America Scares Me

OK, I have finally torn myself away from the accursed Wii long enough to surf the internet, read some articles and comments and become quite worried about the future of the human race.  Before I am accused of massive hyperbole, remember America is the worlds only superpower and, like it or not, societal changes there radiate out across the English speaking world quite quickly. (Yes, I am looking at you Creationism).

It seems that, despite being the leader of the free world, a beacon of Democracy and willing to invade other nations who abuse human rights, the USA has a very ambivalent approach towards one of the most inhumane of activities – torture. I know I have talked about this previously, but reading through the comments on the USA Today letter reminded me of conversations I have had with people in the US, and gives an insight into how the government policies seem to be built.

First off my position on the matter: Torture is never, ever, acceptable. It is a war crime and the practitioners of such acts should be treated as international war criminals. Waterboarding is torture. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation” does not change what it is any more than calling my car a boat will make it sail. I can think of no (real) circumstances in which torture is justified. Saying torture is better than execution is farcical.  The idea that torture would be carried out in my name, or to protect some nebulous concept of my safety is abhorrent.

However, I consider myself a rational person and I am willing to explore viewpoints and opinions that differ from my own. It is possible that I could be wrong in my stance about torture so I will look at some of the arguments for it. For the purposes of this rant, I will use the responses to the, frankly, insane USA Today letter. From these it appears the following “justify” torture: (Some I will post in full, others I will try to identify the more coherent parts)

in the meantime…they saw off our heads…….while weak dems say nothing about that……why do dems defend these killers of U.S citizens is alarming…..shows there huge weakness for our security. (from wave who, unsuprisingly, has no friends but 5 recommends for this nonsense)

This makes no sense. It is nothing but an appeal to fear, wrapped up in some bizarre attempt to make 2+2 equal three hundred and eleven. But it is a common one so I will try to salvage some sanity out it and see if it holds any water.

It breaks down into a few parts. First off the claim that torturing people is the only defence against “them” sawing off American heads. Now, given that people in custody are no longer in position to weild a saw this is true, but there is no requirement to torture them for this. Has the mistreatment of people in places such as Guantanamo reduced the amount of beheadings of Americans in the middle east? Erm, no. So we can strike that part. The second bit is just a sign that wave is insane. Objecting to torture is not defending the killers of US citizens any more than not torturing murder or rape suspects is. Shall we advocate tortuing people suspected of drink driving (which kills many, many more citizens each year)? If not the argument makes no sense.

The next one hints at what worries me about society.

Why is this such a difficult question for you? Given the choice between the safety and security of my loved ones *and* subjecting a terrorist to a few moments of anxiety (enhanced interrogation techniques), this is an easy choice! Glycine

Oh my Thor. Worryingly this is an attitude similar to one I encountered in people I talked to during my visit to the US. It shows the horrific effect language has had on people. 24 is not real. People do not get up at the end of the show, take a bow and give a PR conference to promote the sale of their DVD. Torture is torture. The clue is in the name. Waterboarding is not a “few moments of anxiety.”

This whole bag of madness falls down on a few levels. First off, if it is so mild how can it work on embittered, committed jihadists? If it is so mild (I can generate more than a few moments of anxiety for most people going to an interview, let alone questioning by law enforcement) why is it called “enhanced interrogation?” Dispel forever the idea that waterboarding is tame. That any form of torture can be passed of as time and almost humorous. It is not. It is there to break a persons will in the shortest possible time. This is not something people ever fully recover from.

Equally sad is the loss of any form of “innocent until proven guilty.” It now seems that if someone thinks you are a criminal you are one and will be tortured until you confess. Sounds all very 21st century to me. The people subjected to torture by agents of the US government are not always confirmed terrorists. Some will be people who are massively unlucky. Is torturing them (which will provide no extra security to your loved ones) acceptable? If so, where do we draw the line? When do we stop torturing people on the off-chance they may know something which may help increase the security of your loved ones? Crucially, what happens when someone comes to torture you to protect their loved ones? Would you be OK with that? Even if you are actually insane enough to think that torturing people based simply on their nationality and skin colour is acceptable, you have to face the fact it decreases national security. For every person who is interned and tortured, there will be families at home who rail against the injustice. Mistreatment of prisoners is the greatest recruiting tool an insurgent or terrorist organisation can hope for. For every suspected terrorist you torture, you recruit four or five more into his organisation. How does this make any sense at all?

We have the token argument from insanity:

Torture like many evils will not ‘go away’ because do-gooders wish it so.
Which is worse: killing the enemy outright or keeping them for the duration in a POW camp? (or Federal prison?) Incarceration, even with three meals a day, a bible, a toilet, clothing, bedding, et cetera, is none the less, torture — but who gives a damn? Ronald David (who, amazingly, has 8 friends on USA Today. Wow).

This is no argument, its just mad ranting. Torture like any crime will never quite go away but does that mean we should accept it? Do we accept rape or murder? No. If someone abducted ten people from US cities and tortured them for a few months, they would go to jail or face the death penalty. If the government does it, its OK. Does that make sense? I just love the attempt to use a derogatory “do-gooders” term against those who oppose evils such as torture. I’d rather be a do-gooder than a do-eviler. Maybe its the atheist in me.

Comparing torture with incarceration is madness. Nothing further needs to be said. Everything else this nutter has written on this letter speaks of mental illness.

(two chestnuts from Crazyfun_22 who has 11 bloody friends) In addition to Michael, the other loons posting about waterboarding are also subscribing to something in either their water or thier “Pipe”. The waterboarding the japanese did is not even close to what we did following 9/11, those people were drowned in the process. Waterboarding that ends in death can and shoud be classified as torture…so put down the remote after you turn off MSNBC and look some stuff up from multiple independent sources and get your facts straight.

Right, so torturing someone and stopping just before they die is OK then. This is insane. Torture is torture. Murder is murder. You can torture someone to death which is both torture and murder. Its like saying raping someone but not killing them is OK. All this crazy makes my head hurt.

Lastly, all you people who are commenting on waterboarding being used to get info on Iraq and make an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection….WRONG….it was used to try and determine intel on potnetial threats to Americans…period. While I am sure Saddam was part of the questioning, it was for American’s safety…and that does include you loony bins.

Here we come to the basic claim that seems to sustain the support for torture.

Torturing person X (who is hopefully not the from the same ethnic or religious background as you) is acceptable if it provides actionable intelligence that can save lives of people you care about.

This argument allows Americans to condemn other nations who torture prisoners (because the information gained is not helping people they care about) while practising it themselves. It carries a strong moral appeal because, seriously, who doesn’t want to save lives. There is even a utilitarian argument that the suffering of the few outweighs the benefits for the many. You can see why so many people agree with this concept and, as a result, support the use of torture by agents of the government .

Sadly it is all nonsense, and for so many different reasons it is hard to know where to begin.

If we take the utilitarian argument first. You have no way of knowing if the information provided from the torture will save lives until after you have tortured the person. If you know in advance enough to make this call, you know enough to not need to torture the person. Without knowing this you have to react to everything the person says – including lies and confusion. This takes up resources and manpower better spent elsewhere. A committed jihadist could even use this to distract your resources from where they would be best placed. If you are tortuing someone who genuinely doesn’t know what you are asking, when do you stop? Do you wait until they make something up? Unlike Jack Bauer you have no way of knowing the veracity of what your victim is telling you. You may get the truth in the first 10 seconds (about how long I would take to crack) but would you believe it? Would you continue to torture until you broke them and they changed their story? In reality, unlike 24, torture is a good way of making somone say what you want them to say – nothing else.

Following on from this, if you torture the person and it turns out they cant give you useful information, what then? The argument that useful information means torture is justified now means this was not-justified. Do you proceed to punish everyone involved with the now-criminal act? Anything else means the utilitarian argument suggests all torture is justifed on the basis that an unknown amount of information gained may be useful – but this applies to everything. Maybe torturing you or your parents will be useful. How do we know until we try?

It strikes me people can be quick to come up with hypothetical situations where torture would be acceptable, as long as it is someone else on the receiving end. Knowing that no system is 100% correct, innocent people will occasionally get caught up, would you be happy if you were that innocent person? If not, then torture is not acceptable. If you feel you would be happy to spend five years in “enhanced interrogation” because you knew, deep down, it was making the world safer, then I think you are insane.

(ranting over, back to the Wii…)

A unique threat…

“‘Violence is taboo’, wrote Stephens in his in-house history of Camp 020 now available as a National Archives publication, “for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information” .
Stephens put the unprecedented successes of Camp 020 down to the rule of non-violence.
“Never strike a man” wrote Stephens in instructions for interrogators.
“In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment and everything he says thereafter will be based on a false premise”……
… On one occasion in September 1940, Stephens expelled a War Office interrogator from the camp for hitting a prisoner, the double agent TATE. As Liddell noted in his diary “It is quite clear to me that we cannot have this sort of thing going on in our establishment. Apart from the moral aspect of the whole thing, I am quite convinced that these Gestapo methods do not pay in the long run”.

These quotations from an apparently famous British WWII interrogator Tin-eye Stephens are from MI5’s website. (I added some paragraph breaks.) As I blogged a couple of weeks ago, Alex Gibney said an interview about his film Taxi to the dark side that his father – who had been a WWII naval interrogator – was horrified at the use of torture, seeing it as both completely unethical and absolutely ineffective.

Many people believe that waterboarding and the associated horrors (like the emetically-named torture-lite) are justified because the current threat from Islamic terrorists is so extremely serious and unique.

I will spare you political arguments about manufacturing terrorism, through what I will politely call “misguided” foreign policies.

Instead, I’d like to question the “uniquely threatening” idea. I’ve already banged on about the decades of Northern Irish warfare having been a much bigger threat to the UK public than the recent terror episodes. But that was surely a playground scuffle compared to World War II.

The clue’s in the name. It was a world war.

Remember, there were Nazis who made lampshades out of human skin. Well more than 6 million Jews, disabled people, homosexuals, gypsies and communists were systematically exterminated. Most of Europe was overrun by the people slavishly following vile political systems. Any European country that hadn’t been invaded expected invasion at any moment.

Surely that was a pretty unique situation. So, do we find World War II veterans falling over themselves to justify torture?

In case you haven’t guessed, the answer is “No.”

From the quotations from Alex Gibney’s father and from the English interrogator with the nickname that could have come out of a Biggles book – it’ s pretty clear that the very people who might have justified torture in World War II saw it both abhorrent and completely useless at getting real information.

The phrase “Gestapo methods” expresses it all. People who took part in World War II on the Allied side were pretty confident of having the moral high ground. Torture was part of the horrors they were risking their lives to oppose. Indeed, after the war, the Nuremberg principle established that “just following orders” was no defence to war crime charges,

Can anyone seriously argue that the current terrorist threat is so much more threatening to the USA – let alone to Western Europe – that standing on the moral high ground should have changed to sinking into a filthy swamp?

Interesting Links

It has been a while since I posted some interesting links, so here goes: – visual representation of how the size of the Earth relates to other structures in the universe. The last image shows just how small the things we think are large, really are. – summary of why Linux is better than windows, as if people needed telling 🙂 – how to boot and run linux from a USB drive. – from “Appeals Court Rules Cops Can Steal Cars and Lie to Victims To Conduct a Warrantless Search” – image of the M42 Nebula in Orion. – information about the worlds religions, surprisingly detailed from what I have read so far and (also so far) does not call Atheism a religion 😀 . – “Banned and Challenged Books” – while interesting in that it shows what books have been “challenged” in the past, it also shows what wingnuts think they can get away with. Is 1984 pro-communist for example? – “How to Detect Lies,” another one of those sites which have a little knowledge on a subject. This is one of the better ones, but it is still for entertainment purposes only. Do not rely on any conclusions you draw using the information here.

[tags]Science, Astronomy, Cosmology, Linux, Windows, Technology, Links,Law, Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, Orion, Nebula, Religion, Books, Body Language, Interrogation, Interview, Philosophy, Culture, Beliefs[/tags]

How Not To Spot a Liar

Again, more from the weird web department. This time, stumbling around the net brought me to a web page titled “How to spot a liar.” This is a page which explains how you can use eye movements, verbal constructions and blood flow to spot when people a lying. It is all packaged together well, and is generally an easy to read site.

The problem is, it is nonsense.

The bigger problem is that it is not pure, obvious nonsense, but the insidious nonsense which is latched on to some truth and then muddies the waters. Basically put the site discusses how eye movements can show which parts of the brain are being used, and how these parts of the brain have been (broadly) mapped onto construction or recall. That is about where it ends it’s relationship with reality.

For example, the site claims that when you ask some one a question, and they answer following a rapid eye movement up and to their right (your left), this means they are “constructing” the response and therefore lying. If they look up and left (your right) they are recalling the response and therefore telling the truth. As I said before, this is generally correct, but nearly half the population have this reversed. Makes using this a bit of a problem unless you know what you are looking for as you have an almost even chance of getting it wrong…

Add in to this the hazy use of recall and construct when it comes to answering a question and you can see that the most likely effect of taking this site seriously is to make you never know when some one is lying to you. Part of the art of getting a feel for deceit using clues like this, is learning how the question you ask influences the answer. Without that, even if you know which way the person looks, it wont help.

The examples given on the site are useful in this, and they highlight how the author of this post is turning slightly imperfect knowledge into a bad conclusion. This is the first example the author uses:
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