *but* conservativism.

Beyond such comments I haven't really watched 24 so can't say much about it. I think that the PBS special just got me worked up and i had to rant a bit. ;)

Steve Bogner said...

I don't watch 24, but have seen previews and snippets.

Whatever happened to taking the higher ground, to leading the world to better things? Setting a good example? Torture is none of that, and right-wing conservatism is to blame (in my opinion). And I think we also have to recognize the the fact of right-wing conservatism creeping into the Catholic church. It's wrong, just as wrong as any other political ideology creeping into Catholicism. It's backwards; our Catholic heritage, tradition and values should be reaching out into the social/political world and affecting it, not the other way around.

Garpu the Fork said...

I'd heard awhile ago that Catholics supported torture in greater numbers than Protestants, but I didn't know if it were still true. Of course it would help if the bishops spoke out about torture as they would same-sex marriage or abortion.

Jeff said...

Nobody feels like tackling the last couple of questions? I can't say I blame you. Almost too horrific to contemplate.


The prisoner suicide attempts at Guantanamo were coordinated? I didn't know that. I can imagine that a certain madness can creep in, as has been reported with some of the guys they've got locked up in Supermax. Isolation for that length of time, with no forseeable end in sight can literally cause someone to lose his mind.

The whole thing at Guantanamo... It's terrible, but I think I can understand to some degree why the general public has been ambivalent. People from outside of Afghanistan who were hanging around Mazar Al-Sharif in the fall of 2001 were up to absolutely no good. They certainly weren't there in the middle of nowhere with AK's and RPG's doing aid work. Some prisoners have openly said to their captors, "you better not ever let me out or I will kill you". Still, we cannot ignore our own laws about due process. If we watch the films about the Nuremburg trials, we can see why.


You're almost begining to sound a little radical these days. :-) What you point out has always been a pet peeve of mine... The tendency in some quarters to project some certain quintessentially (Republican) American conservative values (as opposed to more universally held conservative values) onto the Catholic Church.


I think there is a school of thought that looks at the sheer number of abortions that occur every year and subsequently makes that the paramount issue at almost the total exclusion of all others in a kind of "hierarchy of truths". We can see though, that this is getting increasingly problematic. All Catholics know the official Church stand on abortion, but how many Catholics have any idea what is in the catechism and know anything about the Church's teaching on these other issues?

Mike McG... said...

I'm late in posting because I attempted to prepare an adequate response to your final paragraph. You called the question. I’m stumped. I just pray we aren't put to the test.

Never saw 24, but I do remember an episode from NYPD Blue in which Sipowitz engaged some, shall we say, creative and extra-legal interrogation techniques in the case of a child abduction. The man interrogated finally gave up the child's location and, as I recall, the child was located. Fiction, of course…but just as with 24, very influential in our framing of such matters.

I found the comments by Romney as well as Tancredo, a Catholic anti-immigrant zealot, chilling. But I don't have a well-reasoned response to terror and I fear that a "just say no" approach fails to address the deepest fears of Americans.

Observations about the inaccurate outcomes of torture have great appeal to me. I want these observations to be true...which makes me a little suspicious. If we locate our opposition to torture in terms of its inefficacy, what happens if it can be shown that under certain circumstances the information yield is indeed accurate?

Seems like the Catholic position holds torture to be categorically wrong *even if* it is proven to be effective in fighting terrorism. I'm certain that this position will not 'sell' any better than our positions on abortion and capital punishment.

How would we respond to a reprise of 9/11? I suspect there would be overwhelming support for torture, even in progressive precincts, if it is shown to 'work' in preventing future attacks. How should we respond? Perhaps we should dust off our Gene Sharp books on non-violent defense, reread Gordon Zahn's biography of Franz Jaegerstaetter, and prepare to be outcasts.

Provocative essay, Jeff.

Jeff said...

Hi Mike,

I also pray we aren't put to that test. My gut feeling, however is this... The word has probably already been put out to the Saudis in quiet back-channels... If it happens, a return address won't even be looked for. If it happens, things will not only go badly for us. They will go very, very badly for the entire Islamic world as well.

NYPD Blue. That was another show that I enjoyed. I saw the Sipowitz episode you are referring to. It's not an easy question to dismiss, especially when emininet legal minds like Alan Dershowitz make a compelling case with the ticking time bomb/kidnapped child kind of scenario. You are right, the niceties are very much lost on an uneasy and frightened public, and it's probably too easy to take a lofty attitude which may not hold up under pressure. I remember the warlike fury I felt on 9/11. It wasn't pretty. I wasn't too willing to cut anybody any slack. If such a thing were to happen again, the Church's objections to torture might very likely fall on deaf ears much like the abortion and capital punishmnet admonitions do now.

Thanks for the author tips on Gene Sharp and Gordon Zahn. I'm not familiar with them, I'll have to check them out. Funny that you should mention Franz Jaegerstaetter. My twelve-year-old daughter has just written a report on him (at my suggestion). Maybe I'll post it up if she's OK with that.