Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Torture is some bad, bad shit

There's a series running in the Washington Post this week that throws some light on a subject that I've been thinking about for some time now. The series tells the story about a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was arrested on his way back to Ontario by US officials. He was humiliated and interrogated for over a day, denied access to a lawyer, and was kept completely cut off from outside contact.

He was then later shipped to Jordan, the sole occupant of a private jet, where he was handed over by US officials to Syrian police. I'm not going to go into the full details of what happened to him in Syria, you can read his own account of his experiences; the short version is that he was brutally tortured for 10 months, then released after signing numerous false statements and confessions.

Torture is some bad, bad shit. You think of back when you were growing up, of the sadistic little pricks who used to find ways to kill insects and small animals with firecrackers or BB guns, who seemed to get off on dishing out pain...but that is JV, freshman ball, a single-celled organism in comparison to the types of guys who do this kind of thing for a living.

Torture has a pretty long history, a form of science unto itself. If you've ever been to the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments in Prague -- and I have -- you'd agree that the science of torture has a couple thousand years of pretty compelling research behind it. The museum was loaded with some of the actual machines that dished out actual ass-searing pain to actual poor motherfuckers who I personally felt sorry for. Even the illustrations of the torture machines had drawings of little screaming people. And believe me, you even found yourself feeling sorry for the drawings.

What's it used for these days? Who the hell knows for sure. But for our purposes, in the "War on Terror," there's been a lot of talk about using it to extract information from terrorist, would-be terrorists, and of course, evildoers. We don't torture anyone here, naturally, so we outsource this service to other countries. Countries that are not only open to the idea of genital electrocution, beating with cables, and forcible manicure, but are who are pretty fucking good at it. And the best part? Since we don't actually torture anyone here, our halo is still all nice and shiny.

I had this conversation with someone from back home recently, and the question came up: "what if you had a guy in custody who knows there is an imminent terrorist attack, that it would probably affect a great number of people -- including your family and friends -- and he won't tell you what it is or where? Are you OK with torture then?" I have to admit, I didn't have a really good answer handy. In fact, I accidentally let slide a sentence that proved his point, namely that if someone was threatening my family but wouldn't say how, their balls would take enough juice to black out half of New Jersey. So ok, it's complicated.

But what the hell do you do? Once you get into the torture game, you open the flood gates to the kinds of abuses we've seen in the Middle East and South America. How do you really know if someone is guilty? People lie all the time, they incriminate innocent people, they have prejudices and personal (or professional) agendas. Just take the examples of racial profiling immediately following 9/11; there have been hundreds of incidents of poorly trained law-enforcement officials taking matters into their own hands since then, letting emotion and vaguely written laws wreak havoc on innocent people. Could you imagine if that kind of thing were to happen with torture?

What's worse: a few false positives, where somewhere along the line innocent men or women are tortured for information they don't have; or a false negative, where the laws of our country, that preclude extracting information through physical or psychological abuse, allow a preventable attack to occur? I don't know. Is that stupid?