15 June 2004

A Moral Chernobyl - Prepare for the worst of Abu Ghraib

However, this very voyage to the pits may be of some moral use. Nobody has yet even suggested that the disgusting saturnalia in Abu Ghraib produced any 'intelligence' worth the name or switched off any 'ticking bomb.' How could it? It was trashily recreational. But this doesn't relieve the security forces of democratic countries from their sworn responsibility to protect us -- yes us, the very people who demand results but don't especially want to know the full price of our protection.

I have a historical example to offer. In the early 1970s, there was a gigantic scandal in England over the torture of Irish Republican detainees. (Harold Evans, then editor of the Sunday Times, deserves credit for printing the facts in spite of immense government pressure not to do so -- or not to do so without being accused of 'helping the terrorists.') The resulting outrage led to a commission of inquiry chaired by a judge named Sir Edmund Compton. His report took a dim view of some of the methods used but said that these did not amount to 'torture,' at least in most cases, because those inflicting them had not derived any pleasure from doing so. At the time, I thought this must be some kind of a sick joke, perhaps derived from Monty Python or the rigors of English boarding school. ('I didn't really enjoy it, Sir.' 'Oh well, that's all right, then. Carry on, Perkins.') However, the government did tell the army to stop it, and it pretty much did stop, and the terrorists didn't win.

They didn't win because their idea of bombing a large Protestant community into joining a united Catholic Ireland was a bit mad to begin with. And they also didn't win because security methods became tremendously more professional. Skill, in these matters, depends on taking pains and not on inflicting them. You make the chap go through his story several times, preferably on video, and then you ask his friends a huge number of tedious questions, and then you go through it all again to check for discrepancies, and then you watch the first (very boring and sexless) video all over once more, and then you make him answer all the same questions and perhaps a couple of new and clever ones. If you have got the wrong guy -- and it does happen -- you let him go and offer him a ride home and an apology. And you know what? It often works. Only a lazy and incompetent dirtbag looks for brutal shortcuts so that he can get off his shift early. And sometimes, gunmen and bombers even have changes of heart, as well as mind.

Yes, but what about the ticking bomb? Listen: There's always going to be a ticking bomb somewhere. Some of these will go off, and it's just as likely to be in my part of Washington, D.C., as anywhere else. But we shall be fighting a war against jihad for decades to come. And the jihadists will continue to make big mistakes based on their mad theory. And they are not superhuman: They can be infiltrated, bribed, and turned. You don't have to tell them what time of day it is, or where they are, or when the next meal will be served. (Though it must be served.) But you must not bring in that pig or that electrode. That way lies madness and corruption and the extraction of junk confessions. So even if law and principle didn't enter into the question, we sure as hell know what doesn't work. The cranky Puritan voice of Sir Edmund Compton comes back to me down the corridor of the years: If it gives anyone pleasure, then you are doing it wrong and doing wrong into the bargain.

If Christopher Hitchens is abandoning the War on Terror as justification for anything and everything the White House claims needs doing then the war party is in deep doo doo. In fact Abu Ghraib achieved nothing except the shredding of any moral case left to the war party. If you think a dirty war can succeed I suggest you read a little about earlier attempts to fight a dirty war in Latin America, and then consider whether it made those nations more or less secure for the motley crew of tyrants who then ruled there.

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