Torture, psychology, and the law

2008-12-21

in Bombs and rockets, Law, Politics, Psychology, Science, Security

Morty wants a treat

For the darkest day of the year, a couple of torture-related items seem appropriate. Firstly, there is this New York Times piece, which argues that senior officials from the Bush administration should be charged with war crimes, for authorizing and enabling torture. The editorial argues that there is no chance that prosecutions will be sought under an Obama administration, but that he ought to clarify the obligation of the United States and its agents to uphold the Geneva Conventions, as well as reverse executive orders that “eroded civil liberties and the rule of law.”

The prospect of high-level American decision-makers being put on trial for authorizing torture is so unlikely that it is a bit difficult to even form an opinion about it. At the same time, it is likely that nobody thirty years ago would have anticipated the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), or International Criminal Court (ICC). There is no clear reason for which high political office should be any impediment to being tried for war crimes, but it is very unclear how any such prosecutions would fare in the United States. It would certainly be seen as a ‘political’ act, and any connections with international law would likely be the targets for special criticism and scorn from some quarters.

The other story worth mentioning is an experiment conducted by Dr Jerry Burger, of Santa Clara University. It was a less intense re-creation of Milgram’s famous experiment on obedience to authority. Like Milgram, Burger found that a startling proportion of the population is willing to torture a fellow human being as part of a scientific experiment. This is when the only pressure placed upon the subject of the experiment is the authority of the actor pretending to conduct it. That naturally makes one nervous about what people would be willing to do when they felt an urgent and important issue justified it, as well as when far stronger sanctions could be brought against them if they did not proceed.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 22, 2008 at 12:15 pm
. December 22, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Tortured Reasoning

George W. Bush defended harsh interrogations by pointing to intelligence breakthroughs, but a surprising number of counterterrorist officials say that, apart from being wrong, torture just doesn’t work. Delving into two high-profile cases, the author exposes the tactical costs of prisoner abuse.

by David Rose
WEB EXCLUSIVE December 16, 2008

. December 22, 2008 at 1:57 pm

Rumsfeld blamed in detainee abuse scandals

Chip Somodevilla / EPA

A bipartisan Senate report released today concludes that decisions made by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were a “direct cause” of widespread detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay.

“The report, endorsed by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the most forceful denunciation to date of the role that Rumsfeld and other top officials played in the prisoner abuse scandals of the last five years.”

R.K. December 22, 2008 at 4:11 pm

The conviction of someone senior (like Rumsfeld) for authorizing torture would be hugely significant, not least for how the world views the United States.

Right now, a lot of people see American rhetoric on human rights as meaningless, given what is going on in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Demonstrating that not even the most senior figures are above the law would draw a sharp line under the past and allow people to have a lot more confidence in how the US deals with its values.

The NYT is right to call for prosecutions.

Robotronic 6000 December 27, 2008 at 3:18 am

you need 2 write more aboot bombs and/or rocketz.

plz

. January 12, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Taylor’s son jailed for 97 years
19:24 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

“Chuckie” Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, has been sentenced by a US court to 97 years in prison for torture.

. November 12, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Those of us who have been hollering about America’s descent into torture for the past nine years didn’t do so because we like terrorists or secretly hope for more terror attacks. We did it because if a nation is unable to decry something as always and deeply wrong, it has tacitly accepted it as sometimes and often right. Or, as President Bush now puts it, damn right. It spawns a legal regime that cannot be contained in time or in place; a regime that requires that torture testimony be used at trials and that terror policies be withheld from public scrutiny. It demands the shielding of torture photos and the exoneration of those who destroyed torture tapes just a day after the statute of limitations had run out. Indeed, as Andrew Cohen notes, when the men ordering the destruction of those tapes are celebrated as “heroes,” who’s to say otherwise? Check, please.

All this was done in the name of moving us forward, turning down the temperature, painting over the rot that had overtaken the rule of law. Yet having denied any kind of reckoning for every actor up and down the chain of command, we are now farther along the road toward normalizing and accepting torture than we were back in November 2005, when President Bush could announce unequivocally (if falsely) that “The United States of America does not torture. And that’s important for people around the world to understand.” If people around the world didn’t understand what we were doing then, they surely do now. And if Americans didn’t accept what we were doing then, evidently they do now. Doing nothing about torture is, at this point, pretty much the same as voting for it. We are all water-boarders now.

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