Living Large In Carson City: The I Don’t Want To Hurt You, but . . . Edition

Answer the Question: Is Torture Immoral?


Gina, Gina, Gina . . .
This an easy one. Yes, torture is immoral. Say it with me Gina, “Torture is immoral.” There, feel better? I know I do. Really, though, Americans know that you don’t think it is immoral or even inhumane. After all, if you thought it was inhumane, you wouldn’t have tortured in the first place.

Many Americans don’t know that torture is an international crime and has been since 1987 when the United Nations Convention against Torture took effect. The idea behind the prohibition of torture is pretty straightforward. Don’t do to your enemy what you wouldn’t want done to you. Sounds a lot like the Golden Rule, yes? For people like Haspel, however, the ends justify the means. What’s a little session of waterboarding’s harm in the big picture? And therein lies the rub. How can the big picture become clearer if the person being tortured will say just about anything to get the torture stopped?

Caveat: I began this blurb shortly after Haspel first confirmation interview ended. Admittedly, anyone watching her responses, not just about the morality of torture, but how she would conduct her duties came away a little puzzled as to exactly what she would or wouldn’t do as director of the CIA. Stonewalling was one word that was used by a variety of news sources in their description of Haspel’s lack of clarity in her answers.

One interview I watched, however, made me think. It was on Jake Tapper’s show with a panel enclosed to discuss Haspel’s performance as the director of a black ops site, and her future as the director. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) had just finished an interview with Tapper and had little good to say about Haspel’s performance as to how she would conduct herself as CIA director if she was confirmed. To be clear, Harris asked three yes/no questions to which Haspel obfuscated to say the least. The first question, “Do you think torture is immoral?”, the CIA director wannabe’ could not deliver the simple yes/answer Harris expected. The upshot was Harris came away from the meeting saying she would not vote for Haspel’s confirmation, citing Haspel’s inability to answer the questions in a straightforward manner coupled other classified details that came to light in the closed-door session that preceded the public setting.

On the panel was former CIA Counterterrorism Official, Phil Mudd. In the past I’ve always liked Mudd. He is a loose cannon cowboy who often surprises news moderators by his passionate, and sometimes, potty mouth retorts. Often, he is a breath of fresh air when paired with ideologically inclined guests who toe the party line. In his response Mudd didn’t disappoint on one hand but also wandered into La La land on the other.

Mudd states he was a part of the Congressional hearings into the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) fifteen years ago. He noted that Harris could vote however she liked, but what he objected to was the “collective amnesia” that Harris and others seem to be suffering from on the topic. Essentially, his contention is the torture techniques that were used were condoned by the Justice Department, President Bush and a host of lawyers who claimed the techniques were legal.

In his view since the torture techniques used were sanctioned by the government, the interrogators were not the torturers, but the United States as a whole. Since Americans elected a president who appointed an Attorney General who said the techniques were legal, voila, it was America’s responsibility, and not in this case Haspel’s problem. She was just following orders.

The Attorney General at the time was Alberto Gonzalez, America’s first Hispanic AG. He was also Bush’s lap dog who acted as little more than a rubber stamp for anything Bush threw his way. The biggest cheerleader for using torture was not Bush or Gonzalez, however, but Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of American politics.

In an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Todd asked the vice-president if he condoned the past use of torture and how did he justify the torture of innocent people.

25% of the detainees though, 25% turned out to be innocent. They were released.
Where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are–
Well, I’m asking you.
–you going to know?
Is that too high? You’re okay with that margin for error?
I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective. And our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States. I was prepared and we did. We got authorizing from the president and authorization from the Justice Department to go forward with the program. It worked. It worked now for 13 years.
We’ve avoided another mass casualty attack against the United States. And we did capture Bin Laden. We did capture an awful lot of the senior guys at Al Qaeda who were responsible for that attack on 9/11. I’d do it again in a minute.

An AG willing to condone anything his president asks and a psychopathic would-be killer vice-president do not American policy make, or at least, it certainly leaves the topic up for debate. Mudd’s contention is that since torture was deemed legal then it was policy. Policy that Haspel carried out with all too much relish if her detractors can be believed.

So, in the end, the question is not whether or not Haspel tortured. She did. The real question is would she do it again. She says no, but if confronted with another 911 scenario, how long would she continue to say no. The answer is not long.

Some of us remember the infamous Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority. Author Gregorio Billikopf Encina tells how Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram devised the experience to determine the effect of authority on obedience. Milgram set up an experiment where random people were asked to participate as either students or teachers. In reality, all of the participants were teachers. The parts of students were played by paid actors. Teachers were given a list of questions they were required to ask students. If students gave wrong answers (as actors they gave plenty), the teacher had the option of administering a jolt of electricity to the student between 75 and 450 volts. The students didn’t actually receive shocks but faked their reactions for the benefit of the teacher.

According to Encina, the results were somewhat unsettling,

Milgram’s experiment included a number of variations. In one, the learner was not only visible but teachers were asked to force the learner’s hand to the shock plate so they could deliver the punishment. Less obedience was extracted from subjects in this case. In another variation, teachers were instructed to apply whatever voltage they desired to incorrect answers. Teachers averaged 83 volts, and only 2.5 percent of participants used the full 450 volts available. This shows most participants were good, average people, not evil individuals. They obeyed only under coercion.

In general, more submission was elicited from “teachers” when (1) the authority figure was in close proximity; (2) teachers felt they could pass on responsibility to others; and (3) experiments took place under the auspices of a respected organization.

How does this play into Haspel’s penchant for torture? Encina notes Miligram found that in the face of authority, people were more likely to comply and shock the students who gave wrong answers or refused to shock the student for wrong answers. Miligram found,

Milgram divided participants into three categories:

Obeyed but justified themselves. Some obedient participants gave up responsibility for their actions, blaming the experimenter. If anything had happened to the learner, they reasoned, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had transferred the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and stubborn he deserved to be shocked.”

Obeyed but blamed themselves. Others felt badly about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Members of this group would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a similar situation in the future.

Rebelled. Finally, rebellious subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and argued there was a greater ethical imperative calling for the protection of the learner over the needs of the experimenter. Some of these individuals felt they were accountable to a higher authority.

Miligrams findings bode darkly for Haspel and whether she would again condone torture, her assurances to the contrary, if pressure from an authority demanded it, and we all know Trump has made clear he would support, even demand, torture.

Or as Encina wrote,

Why were those who challenged authority in the minority? So entrenched is obedience it may void personal codes of conduct.

Good luck on that one America.