Monday, June 16, 2008

Habeas Corpse

2003, Afghanistan: Goat herder and livestock trader Kakai Khan was arrested by coalition forces and detained on suspicion of planting bombs that destroyed a couple of video stores.  Unverified hearsay and rumor, i.e. human intelligence (HUMINT), indicated that Khan was a member of the Taliban counter-insurgency. He was taken to Bagram Air Base and interrogated.

“They took me to interrogation many times. I don’t remember how many times. They beat me a lot during interrogations,” Khan said to investigators. “One of the punishments during interrogation was that they would take me to a room next door, and two soldiers would lift me in the air and shackle my hands to the ceiling. My feet could not touch the ground, I don’t know how long I was up there. I would lose consciousness.”

Eventually he was shipped off to Guantanamo Bay for more advanced interrogation.  He spent three years there and then in 2006 he was released.  No conviction, no explanation, no apology. The CIA put him on a plane back to Afghanistan and let him go.

Neither the Army or the CIA refute Khan's claim - well, the Army spokesman refuted it, but an Army investigation substantiated in large part Khan's statement. The CIA is mute, as usual.


Is Khan's case an aberration? A breakdown in the system, perpetuated by a handful of unsupervised and poorly trained US Army reservists out of their depth in a hostile land, like those at Abu Garrib?


No, it is not.

Khan's case is similar to hundreds of others.  The US Army's own investigation of the interrogations at Bagram resulted in a 2,000 page report, obtained by the New York Times in 2005.  That report, again compiled by the Army itself not the liberal press, reported widespread, systematic abuse of prisoners far beyond the bounds of the Army Interrogation Manual, US Military Law, and the Geneva Conventions.  Despite the fact that nearly 30 US Military personal were charged with criminal abuse of prisoners the abuse continued and continues to this day. Right now, even as you read this.


I've said it before, more than once and in more than one place: No matter what euphemism you use, no matter how you justify it, no matter what your rationalization, no matter the righteousness of your cause, no matter how pious your belief, no matter how much you've been wronged - the end does not justify the means.  If you torture people, you are a torturer. You. Are. A. Torturer.  You live in a nation that tortures people. 

Torturers, that is what we've become - and make no mistake,  when you chain a man to the ceiling so that his feet dangle above the floor and the shackles bite into his flesh until the blood runs, and you kick him when he is bound helpless on the wet floor of his cell in a puddle of his own shit and piss, when you cover his head in a plastic garbage bag and shove his head under water under until he drowns, you are committing torture.

Normal men cannot do this.  To become a torturer you must first kill your humanity, you must kill pity and empathy.  You must root out all shreds of honor, duty, courage, decency, shame, and humanity. You must steel your soul in order to regard other human beings as objects, as less than animals, as evil incarnate and beneath contempt.  You must regard yourself as the avenger, the destroyer, and the mighty and the righteous with unlimited power over the contemptible creature before you. You must become God.

We've seen this before, in SS Death Camps, in Japanese POW Camps, in Korea, in Laos, in Vietnam, in Saddam's prisons and among the Taliban  - we know what torture does to men.  It is a cancer, a rot, that will spread until it destroys not the enemy, but the torturers themselves.  The torturers cannot return to normal society, they are no longer men - but rather something dark and dangerous and beyond the pale.

Right now, this evil malignancy is confined to a small few - but like any cancer allow it to grow unchecked, allow it to prosper and take root, and it will destroy us all.

In the last post I expounded on why I think the writ of habeas corpus is so damned important. If you can't see why we must extend the rights of challenge and appeal to our enemies, not for their sake but for ours, then you are blind.

If you cannot see the abyss that yawns before us, you are a fool.


  1. Powerful post, Jim. Thanks for posting it. I hope it makes some people really look at themselves and the issues.

  2. Another excellent post, Jim, but there is one point I have to address. You write:

    Normal men cannot do this. To become a torturer you must first kill your humanity, you must kill pity and empathy. You must root out all shreds of honor, duty, courage, decency, shame, and humanity. You must steel your soul in order to regard other human beings as objects, as less than animals, as evil incarnate and beneath contempt. You must regard yourself as the avenger, the destroyer, and the mighty and the righteous with unlimited power over the contemptible creature before you.

    The bad news--though I think it makes your point all the more vital--is that things like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiments show that you don't have to go that far internally to go too far in your actions. In reality, it can be extraordinarily difficult for an individual to be given a position of power and told by those above him how he can use it and say, "No, this is wrong and I won't be a part of it! The horrifying experience of death camps and killing fields is that they were manned by pretty ordinary human beings, often little more than kids (in Cambodia and a few other awful places, nothing more than kids).

    This is why it's all the more important for people in authority to keep their wisdom and humanity, why the men in suits in Washington have a fundamental obligation not to look at their reports as abstractions and to remember that they have been charged with the privilege of being able to tell others what to do. Because most of the people who carry out the orders will be ordinary people (and the extraordinary ones will risk punishment or abuse for doing the right thing, whether it's in the form of formal discipline or having their careers destroyed).

    It's not a defense to "just follow orders," but the bitch of the thing is that that's exactly what humans are prone to do. The people who give the orders are morally obligated to give the right ones. If the men in Washington don't owe it to the prisoners in Gitmo (and they do), or to the ideals of the country they serve (and they do) they at least owe it to the men and women they command.

  3. Eric, you are, of course, correct.

    When I wrote normal men, what I meant to imply was that torturers are often normal men when they start out.

    But, little by little their humanity leaches away. The horror the battlefield, the horror of what they have to do as torturers destroys their humanity, their human compassion, their sense of right and wrong. It is a poison, a cancer. When the powers that be tell them over and over "The end, no matter how wrong, justifies the means", when they are submerged in an environment where this form of brutality is not only normal, but encouraged, institutionalized - it irrevocably changes them. It is a short step indeed between seeing the enemy as subhuman and seeing your own family, wife, children, and fellow citizens as less than human. When you begin to believe that you are God, you begin to act like it.

    These men will suffer abnormal behavior, they will suffer repercussions from their experience. They will. We have seen this before, far too many times throughout history, we know what this does to otherwise ordinary men. We'll will chalk it up to PTSD, or the shock of the battlefield - but the truth of the matter is that we are making this horror. And it will destroy us if we let it prosper.

    Torture is wrong. It is a disgrace. It is a dishonor to us as soldiers of the United States.

    Some of these men will stay in the military, they will advance, and one day hold power over their fellow soldiers, our children. And then the sickness that we are creating will spread to the next generation - this is the abyss I mentioned in the post.

    This disregard for honor will destroy military, and our nation, it will make into the very enemy we fear most.

  4. I think that the president and everyone down the line who has ordered torture, or said it is an acceptable policy, should actually have to be *present* during such interrogations. They must be required EACH AND EVERY time to tell the torturer what to do.

    They should be required to see--precisely and exactly--what they are telling others to do.

  5. I think that the president and everyone down the line who has ordered torture, or said it is an acceptable policy, should actually have to be *present* during such interrogations.

    I think these people should be SUBJECT to torture. Then let's see how acceptable they find it.

    Yeah, I'm not in a very Christian mood about this.

  6. You make an interesting point, Michelle. But the same is true of war itself, if this president had actually served and fought in war I wonder if he would have been so eager to get involved in another one?

  7. I strongly agree Jim. Which is why. pacifist I am, and despite having cousins in that age range, I believe that the US should institute a mandatory draft with no exemptions.

    I find it interesting that Prince Harry served in Afghanistan until being outed, and wanted to serve in Iraq (and was removed only because the his presence would have placed the entire unit in danger). Yet most of those in the US who pushed for war had no children placed in danger by the conflict.

    If you are going to send the children of others to war, then your children should be at the same risk.

    It might place "acceptable losses" in perspective.

  8. Just in case anybody missed it, I want to point out the money shot,
    "And then the sickness that we are creating will spread to the next generation"

    Damn friggin' right. When I asked an AF Colonel how he could quote the figures for a nuclear strike ("Ground Zero, reinforced concrete structures are vaporized...") with such calm and dispassion. His answer was, "So my kid doesn't have to."

  9. I'm not big on the idea of a universal draft, for a number of reasons.

    1) Based on my military experience, I think an all volunteer military, composed of professionals, is vastly superior to a conscript force in nearly every way.

    2) Some people simply are not temperamentally suited to military life - a lot of folks actually, including some who volunteer and find out too late that life in uniform is really, really not for them. And truthfully. Would you want to serve alongside of or depend for you life on, say, Paris Hilton? Britney Spears? Rush Limbaugh? George W. Bush?

    3) I think a smaller, professional force is far more efficient, skilled, and cost effective than a larger, non-professional force composed in significant fraction of people who really don't want to be there. Note: when I say cost effective, people immediately point out that you can pay conscripts a lot less, so the force should cost less. Wrong. Pay is a small factor. Conscripts require an entirely different paradigm when it comes to training, management, supervision, health care, security, and etc. Training costs alone would require a vastly greater annual investment, and be less effective - because a vast majority of the folks in training (think advanced technical training - modern weapons and tactics are supremely complex) won't want to be there.

    4) The rich, connected, privileged, and just plain conniving bastards will always find a way out of mandatory service. Always. No matter how you write the law. Additionally, an entire industry would develop around the process of avoiding the draft - those who had the money and connections would suddenly have flat feet or crossed eyes or a trick heart valve or a sick old mother. Those who couldn't avoid it, well, they get drafted - inevitably, a draft places the burden squarely on the poor and disenfranchised. Always.

    There are a number of other reasons, but those are the big ones.

    However, I do think that some form of compulsory service is a good idea. I can think of a number of things that people could do in their own neighborhoods or as public works. Two years service say, combined with the last two years of high school maybe. Do well and earn credit towards college, professional qualifications, journeyman certification, union membership, even military service, and etc. Make the service areas wide enough that everybody can find a niche that suits them:

    Example: Auto Repair in the High School Shop, pro bono, for Senior Citizens or the poor. Do well and earn your AA Mechanics Certification as part of your High School Diploma. Or Park Service. Or Neighborhood Security Patrol, keeping younger kids safe from drugs and predators. Or etc, etc. That I would get behind.

    But, Michelle, I understand the gist of your comment - and I wonder how well equipped we would have been, armor and etc wise, if the Bush twins had been in uniform.

  10. JIm,

    I know, I know. And I don't think you're wrong. (I would not be a good fit for the military.) It just enrages me that people who have no fucking clue can be so cavalier about sending others into danger.

    How about if we just require mandatory service of the children of all politicians? Your parent is in congress/the white house you have to serve a 4 year term of duty. And we make sure they are first in line for stop loss and extended tours of duty and last in line for armor and weapons?

    And I agree that the service to the country is a good thing. It's how we ended up with Rockefeller as governor and then senator. He came down here as a Vista volunteer and fell in love with the place.

  11. Mandatory service for the children of politicians? With mandatory assignment to front line combat units?

    Oh yeah, that I could get behind. I would have loved to have the Bush daughters under my command, oh yeah. :::Insert gleeful evil laugh here:::


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