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.)

9 thoughts on “Moral Relativism

  1. Isn’t is always the supposed defenders of civilization who so robustly argue in favor of torture?

    I maintain that people who are civil to others treat them humanely…no matter what horrible acts they’ve alleged to have committed. It separates us from the wild kingdom. While I personally have an exception for the assassination of OBL, he has proudly (and repeatedly) admitted his involvement in mass murders, and his distance from our reach IMHO justifies his killing. I certainly wouldn’t suggest he be tortured. I wouldn’t cry if his demise was painful, either.

    Those who practice (or advocate) inhumane behavior surely cannot claim to be protecting Western civilization, nor its principles. Our justice systems are built upon the foundation that 10 guilty persons walk free before 1 innocent individual is punished. We know this isn’t how it functions in practice, sadly, but we do aspire to proving guilt beyond reasonable doubts. Despite this we also know about hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people being convicted, incarcerated or executed, and then exonerated. If we can justify torturing terrorism suspects, what prevents us from treating criminals differently? Rationalization is too flexible for such serious issues with finite consequences.

    There can be no slope here for civil persons. Rudy is an animal.

  2. Pingback: The American Street » Blog Archive » The Torture record


    Those interested might check out the above link to an exhibition on “Witchcraft, Demonology, and the Inquisition” at the Univ. of Sydney.

    On this page is a rare book about a series of English witchcraft trials from 1645 featuring the infamous “Witchfinder-General” Matthew Hopkins.

    The on-line commentary states “Most of the [witches] made confessions; this is not strange because Hopkins and his associates used techniques such as swimming, starvation, prolonged sitting cross-legged upon a stool, solitary confinement, prevention of sleep and forced continuous walking until the feet blistered to obtain a result. None of this was regarded as torture!”

    Note carefully the last line.

    George Bush and his enablers in the Executive branch of course say exactly the same thing about what they are doing now. And much of what they are doing matches the description above of the “techniques” used by Matthew Hopkins to extract confessions from “witches.”

    Torture of witchcraft suspects was in fact illegal in Matthew Hopkins’s England. His answer to a query about the treatment of accused witches would have been the same as George Bush’s answer today about the treatment of detainees: “We don’t torture.“ The next question might be: “Why is your treatment of these witches/detainees not torture?” Answer: “Because torture is illegal.” Q.E.D.

    Now the United States has adopted interrogation “techniques” virtually identical to those used by Matthew Hopkins (“swimming” is a Medieval witch hunter’s euphemism for simulated drowning; sitting cross-legged on a stool is another kind of “stress position”). Hopkins, of course, was a person of a late Medieval mindset.

    . . . Which pretty much tells us what we need to know about George Bush and the pro-torture crowd. Does anyone find it at all reassuring that our President and his Justice Department advisers are throwbacks?

  4. My father-in-law was a flag rank Naval Intelligence Officer. During part of his career, he planned operations involving Navy Seals. When he assumed that duty, it was required that he go through some of the training that Navy Seals go through, so that he could have a better understanding of who they were and their capabilities. He described the “worst part” to me and after several years, hearing the descriptions, I realized that it was waterboarding. He said that it was as close to unbearable as you can imagine and that the only way he made it through the experience was that he knew it was only an exercise, they did not want to kill him and that even if he passed out, he would get medical attention.

    With or without this thread of support, I don’t see how anyone could deny that it is torture.

  5. Regarding the American atrocities in the Philippines, there is not better article than the one written by Mark Twain (who considered himself a journalist) Almost all the issues he discusses have their counterparts in our situation in Iraq. See “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” Sam Clemons If we only had writers of his stature today…

  6. The key point and the vital one that anyone should be able to see is that we should not torture to protect our troops. This is obviouls to McCain and Powell and a host of retired generals. How?

    This is not the last military confilct we will be in. Americans who are captured by militias or jihadists will be mutilated and beheaded. That’s a brutal fact of this war. But if WE abandon the rules of civilized conduct regarding ‘detainees’ it’s global news, and the worst actions we publicly sanction and practice and condone will be the least our captured military can expect in future conflicts in other parts of the globe.

    Want to support the troops? Ban Torture!

  7. Pingback: Rudy, the Values Slayer — 2008 president candidates

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