Friday, February 13, 2009

A clever politician, but an idiot in all other respects

Harvard Professor Michael Ignatieff has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the helm of the Liberal party, where he now sits sniping at the Konservatives, themselves led by a man Who Hates Canada (TM). For Ignatieff, this has been more than dumb blind luck, but is thanks to Ignatieff's considerable talents as a huckster.

Harvard is, of course, the home of a great many hucksters - the place attracts them like honey does flies - take, for example, the odious Alan "ILikeTortureandIsraelandEspeciallyIsraeliTorture" Dershowitz. Ignatieff himself published a fabulous tome "The Lesser Evil," in which he discusses his moral angst at the terrible things that must be done by "liberal democracies" in order to defeat the (primarily Muslim) hordes that exist in that fantastic new world of States-With-WMDs-Partnered-With-Non-State-Actors.

As Ignatieff wrote in an essay for Prospect Magazine in 2006:

Human rights activists accept that reliable information is essential for combating terrorists and that interrogation is a central feature of any counterterrorist strategy. Kenneth Roth, of Human Rights Watch, argues that "respect for the Geneva conventions does not preclude vigorously interrogating detainees about a limitless range of topics." What work is the word "vigorously" doing in this sentence? It is intended to make it clear that a human rights defender takes seriously the necessity of getting from detainees real information that may prevent future terrorist attacks. But what, in specific terms, might "vigorous" interrogation actually entail? Clearly, Roth and anyone else who cares about human rights wants to exclude any form of abuse. But what exactly counts as abuse in a "vigorous" interrogation?
Oh, oh, oh, ask me, ask me! "Vigourous" interrogation includes things like using deceptions, shouting, threatening future consequences for non-cooperation, holding the detainee without charge for 24-48 hours, bright lights, etc, etc.

It does not include waterboarding, lashings, fingernail detachments, or electrocution.

But please, continue:
Clear thinking about torture is not served by collapsing the distinction between coercive interrogation and torture. Both may be repugnant, but repugnance does not make them into the same thing. If coercion and torture are on a moral continuum, at what point on the continuum, to use Posner's words, does queasiness turn to revulsion? Vigorous interrogation might mean lengthy, exhausting, harassing exchanges with interrogators. Provided that there was no physical contact between interrogator and subject, no deprivation of food or water harmful to health, this might qualify as lawful interrogation. But at every ratchet of coercion, moral problems arise. Sleep deprivation will not leave physical or permanent psychological scars, but as Menachem Begin, who was interrogated in Soviet Russia, remembered, "anyone who has experienced this desire [for sleep] knows that not even hunger or thirst are comparable with it."
Oh yeah, I forgot - sleep deprivation. Don't do that either.
So I end up supporting an absolute and unconditional ban on both torture and those forms of coercive interrogation that involve stress and duress, and I believe that enforcement of such a ban should be up to the military justice system plus the federal courts. I also believe that the training of interrogators can be improved by executive order and that the training must rigorously exclude stress and duress methods.
Good. Thanks for your opinion. Bye.

What? You mean that wasn't it?
While some abuse and outright torture can be attributed to individual sadism, poor supervision and so on, it must be the case that other acts of torture occur because interrogators believe, in good faith, that torture is the only way to extract information in a timely fashion. It must also be the case that if experienced interrogators come to this conclusion, they do so on the basis of experience. The argument that torture and coercion do not work is contradicted by the dire frequency with which both practices occur. I submit that we would not be "waterboarding" Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—immersing him in water until he experiences the torment of nearly drowning—if our intelligence operatives did not believe it was necessary to crack open the al Qaeda network that he commanded. Indeed, Mark Bowden points to a Time report in March 2003 that Sheikh Mohammed had "given US interrogators the names and descriptions of about a dozen key al Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting terrorist attacks." We must at least entertain the possibility that the operatives working on Sheikh Mohammed in our name are engaging not in gratuitous sadism but in the genuine belief that this form of torture—and it does qualify as such—makes all the difference.
Indeed, and how did those new "leads" work out?
Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed awaits return to Britain
The Observer 2009/02/01
He claims that he had admitted under torture to plotting a radioactive bomb attack on the US. "They cut all over my private parts. One of them said it would be better just to cut it off, as I would only breed terrorists," he wrote in his diary.
He was charged with conspiracy to murder and attack civilians. US authorities claim that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, instructed the British resident to blow up flats in America. The charges were dropped after the torture claims surfaced.
Was anyone that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed fingered actually an Al-Qaeda agent? Maybe, but maybe not. Ultimately, the information did less good than harm, even if, in the short-term, the interrogators actually believed that it was useful. Anyone who the interrogators would have been able to ask Mohammed about would have already been in US custody - otherwise, he could have just made the names up.

The fallacy of all of Ignatieff's navel-gazing, armpit-sniffing pomposity is that none of it is borne out by evidence. To date, not a single "ticking time-bomb" case has been successfully solved with the aid of torture. Most famously, the London 7/7 bombings (the closest thing to a "ticking time-bomb" scenario that didn't happen on 24) were not solved by torture, but by standard police interrogation, much of which might have been "vigourous interrogation," but none of which approached torture.

This isn't the only issue on which Ignatieff has been shown to be wrong. Ignatieff was also a supporter of the invasion of Iraq, a position which he defends with the classic line of "Really? No WMDs? Darn. I could have sworn I saw some WMDs there. Check again. No? Wow, Saddam Hussein really was a tricky bastard, eh, pretending to have no WMDs while pretending that he had lots of WMDs. What a card!"

How did Ignatieff make it into Harvard? Simple: he does what most people who teach law or politics at Harvard do: he tells everyone what they most want to hear.

Now he's taken his act to Canada.

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