Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”

5 thoughts on “Culpable or Coverup?

  1. I am severely disappointed with Eric Holder and the Dept. of Justice. Their performance over the last 4 years in deciding not to go after the big banks, Wall Street, and now the war crimes is inexcusable.

    Holder’s standard response when confronted with questions about these decisions seems to be that the DOJ didn’t believe they could get a conviction. In these cases, the answer is, “so what?” Whatever the outcome, just airing the dirty laundry that was torture, the actions of the CIA, and the personal invasions of privacy that was/is the NSA would have been well worth it. Perhaps if the horror of all this were made known to the world, there would be second thoughts before attempting it again. As it is, everyone got away with it, and there will be even less restrictions to implementing these affronts in the future.

    Jotsfromasmallapt got it right. We are the bully on the world stage, and have certainly earned the world’s hatred of us. Torture is never justified, and the results have never been accurate or believable. Someone will say or do anything, having nothing to do with the facts, to end the pain. And tell me, how does anyone believe that ill-gotten information from 2002-2003 had anything to do with getting Bin Laden in 2010?

    Having said all of that, I don’t know that I agree with your comparisons to the bombing of Japan in WW II. Many estimates at the time concluded that a military invasion would be at the cost of millions of casualties. There already were tens of millions of deaths and wounded from the years of the war. Prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, warning leaflets were dropped for more than a week, warning of an impending catastrophe, and asking citizens to push for the end to the war. No warnings were given to the 3,100 who died in the World Trade center. Perhaps this is a topic for an outside, extended discussion.

    And of course, Iraq and Afghanistan had nothing to do with the destruction of the Trade Center. But it was enough for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to create a war image.

    Great post, and I hope that if we get a 2nd term, the DOJ learns to grow some teeth. Perhaps they could take lessons from the state of New York.



    • Thanks, Barney. It’s too long a story to go into here, but Japan was on the verge of surrender before we dropped the bombs. Negotiations had been going on through Switzerland for several years. The only one holding out was the Emporer. The generals knew the war was over. But ignoring that route, scholars believe that if we had dropped an atom bomb on an abandoned island in the Pacific and shown the Japanese films of the carnage they would have capitulated: it wasn’t necessary to drop the bomb(s) on heavily populated areas where numerous civilians died as a result. But my point was a point in logic: we are dealing with counter-factuals here and looking at what might have happened if….is speculation. In the case of torture, there were a number of options. Again, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. Hugh, good post. I think we need to set aside the Japanese bombing issue for another day. It deserves its own discourse. I am disappointed in Holder as well for the reasons you and Barney mention. I do agree we need to be above the fray and I feel we have done more to harm our brand, than improve it through torture. After 9/11, the US had an unmatched empathy from many in the world and we pissed it away, by not accepting more help and not understanding the paths forward in the middle east. We never did state what success looked like and it haunts us today in Afghanistan. The thing I cannot come to grips with is why the jingoists in our country would not be upset with a President who committed troops to die, without a clear mission, ignoring the advice of his generals who wanted more troops (remember Sinseki -sic- resigned over this) and not arming them to fight a desert enemy who hid amongst civilians. The torture only made this worse. Barney is also dead on right about not prosecuting obvious crooks in the financial sector. Thanks, BTG

    • That was the main point. I used the example of bombing Japan as an example of the faulty reasoning behind the attempt to “justify” torture. More on that later, as you say.


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