Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Wicked and mad world

Bombs on seven trains in Bombay kill over 100 people (the toll will surely rise) as the Bush administration "in an apparent policy reversal sparked by a recent Supreme Court ruling, said today it will extend the guarantees of humane treatment specified by the Geneva Conventions to detainees in the war-on-terror."

Discussions - 33 Comments

OK, Peter. I’ll bite. These two things have nothing to do with each other, unless you think that minimal standards of humane treatment for prisoners that we hold is somehow related to what those people are alleged to have done. (As far as I can tell, we’re not holding Kashmiri separatists in Guantanamo, either, but I could be wrong.) The guarantees of Common Article 3 are very minimal. And at a more basic level, if we wouldn’t waterboard Timothy McVeigh - or suspected terrorist hijackers from the 1980s, say - I’m not sure why we should allow ourselves to waterboard a suspected member of al Qaeda, let alone some farmer or teacher whom we bought from the Northern Alliance.

I’ll bite too. Brett sounds the right note, it seems to me.

Remind me if I am wrong, but the GC allows both of the following:

1) Immediate execution of combatants found out of uniform

2) Detention of combatants found in uniform for the duration of the war, followed by release to their home countries.

Both of these work for me.

I agree with Brett that the two are not causally related, but I don’t think that’s the point of the post. Where’s the justice in the good guys relenting when the bad guys push forward? There is none, and that constitutes a mad and (if partially) wicked world.

Good guys relenting? I saw the closing of this embarrasing prison as the good guys actually becoming more good . . .

Embarrasing prison? What have you been drinking out of that cup you just won?

Oh, Matt, do I have to write about Guantanamo again?

What if we make Guantanamo an international prison, (but please, managed by ourselves, NOT the UN, God help us) for the holding of all terrorists captured anywhere in the world? We could put a statue of an imprisoned suicide bomber on some rock in the bay. "Send us your mad, your ethically impoverished, your fanatically compelled..."

Which, of course, won’t happen given the Bush Administration cave, which was expected but is still dismaying. It does feel like wickedness got some extra protection there. Couldn’t Congress still do something, please?

Bostonian, While understanding your logic on 1) we really can’t do that. We can’t ask it of the men in the field, as it would be asking them to be executioners, not defenders.

Matt clearly believes it’s better to be virtuous than alive. Those of us who are a little more realistic understand that the rules of any game are set by the least-scrupulous...there is no other way it could be. Despite Christ’s admonition to "turn the other cheek," most of us understand what unilateral "goodness" gets you when you are dealing with fanatics...two red cheeks and a kick in the butt.

In Matt’s defense, Guantanomo is an embarassment. We may all disagree about its usefulness or rightful existence, but that doesn’t hit at whether or not it is embarassing.

The simple fact of the matter is that, to the rest of the world (and especially the arab world) Guantanomo makes America appear to be nothing other than hypocrites, liars, and worse. While I fully acknowledge that such an opinion is a misperception, that does not alter the reality of the situation.

On a personal note, I don’t like Guantanomo. It is not that I disagree with its existence or think that we should bow to international pressure, but that from the point of view of strategy and terrorist perception, persecuting these people would work much better. I say, put them on trial, convict them (which shouldn’t be hard) and then hold them indefinetely wherever we want. The orderly prosecution of criminals and murderers (and then public dissemination of it) would go far to furthering our cause in the war on terror.


In the course of following your suggestions, we would be acknowledging that the prisoners are not enemy combatants captured at war, and therefore undermine the entire idea of a war on terror. That may not be a bad thing. It may allow us to declare war on a more direct and substantive entity...but, given the state of our current situation, and national events throughout the globe, terrorists have earned a war. Now we ought to be forthright about it.

While I agree that certain incidents have been embarrasing (even more so, morally appalling situations such as Haditha and Abu Ghraib), at least the recognition and proper reaction reveals a moral (and morally superior stance) taken by the U.S. As for the war, it’s time we seriously reconsider the approach taken to "nation-building" (Note that I believe nation-building is a necessary component of a "war on terror." I am merely criticizing aspects of our approach). We showed our teeth early, now we ought to show our bite.


How is it "relenting" to treat people (with minimum standards) when they are in our custody? It’s as if waterboarding or using the fruits of torture to convict someone were a justifiable tactic and not a massive error in judgment, both moral and practical.

Contra Peter’s suggestion, it’s neither "wicked" nor "mad" to refrain from brutality in the treatment of prisoners, or to apply minimum standards of fair treatment when we prosecute them, regardless of whether Kashmiri separatists blow up trains in India. What’s mad is that unlike in our previous wars, we have given in to the temptation - always expressed at the time - that the nature of the enemy means that we should disregard our own standards of decent conduct with respect to prisoners.

Bravo, Brett.

Some of the comments in this thread are troubling, as though realism and decency were at odds or as though tough guys don’t do standards.


I think you misunderstand my point (which perhaps was not very clear). It is "relenting" to grant the prisoners protection they are not entitled to based on what they are. I actually agreed with some of the Supreme Court’s sentiments in regards to the Executive War Powers in the recent decision. However, in the case of the prisoners at Guantanomo and for the sake of the war on terror, I believe it is important we maintain their status as enemy combatants.

My teeth and bite reference was to the strategic tip-toeing our forces have been forced to endure during the nation-building process in Iraq, not in regards to the treatment of imprisoned enemy combatants.

Fred- I don’t think that I was quite clear enough with what I was suggesting. It is my assumption that most if not all of the people currently imprisoned people at guantanamo are enemy combatants of the non-national variety (i.e. not part of some national army, but jihadists or Islamists). I believe that while it is legally permissible to hold them as we are, I do not believe it does much good as could be done by prosecuting them. That is, though the do not have some right to a trial, putting them on trial would serve the public interest by keeping the war on terror in the public perception (not just on Iraq), promote the image of American justice, and serve as a more tangible threat to other would be terrorists than murky threat of indefinite prison.

To summarize, then, I think that what we are doing now is fine (to the extent that knowledge of Guantanamo is available) but could be much better.

"protection they are not entitled to based on what they are."

Fred: I’m not trying to be a jerk here, so take my comment in that spirit. Your statement, though, is what underpinned Peter’s post, and it’s still mistaken. Part of the problem is what Steve says, above (the view that "tough guys don’t do standards"; I like that formulation). And part of the problem is that protections are not about who they are, it’s about who we are. It shouldn’t matter if you classify someone with a new term for a supposedly new war; that doesn’t entitle you, as the captor, to refrain from treating the prisoner with a minimum standard of decency. Bush knows that, which is why the rhetoric, if not the reality, has usually been about decent treatment. The idea that people are only entitled not to be waterboarded if they "are" a certain class of people is barbaric and, frankly, unamerican.

Again, before you start throwing around terms like "unAmerican" you talk to some WWII vets about American treatment of prisoners in the field. Niceties just aren’t for real wars...sorry to disillusion you, and the purpose of the Geneva Convention was tit-for-tat...leverage whereby we could guarantee decent treatment of our prisoners. Since that’s not on the table in this war, there is NO REASON to abide by this convention.

I am beginning to hope that you folks can form your own "we are the world" nation...take New England (please) and merge it with Quebec & Ontario. Call it "the People’s Democratic Republic of BlueStates" or some such rot. You can spend your time worrying about 1) your own self-esteem, and 2) your standing in the world. In the meantime, Red America will win its wars and go about its benighted business of leading the world to a better state (and yes, that can be done, but only if you win wars).

Oh, by all means Dain, there’s no reason to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Let’s launch ourselves right at the lowest common denominator then, and go all out with torture - maybe the NSA could videotape some beheadings of detainees (hey, if they’ve been detained, then they’ve gotta be guilty, right?) at secret prisons and put them on the internet. That would be productive and helpful, I’m sure.

dain might consider the sentence there were atrocities in the Good War too. Is that all he means? I have also heard stories. Were they not atrocities?

I think you both miss the point. It is very doubtful that we could fall as low as, say, your typical Islamofascist or Nazi. Yet by holding only one side to very public and transparent standards, you give an advantage to the enemy. You give them no reason to treat our soldiers in a decent manner, and you give them nothing to fear in terms of being captured and "spilling the beans." I might also add, being so "humane" only confirms their opinion of us...a soft, decadent people who don’t really have the will to survive.

The point I was making about WWII was’s a myth that we won any of our wars by being "humane." We didn’t...I encourage you to read the history of our civil war, or WWI, or WWII, or VietNam. War is conflict WITHOUT rules, and WINNING gives you the right to dictate the rules that govern PEACE. This should be our goal...winning. Only then will we be able to set the rules for living, which SHOULD be humane.

In short, gentlemen, grow up. We are dealing with people who will never be humane, and the sooner will kill and capture them the faster we can return to the realm of peace and the ethnical treatment of fellow human beings. If that means that these evil bastards get locked up in a Cuban s..thole for a few years, OK by me.

It’s never pleasant to encounter dain’s way of thinking. It’s as old as philosophy, as old as decency itself, and it never fails to tell us to grow up. As my grandmother used to say, this makes me tired.

Steve, it’s old "progressive" tactic to accuse their opponents of being "so yesterday." If I’m so retrograde, perhaps you can demonstrate to me how mankind has he no longer capable of barbarity, for instance? If he hasn’t changed, my way of thinking is perfectly valid.

And...I’m pretty sure I could out-think you with one frontal lobe tied behind my back. My views are well thought-out...your objection (and ad hominem) are emotive rather than rational.

dain - In your dreams. I’m done.

No staying power when your bluff is called, I take it? Here’s my challenge: Make a logical case why we SHOULD grant terrorists all the rights of uniformed soldiers. The Geneva Convention is an agreement between states that puts multilateral pressure on signatories to conform to treaty standards.

I believe Newton’s law of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, should be followed in all respects. The maniacs who never bothered for other sensibilities should not be forgiven or asked to stop biting us, they should be damned atleast now. Its high time to wake up. Innocents are being killed for no fault of theirs. What else these politicians are waiting for?????????????? Damn!!!

dain seems to be challenging me to a duel.

Until we can get our seconds in place, here’s my counter offer. We’ll start out at, say, 200 yards apart; then moving back in increments of 100 yards, at each stop we’ll shout at each other, until finally one of us can’t hear the other, this Platonic saying: Never try to teach a pig to sing. It will waste your time and annoy the pig.

I agree that you have certain porcine traits, Steve, but I wasn’t ready to give up on you so quickly. No need for seconds, or the lame attempt at humor. What’s needed is for you to come down off that moral high-horse and make a logical argument to support your suicidal point of view. How about it, porky?

Gone for twenty-four hours and dain steals all my steam. I should have called a twenty-four hour rule. In response to Brett, I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I agree that my statement underpinned Dr. Schramm’s post, but I don’t think it’s mistaken. The “problem” you seem to think exists here does not have at its source the “tough guys don’t do standards” mentality (by the way, isn’t the difference between a tough man, as you use it, and a bully that the former has standards and the latter acts arbitrarily?). Quite the contrary, the solution lies in the idea that standards are aimed at some group of people or persons.

Civil rights are for citizens, natural rights are for human beings, and governments are instituted among men in order to protect these rights (so the government of its people is protector here). Minimum standards of decency are established by which group a certain people falls into. In this case, we are dealing with terrorists, who, by their own actions, have caused themselves to be categorized within a certain group. We are at war with an idea and not a nation, which is worth considering for a moment. Recall FDR’s quote:

I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.

These, the standards established in war, are now fought against an enemy without a home; with no specific country or quarters to target. They are a different type of enemy. Does that give us the right to completely ignore their “human rights” when they are imprisoned? No. Does it mean we must abide by standards that categorically do not apply to them? No. Ought we establish standards for these enemies? Sure, so long as we can do so without tying our hands for future problems.

I disagree with dain when he implies that standards are not for war. I agree with dain when he says, “Yet, by holding only one side to very public and transparent standards, you give an advantage to the enemy.” Prudence should guide our treatment of prisoners in this war. Guantanamo was not a case of atrocities. The rhetoric is important, especially for the purposes of this war. We ought not call these prisoners something they are not.


Thanks for the thoughtful response. Call the prisoners what you want; it seems that we agree that there are minimum standards of decency that we are bound to apply when we hold them. But then you seem to take it back by saying that the question of standards is really a matter of "prudence" and of not perpetuating the advantage of asymmetric warfare. So, I suppose, if it’s prudent to waterboard someone or make them stand in a freezing cell for hours shackled to the floor while we pour water on them, we should do that.

We may not disagree on whether such treatment is prudent in most cases. I think it’s a terrible idea, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it is likely to produce terrible intel. Maybe you agree. I’m not sure that we agree on whether refraining such treatment is "tying our hands for future problems," however. I’m not sure what problem we’re solving by treating people like that, except the problem of establishing psychological control over them to make them more malleable and suggestible. That’s not the kind of problem that free governments need to solve, frankly.

What I don’t understand is whether we disagree on whether such treatment would be wrong. It seems to me to be disgusting, precisely the kind of act of cruelty that we have decried in past wars, and which we bound ourself not to commit when we signed Geneva. I can’t tell what you think. It’s not only a question of interpreting Geneva; it’s a question of what we want to ask American soldiers and CIA officers to do in the name of protecting the U.S. I’m not at all comfortable with asking them to perform acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Are you?


In regards to the specific examples of interrogation standards, it’s difficult to give an answer without any context. I think there is a moral threshold or standard when comes to types of interrogation techniques or torture. A slow death by mutilation or something of that sort comes to mind, but a standard of higher specificity is difficult for me to imagine. The difficulty lies in the possibility that waterboarding a prisoner or making a certain prisoner sit in a freezing cell shackled to the floor for hours might result in securing information that justifies the treatment. I refer to prudence because different prisoners with different characters and of different significance will respond differently to different interrogation techniques. It’s a context and application situation, and trained interrogators will know better than I or any mass standard which techniques will work in which contexts.

You correctly point out that some techniques may lead to securing bad intelligence or what an interrogator wants to hear, but interrogators have an interest in getting the correct information from their prisoners. If the same man gets false information time and time again from his prisoners, and is known for his brutal techniques, then what is his value?

Our debate reminds me of that old philosophical question of imaging yourself walking in the woods when you come across a village held prisoner by one man. The man says to you as you go by, “shoot this one man, or else I will kill all of the villagers.” The only options available are to shoot the villager or walk away. According to those terms, I would suppose the right answer is to walk away (the guilt is on the man who creates the situation and chooses to act). But that situation is worth very little b/c so many other options would be available in reality, and, based on the situation or the context, the correct choice would vary.


The more I learn about the "trained interrogators" in Guantanamo and elsewhere, the less I am certain that there are any realistic scenarios in which it is a good idea to allow our people to engage in torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment. Your faith in technical expertise is probably misguided here. Ask al Libi.

Your account of the incentives of interrogators and their superiors is probably simplistic. First, information is always uncertain, so it’s probably not readily clear what’s useful and what’s not. Second, to the extent that confessions allow for more interrogation or for further justification for detention, they have a value that doesn’t really depend on verification. Third, those techniques have apparently also been used to gain control over prisoners. It’s a long-term process, and whether or not they bear any fruit isn’t fully known until after their repeated, coordinated application. Finally, it’s not all about interrogation value. Just read the other comments here.

I generally like philosophical questions, but here I’m more interested in what kinds of actions are being done in my name, with the supposed end of attaining my security. The basic problem is that the pseudo-Nietzscheans (or the alliance of your brand of utilitarians plus pseudo-Nietzscheans) won the debate between late 2001 and now, and look where it has gotten us. Maybe you’re happy with the results. I’m not.

Might I point out that we won’t know the full extent of interrogation effectiveness at Gitmo for a long while yet. I love the way lefties want to judge NOW, even if it undermines the security of our people.

I too think there should be a minimum standard of decency for prisoners held by our country. So far as I can tell, it was being met at Gitmo. Other countries do brutal (and very effective) things that we would not condone. For instance, among other things the Philippinos poured water down Murad’s throat until he finally ratted on Ramzi Yousef (he varied torture took over 2 months). Had we used that intel (this was 1995), there never would have been a 9/11. I think 3,000 people are worth a little barbarity if it gets the job done...and I’ll bet those dead folks would agree with me IF THEY WERE AROUND TO VOTE.

Tender-hearted pieties and "gotcha" politics will end up killing a lot more Americans. That’s my prediction.

Atleast my blood is burning for a revenge, i dont know about others. Its a shame on us and our politicians.....................
My prayers are with those who died and may god ve mercy on the ones injured. God bless all!

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