Moral Relativism

After years of hearing the right-wing decry the ‘moral relativism’ of ‘liberals’, I was at a loss for the proper description of Rudy Giuliani’s approach to waterboarding.

Linda Gustitus, who is the president of a group called the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, began her question by saying that President Bush’s nominee for attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey (who happens to be an old friend of Mr. Giuliani’s) had “fudged” on the question of whether waterboarding is toture.

“I wanted to ask you two questions,’’ she said. “One, do you think waterboarding is torture? And two, do you think the president can order something like waterboarding even though it’s against U.S. and international law?’’

Mr. Giuliani responded: “O.K. First of all, I don’t believe the attorney general designate in any way was unclear on torture. I think Democrats said that; I don’t think he was.’’

Ms. Gustitus said: “He said he didn’t know if waterboarding is torture.”

Mr. Giuliani said: “Well, I’m not sure it is either. I’m not sure it is either. It depends on how it’s done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it. I think the way it’s been defined in the media, it shouldn’t be done. The way in which they have described it, particularly in the liberal media. So I would say, if that’s the description of it, then I can agree, that it shouldn’t be done. But I have to see what the real description of it is. Because I’ve learned something being in public life as long as I have. And I hate to shock anybody with this, but the newspapers don’t always describe it accurately.”

It depends on who does it?

It depends on the circumstances?

I have to see what the real description of it is?

So, suppose, just for the sake of argument, that US forces were trying to pacify a foreign land, which was plagued by a fanatical insurgency, and we needed to get information from suspected insurgents or sympathizers? American lives are being lost to brutal attacks, and even the friendly locals may be turning around and supporting the insurgents when our backs are turned? Would that be appropriate circumstances?

Towards the end of 1900, the Americans declared martial law. To combat guerrilla warfare, they launched a scorched-earth “pacification” campaign. Every Filipino was viewed as an enemy regardless of whether he or she took up arms. Entire towns were held responsible for the actions of guerrillas. Mere objection to the Americans was termed treason. Villages sympathetic to the guerrillas were burned and people indiscriminately killed. Torture was systematically used to elicit information from suspected guerrillas or their sympathizers. One form of torture was the “water cure” treatment where the victim was forced to drink excessive amounts of water after which he was stomped on the stomach. One U.S. soldier bragged in a letter that Americans were shooting Filipinos “like rabbits.” Even though the U.S. War Department imposed blanket censorship, these atrocities became widely known because American soldiers wrote to their families and relatives in the U.S. and related stories of abuse. Some of these letters were eventually published in American local newspapers, highlighting the brutality of these “pacification” campaigns, leading to Congressional investigation, public outrage, and considerable embarrassment for the White House.

Part of the strategy was the introduction of “reconcentration”, a policy of hauling thousands of Filipinos (whom Americans referred to as their “little brown brothers”) into concentration camps to flush out the guerrillas among them and to cut their material support to the resistance movement. In the process of reconcentration, whole towns suffered from starvation and disease. Villagers were taken from their sources of livelihood and were not decently fed. Worse, living conditions were less than adequate, with people confined in overcrowded camps without proper sanitation. Camps then became breeding grounds for the spread of deadly diseases such as cholera.

The guerilla war for independence did not immediately end with Aguilnaldo’s capture on March 23, 1901; the insurrection lasted until July 1902. In the end, it took over three years to “pacify” the Philippines. More than 120,000 American soldiers served in the Philippines, 4,200 of whom died. It was estimated that 25,000 Filipino rebels and 200,000 civilians also died.

Since Rudy wants to know the details, perhaps he should hear about how it was previously done by American forces:

Riley, a sergeant in the Twenty-sixth Regiment, the son and brother of reputable men well known in Northampton, wrote home on November 25, 1900, as follows:

Arriving at Igbaras at daylight, we found everything peaceful; but it shortly developed that we were really “treading on a volcano.” The presidente, the priest, and another leading man were assembled, and put on the rack of inquiry. The presidente evaded some questions, and was soon bound and given the “water cure.” This was done by throwing him on his back beneath a tank of water and running a stream into his mouth, a man kneading his stomach meanwhile to prevent his drowning. The ordeal proved a tongue-loosener, and the crafty old fellow soon begged for mercy and made full confession…. The presidente was asked for more information, and had to take a second dose of “water cure” before he would divulge.

Of course, experts like Torquemada had a more refined technique, apparently unknown to ‘reputable men well known in Northampton’:

The methods of torture most used by the Inquisition were garrucha, toca and the potro. The application of the garrucha, also known as the strappado, consisted of suspending the criminal from the ceiling by a pulley with weights tied to the ankles, with a series of lifts and drops, during which arms and legs suffered violent pulls and were sometimes dislocated. The toca, also called tortura del agua, consisted of introducing a cloth into the mouth of the victim, and forcing them to ingest water spilled from a jar so that they had impression of drowning. The potro, the rack, was the instrument of torture used most frequently.

In modern parlance, I think they call garrucha a “stress position”.

Still, it may be there have been some refinements in modern times. If one is to believe the biased liberal media, it has been discovered that actual ingestion of the water is no longer necessary for the psychological effect of drowning. Perhaps Rudy believes that covering the face with cellophane makes the process something other than torture. Not surprisingly, Human Rights Watch disagrees:

The Convention Against Torture prohibits practices that constitute the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” The federal torture statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2340A, similarly prohibits acts outside the United States that are specifically intended to cause “severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

Waterboarding is torture. It causes severe physical suffering in the form of reflexive choking, gagging, and the feeling of suffocation. It may cause severe pain in some cases. If uninterrupted, waterboarding will cause death by suffocation. It is also foreseeable that waterboarding, by producing an experience of drowning, will cause severe mental pain and suffering. The technique is a form of mock execution by suffocation with water. The process incapacitates the victim from drawing breath, and causes panic, distress, and terror of imminent death. Many victims of waterboarding suffer prolonged mental harm for years and even decades afterward.

Waterboarding, when used against people captured in the context of war, may also amount to a war crime as defined under the federal war crimes statute 18 U.S.C. § 2441, which criminalizes grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions (in international armed conflicts), and violations of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions (in non-international armed conflicts). Waterboarding is also an assault, and thus violates the federal assault statute, 18 U.S.C. § 113, when it occurs in the “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” a jurisdictional area which includes government installations overseas. In cases involving the U.S. armed forces, waterboarding also amounts to assault, and cruelty and maltreatment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

John McCain has his own opinion:

“All I can say is that it was used in the Spanish Inquisition, it was used in Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, and there are reports that it is being used against Buddhist monks today,” Mr. McCain, who spent more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, said in a telephone interview.

Of presidential candidates like Mr. Giuliani, who say that they are unsure whether waterboarding is torture, Mr. McCain said: “They should know what it is. It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

But of course, according to Rudy that’s all an exaggeration. It all depends on the circumstances.

See Digby and the Anonymous Liberal for more.

(cross-posted from Ratiocination.)

Naomi Wolf on “The End of America”

Naomi Wolf presents the ideas in her book, The End of America, at the University of Washington. Video is a bit long, but the illuminating introduction explains what drove her to write it, and promises some hope by the end of her talk.

Wolf argues that the language, images, and manipulations that despots used in the past to break down democracies have a consistent pattern, and are being employed here and now. From Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, and to the present, she finds that all modern despots do the same things. Mussolini created the formula, Hitler followed it, and Stalin studied Hitler – this pattern gets passed down. Wolf summarized this blueprint in ten points:

  1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
  2. Create a gulag
  3. Develop a thug caste
  4. Set up an internal surveillance system
  5. Harass citizens’ groups
  6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Control the press
  9. Dissent equals treason
  10. Suspend the rule of law

In the video, Wolf argues that all of these factors are now underway in the USA. It’s a different take on the popular 14 points of fascism – without invoking the "f" word. Her phrase "shutting down a democracy", gets past the objections associated with "fascism". However, Wolf goes beyond a simple list of features and demonstrates both the predictive nature of her model, and the non-linear nature of change as a democracy weakens. She closes with:

…History shows it’s not enough to impeach criminals and murderers. You have to put them behind bars.

The Founders did not intend for us to delegate the defense of liberty to a professional class of pundits or politicians or constitutional scholars. The Founders intended for us to do it.

What the Founders intended was for ordinary Americans, ordinary people to assume the patriot’s task and lead the fight to restore democracy, and to see themselves as leaders.