Monday, October 1, 2007

Torture & Tossed Salad

It happened again the other night. Debate moderator Tim Russert directed the following question at Democratic candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton:

"Senator Clinton, this is the number three man in Al Qaeda. We know there's a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?"

To her credit, Senator Clinton responded by disavowing torture under any and all circumstances: "As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy, period," she said. But to her shame, this was not the position she held in October when she told a New York Daily News reporter that there should be narrow exceptions allowing for government sanctioned torture in some cases. Whether her change of position reflects a genuine moral shift or simply a new political calculus cannot be known for certain. But whatever it is that moves this change of position, and the similar disavowal of torture we heard from the mouths the other major candidates at last night’s debate, I’ll take it. It’s certainly better than we’ve seen from the Republican candidates in recent months. Indeed, apart from the very notable exception of John McCain --the only genuine torture survivor among the group-- the major Republican candidates for the presidency all seem to delight in reassuring their conservative audiences that they would not hesitate to grant interrogators the right to torture olive skinned foreigners if doing so might prevent an attack on honest, God fearing Americans.

At a debate in South Carolina last May, both Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney responded to a similar question by assuring the audience that they would give interrogators wide latitude in the use of harsh interrogation techniques, while slyly denying that such techniques would constitute torture. You could almost feel the breeze as candidates and audience members traded a collective wink and a nod. Both men went on to specifically endorse water boarding, a method of torture whereby a prisoner is repeatedly brought to the edge of asphyxiation and made to believe he is drowning. And Mitt Romney further insisted that the prison at Guantanamo Bay Cuba should be expanded to twice its size rather than boarded up, as some critics contend.

Reflecting a bit on the Republican Party’s fondness for torture, a question occurred to me that I would really, really like to be afforded the opportunity to pose at a future candidate’s forum. The question would go something like this:

"Mayor Giuliani, Governor Romney, this is the number three man in Al Qaeda. We know there's a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. We’ve been torturing him for weeks, but to no avail. He won’t give up the information. But then one day he wakes up and says: ‘OK, OK, I’ll tell you guys where the bomb is. But only if Rudolph Giuliani or Mitt Romney will fly down here to Gitmo and toss my salad.’ I ask you, Mr. Mayor... Governor... Would you do it? Would you toss his salad if it might potentially save hundreds of innocent lives? "

Now, if you don’t know what it means to toss someone’s salad, then I suggest you forego looking the expression up, and just accept that it’s not a very nice thing to have to do. Yes, you will find an explanation for it in the hip & with it, online, Urban Dictionary. But you’ll wish you hadn’t. Trust me. Just accept that tossing someone’s salad is not something you want to find yourself doing every day... or ever, actually. It’s an activity that’s kinda on the degrading side... sorta the way planet Jupiter is kinda on the big side, or the surface of the sun is kinda on the hot side.

And that’s just the point. You see, these candidates and their enablers in the media (I’m speaking to you Brit Hume and you Tim Russert) never seem to tire of assuring us that they would be more than willing to degrade America and drag her name through the dirt, compromise her values and betray her founding principles all in the name of foiling a fictional terrorist attack scenario that exists only in the imaginations of Hollywood script writers and fear mongering propagandists. But what I would like to know is whether they’d be just as willing to degrade themselves, drag their own names through the mud, compromise their own values and betray their own principles all in the name of foiling that same attack.

“Now, hold on there,” I hear you say. “The scenario you’re describing is preposterous. No terrorist is going to ask Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney to toss his salad in exchange for information that might enable U.S. authorities to foil an attack.” And right you are. But then, no real-life example of the so-called “ticking time-bomb” scenario, which could have been prevented through torture, is ever known to have occurred in all of recorded human history. This is probably because the scenario itself is so preposterous. Consider all the pieces that would need to fall into place, as described in a recent publication of the Association for the Prevention of Torture (PDF):

· You’d have to have the guy in custody.

· You’d have to know an attack was imminent.

· The attack will kill a lot of people.

· The guy has enough information to prevent the attack.

· If you torture this guy he’ll give up the information.

· There’s no other way to get this information.

· There’s no other way (i.e. evacuation of a building) to prevent a loss of life.

In addition I might add:

· This guy’s important enough to know about the plan, but not so important that the fact that he’s out of commission won’t by itself prevent the plan from being carried out.

· The bad guys don’t know you have this guy, so they won’t alter the plan.

So we’re talking about a very improbable scenario here. Indeed, one has to assume further, that once the bad guys know that we’re torturing their captured officials, they’ll give their field operatives enough leeway in choosing targets and hideouts that no other member of the organization could have enough information to prevent it (this is assuming they don’t already operate in this manner).

“But wait,” I hear you say, “this scenario is not really so improbable. After all, I see it played out every week on T.V. and in the movies” And to this I respond that if movies are your metric for plausibility, then I think that you’ll find plenty of movies in which the bad guys do, in fact, offer to mend their evil ways in exchange for a salad tossing. They’re just found in a different section of the rental store, that’s all, a little dank, musty room in the back alongside a whole host of other unusual titles with names you’ve never heard of and some very unconventional cover-art.

So once again, the question stands: Mr. Mayor, Mr. Governor, if you could prevent a terrorist attack upon these United States of America by tossing a terrorist’s salad, would you do it? Please, don’t be shy, Patriotic Americans wants to know.

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