The Los Angeles Times is running duelling op-eds on torture today, one by a computer scientist and one by a former CIA operative. You can guess which one is for it.

The computer guy, David Gelernter, from what I’ve seen of his bio, has no experience with spying or war. He’s a computer guy. His knee-jerk argument is that those who support the McCain Amendment are knee-jerkers.

But of course you don’t have to be “pro-torture” to oppose the McCain amendment. That naive misunderstanding summarizes the threat posed by this good-hearted, wrong-headed legislation. Those who oppose the amendment don’t think the CIA should be permitted to use torture or other rough interrogation techniques. What they think is that sometimes the CIA should be required to squeeze the truth out of prisoners. Not because the CIA wants to torture people, but because it may be the only option we’ve got.

McCain’s amendment is a trap for the lazy minded. Whenever a position seems so obvious that you don’t even have to stop and think — stop and think.

But if you are ignorant of the subject at hand, even a smart guy can think all day long and still be wrong. People with experience (see the previous post) say that what you squeeze out of prisoners is unlikely to be truth. Gelernter doesn’t acknowledge even the possibility that tortured people will say anything to stop the torture. Nor does he address larger concerns about the residual effects of torture–that it creates new enemies and dehumanizes the torturer. Gelernter presents a mathematical equation–torture applied to bad guys equals useful information–without showing how he arrived at his “solution.”

Get this:

Those who defend McCain’s amendment and attack Cheney and Bush feel a nice warm glow, as if they’re basking in virtue, as in a hot tub, sipping Cabernet. But there is no virtue in joining a crowd, even if the crowd is right — and this one isn’t.

McCain is a bona fide hero. But there’s nothing courageous in standing firm with virtually the whole cultural leadership of this nation and the Western world, under any circumstances. It’s too easy. To take a principled stand that you know will make people loathe and vilify you — that’s what integrity, leadership and moral courage are all about. This time Cheney is the hero. McCain is taking the easy out.

That’s the weenie’s whole argument–people who oppose McCain’s Amendment do so because they are noble and courageous, never mind that it’s unlikely either Cheney or Gellenter will ever be required to dirty their hands with torture personally. People who favor the McCain Amendment are intellectually lazy and don’t understand the harsh realities of the world. This includes ex-POW John McCain who (Gelernter implies) is just too emotional on the subject of torture to understand it.

Gellenter hasn’t noticed that his own argument is entirely emotional. He offers no data or evidence to back up his assumptions. Instead, he puts himself on the pedestal of righteousness and smears the opposition. A true rightie.

On the other side, ex-CIA operative Larry Johnson offers information, not emotion.

If you inflict enough pain on someone, they will give you information, but what they tell you may not be true. You will have to corroborate it, which will take time. And, unless you kill every suspect you brutalize, you will make enemies of them, their families, maybe their entire villages. What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust — even with a terrorist, even if it’s time-consuming — than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets, who believed that national security always trumped human rights.

And that’s the point. We should never use our fear of being attacked as justification for dehumanizing ourselves or others….

… am not advocating that terrorists be given room service at the Four Seasons. Some sleep deprivation — of the sort mothers of newborns all endure — and spartan living conditions are appropriate. What we must not do is use physical pain or the threat of drowning, as in “waterboarding,” to gain information. Tough, relentless questioning is OK. Torture is not.

Thankfully, several Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are defying Cheney’s campaign for a torture loophole. Cheney’s plea to permit CIA officers unrestricted interrogation methods would be the death of the CIA as a professional intelligence service and another stain on the reputation of the U.S.

This is from the Knight Ridder article discussed in the last post:

Advocates for flexibility argue that, in fighting terrorism, sometimes the stakes are so high that repugnant measures are justified.

One is the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which a captured terrorist has information on an imminent attack that could kill hundreds or thousands of civilians.

Two administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak to the press, said Cheney had described such a scenario several times, in which interrogators using generally approved methods can’t pry the particulars out of the prisoner in time to prevent an attack.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued that in such cases, torture should be used as a last resort, openly, with approval by the president or a Supreme Court justice.

But intelligence officers and other U.S. officials said the scenario was more likely to be found in James Bond films than in the real war on terrorism.

Asked how he’d handle it, McCain replied: “It’s a one in a million issue, and if something was one in a million situation, I would support whatever needs to be done. But that’s a one in a million situation.”

“If you have exceptions, then there’s more exceptions and more exceptions and more exceptions,” he said.

It tells you something when those with real-world experience of an issue are lining up on one side, and those on the other learned all they think they know from watching movies.

See also: John Cole Tim F. at Balloon Juice.

11 thoughts on “Think

  1. Vice is soo courageous. That is why he never hides from the public and answers all questions put to him and is accountable for his past statements and decisions. Sooo courageous.

  2. I thought the name “David Gelernter” sounded familiar. A quick Google confirmed my suspicions: he was maimed by the Unabomber in 1995.

    Don’t know if he was always a right-wing reactionary, or if it began with that attack. Unpredictable things can happen to a person’s ability to reason when they’re the victim of unreasonable violence. (Gee, isn’t that an argument against torture?)

    Other than possessing creepy opinions, Gelernter has no credentials whatever for an Op-Ed on torture. Looks like the LA Times was scraping the barrel to find a pro-torture piece.

  3. Ack! Not only did they can Robert Scheer; they’re keeping Max Boot. Boot is even worse than Goldberg, IMO. Goldberg is a fact-challenged idiot, but Boot is a worse and more hateful fact-challenged idiot.

    Now the only decent columnist left at the LA Times is Jonathan Chait. Too bad.

  4. I see that joanr16 mentions Gelertner’s “Unibomber” connection.

    My understanding is Gelertner lost a hand and after the experience, his personality underwent a radical shift.

    As a computer scientist he was, and indeed, probably still is brilliant. Unfortunately, that same brilliance does not automatically extend to domains outside of their specialties.

  5. Scott raises thought-provoking points. I read Gelernter’s full piece on the LA Times site, as well as Larry Johnson’s, of course. Gelernter’s piece is one rhetorical “string” after another, each completely fact-free, with no logical connections between. I’m sure Gelernter knows far better than me what would happen if he wrote a computer program in that manner. (My theory: nothing. Failure to execute.)

    I find myself still contemplating the ironies of Gelernter’s story. Imagine an Iraqi or Afghan schoolteacher, mistaken for an insurgent, hauled from his home in the middle of the night with a canvas bag over his head. He’s hung from his wrists, stark bollocks naked. He’s electrocuted and beaten. He speaks English fairly well and recognizes his interrogators as American. After 72 hours the mistaken ID is discovered, and the non-suspect is freed. He suffers a permanent disability from his torture. He undergoes a “radical personality shift,” in Scott’s phrase. His thinking becomes disorganized, except that he knows one thing with fierce conviction: Americans are the enemy.

    I’m not sure why Gelernter’s anger is directed at the American left, rather than at Luddites or cabin-dwelling loners. I suspect this is just more of his disorganized thinking.

  6. sent this to the times:
    “When Melodrama is the Only Option”
    It’s obvious that David Gelernter (“When Torture is the Only Option”) has watched a great deal of “24.” It’s not as obvious that he has anything else to contribute to the debate over whether or not Americans should permit torture. But if he wants to discuss a morally critical issue through the plot of a tv show, fine. David, say Jack Ryan was holding a terrorist who knew the secret location of the dirty bomb threatening an American city. Is it likely, do you think, that he would refrain from torturing the guy if it was illegal? Is it likely that he would be subsequently punished for it? If you answer no to both questions, and if torture should only be used in similarly extreme situations, why do we need a law protecting ol’ Jack’s right to torture?

    As for the rest of his argument, I was especially struck by his claim that “there is no virtue in joining a crowd, even if the crowd is right”. Sort of depends what the crowd is doing, doesn’t it David? If they’re getting together to put out a fire or attack the vampire’s castle then I think there is real virtue in joining that crowd. On the other hand, if they’re joining together to pretend that the president of the United States is a despised, powerless minority then it’s basically an exercise is idiocy.

  7. Perhaps there are occasional, rare situations where torture is ethically justified. But there is no way of legalizing torture but confining it to those rare situations. Torture is simply too tempting–if that door is opened even a crack, it will soon be open wide. What reasonable person did not see Abu Grahib coming as soon as the White House announced that prisoners of the War on Terror were not subject to the Geneva Accords?

    And most of the time, torture is a bad thing. It is regarded with revulsion by all civilized people, and is destructive to our national reputation. It undermines the most sacred values that we espouse. It corrupts and destroys those who engage in it. And often, it doesn’t even yield good intelligence. And if the situation really is so desperate that torture is, somehow, really warranted, do you seriously believe that our soldiers and agents would be deterred by fear of legal consequences? After all, these are people who routinely put their lives on the line for the sake of our country. If they aren’t willing to take the chance that the courts will deal with them as lightly as possible, considering their situation, then torture probably is not justified at all.

  8. CIA Op Larry Johnson’s comments need to be underscored, copied, and hand-delivered to anybody who claims that we need a legal exemption for torture. Because he isn’t the first person to make these points.

    There are a series of articles that can be tracked down (forgive me for not doing so now) in the following places: Atlantic Monthly,, New York Review of Books, and where the authors cite the opinions of professional interrogators. The Atlantic Monthly piece is by far the best. In it, they gather the best of the best, from Shin Bet to the NYPD, and the funny thing is that all of these guys, real pros when it comes to making bad guys spill the beans, say exactly the same thing:

    You sit the guy down. You give him a glass of water and a cigarette, and you explain the situation. Because you are drawing this person forward.

    Sometimes, they note, you need to bring in a deprogrammer, especially with an Islamic militant who has been effectively brainwashed. Here, you’ll want an Arab psychologist. Sometimes, you need to be tricky, like putting another “prisoner” in the cell with the suspect. Or you tell the suspect that his buddy in the next room has already squealed so he might as well talk, too.

    Also, note that as soon as we stopped the harsh treatment at Gitmo, we immediately received reports that they were getting more and better intel. The Israelies and Brits learned this lesson some ten years back and they have good advice for us. From Israel comes the caution that the “ticking time bomb” scenario always has the following effect:

    First, you torture the suspect. Then you round up his brother and torture him too. Then you go after his father, his mother, his friends, and eventually you’re bringing in the people who lived across the street from him.

    Senator McCain’s arguments are equally important: The enemy’s behavior does not define who we are. But if we are on record as even allowing torture, under any circumstances, whether or not we actually engage in it, then in so doing we immediately condone the torture of American POWs.

    When you protest torture, when you stand up and say that the United States of America does not stand for it and will never engage in it, you are supporting and protecting our troops.

  9. Pingback: The Mahablog » Just Don’t Call It Torture

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