Government Intimidation: "...because they like to do it"

One of the reasons I'm a tireless critic and skeptic of bellicose government activities is not out of pure antipathy for the state enterprise - though that's a large part of it. I'd just like to see it one day, once and for all, demonstrated that all the abuses of power, bungled investigations, ridiculous measures, and mindless bureacracy were worth it. It would make it much easier to support the state if they could make themselves useful while they're spying on me, invading harmless countries, and spreading disinformation. Yet time after time I'm disappointed by the low bar we set on government belligerence. I'm beginning to think that none of it has anything to do with security, defense, or the thoughtful administration of the country's affairs - they simply want to dominate, regardless of the price we the citizens pay. It's about power and intimidation.

Government is often criticized for a lack of common sense, and I've become interested lately in theories of institutional organization which provide a framework for understanding a lot of the inefficiency and boneheadedness of modern corporate entities like the state, firms, political organizations, etc. But I'm not going to get so in depth right now. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on a few demonstrable cases where governments toss out our interests for no practical reason whatsoever.

One example of this is the security frenzy. Suddenly, metal detectors are everywhere - regardless of the fact that they failed to slow down the 9/11 hijackers. People don't seem to get that it's a total psychological ruse - and for what? So that people can be harrassed, intimidated, and humilated. It's already been shown that airport security measures only deter casual terrorists - not the real ones. Apparently, if you are a dimwit murderer, the United States of America is completely prepared for you. However, all serious terrorists with half a brain are pretty much written off as uncatchable, unless they make some grave error. I sometimes wonder whether people really understand how little these security stunts help secure us - but they serve as great exercises in hierarchically regimenting society.

In fact, security hysteria is arguably the full reason we're in Iraq now (because of "smoking gun = mushroom cloud" talk), and the consequences of our activities there will be with us for some time. For our leaders to simply take us to war without thinking about any time horizons whatsoever is bad enough. But the ways in which this war is changing our warfighting mindset are horrifying. And it's only the latest development in a downward spiral towards permanent war.

The clearest sign of the societal decay in which we're caught is the debate over torture by U.S. troops - an issue that would have been out of the question at any other point in our history (including points where we were arguably in more danger). I submit that the torture controversy was never sufficiently resolved by our society. The primary element in question, at least as far as I'm concerned, is motivations. I can reject the legimitacy of the state and its enforcement arms while simultaneously evaluating its effectiveness in achieving its stated institutional goals. With that said, I believe the discussion surrounding the military utility of torture is valid.

We need to talk about the distasteful aspects of hysterical security so we can decide how large a price we are willing to pay to win this War on Terror. The discussion would ostensibly be two-fold: moral and strategic.

  1. Can an institution which tortures be fairly considered "the good guys"?
  2. Is torture a useful part of a warfighting strategy?

Back when the legitimization of torture was nightly news, I wrote about this in a comment on somebody's blog, and now I can't find that comment. But essentially I made the following argument:

  1. I don't think war is a "game" with "rules". War is the last resort - the most vivid expression of existential social crisis. Therefore, while I reject the practice of war wholesale, I'm loathe to make distinctions about how it is waged. War is war is war.

    In my opinion, war is such a terrible horror that it should be waged fiercly, totally, and without mercy - and therefore, only when absolutely necessary. In fact, I say it's this idea that we can wage these limited, low intensity wars while most of us live our normal lives that creates the acceptance of perpetual war in the first place. War should have consequences that society cannot ignore in order for it to be legitimately sanctioned by the electorate - not that that makes the war just; simply that it requires a certain amount of investment commensurate to the destruction the society is willing to export.

  2. Because I believe war is an all or nothing proposition, I do not believe any binding moral critiques of its means apply. War can only be waged immorally, or perhaps at best amorally - even when justified. To put it another way: if we have any compunction about using the full strength of our power in the most effective manner possible, regardless of the human suffering it will cause the enemy, maybe we don't really need to be at war in the first place.

    It is relatively rare that hawks succeed in convincing a vast majority of the electorate that a war is desirable. It follows that there's a natural disdain for war, even if the military is appreciated. It is a severely dysfunctional society - frightened, desparate, and full of dread - that backs a war with unanimous support, even if it is indeed necessary for survival.

    In order to wage this war from motivations of achieving victory, strategic advantage, not humanism, must be the sole motivating factor. To be interested in anything more than total victory is an abuse of the social contract between state and citizen as well as between citizens. War is an existential struggle, not a political tool (to hell with Von Clausewitz) and anything goes. Anything - including torture. Only the willingness to engage in brutality justifies war, and only a sincere danger of survival justifies brutality.

  3. Since anything goes, and there is a goal of strategic advantage and eventual total conquest, we should evaluate the practice of torture based on its effectiveness, not on its moral appeal. If torture is an useful, efficient way of extracting information, then let's use it. But if it's not - if it's just about sadism - then let's not. This is not about being "the good guys"; that's a false criterion. This is about national sacrifices having meaning, instead of just being about desperation - in the same way that airport security should be about results, not psychological props.

Now, let me make it abundantly clear: I do not endorse torture, because I do not support the war that is creating the need for it. My moral argument against torture stands, and I believe it's still valid. However, for the sake of argument (and since we're already in an immoral war), let's put that aside and assume for the moment that the war is necessary; in other words, let's put ourselves in the shoes of those making the policy decisions who are true believers in neoconservatism. From their point of view, it should be about winning a war that has to be won. They're convinced there is no alternative - however wrong they might be. Since war is the last resort of a free society, it makes sense that they should feel obligated to pursue every possible avenue in winning it. If we accept that this is indeed "civilization vs. islamofacism" (or whatever they're calling it these days) then we should not be fretting about the details.

So, now comes the million dollar question: is torture effective? There's been lots of partisan information out there, and a lot of it is anecdotal (oh, the Saudis have had marvellous success, etc.). What we're missing is cold, hard evidence. Any practice of our military should be justifiable - it should demonstrate a cost effective, strategic usefulness. It is proper to hold the practice of torture to the same standard as we hold any military tactic. We should also be wary of the long term costs of our practices.

There are larger implications than national reputation and standards of welfare for prisoners. We must also consider the psychological effects of torture on the torturers - ostensibly, our government agents. If we're asking them to do such horrible things (sanctioned murder notwithstanding) we should be able to see a clear benefit from the act. It's only fair that what we ask of our soldiers actually result in more security for America. If we're turning our troops into monsters for no practical reason, then the torture policy should be rejected.

Yet there has been no evidence that torture actually works, regardless of the possible danger. Instead, this latest tactic in the War on Terror has been about casting as large a dragnet as possible (and get away with it), suspending our rights when convenient, and desperately creating an atmosphere of security and sustainability - but on terms conducive to business and social order, not necessarily individual citizens.

Additionally, we are risking the institutionalization of torture. If torture becomes a way of doing the state's business, the state will begin to attract leaders and bureaucrats even more depraved than our current government. It will also tend to create sadists out of good but influencable people. We are encouraging existing damage in our civilization, and we're creating more of it.

In a recent interview of an ex-Delta Force soldier confesses that the current expansion of military activities into new human rights abuses is both morally wrong and a bad strategic error.

Q: What do you make of the torture debate? Cheney ...

A: (Interrupting) That's Cheney's pursuit. The only reason anyone tortures is because they like to do it. It's about vengeance, it's about revenge, or it's about cover-up. You don't gain intelligence that way. Everyone in the world knows that. It's worse than small-minded, and look what it does.

I've argued this on Bill O'Reilly and other Fox News shows. I ask, who would you want to pay to be a torturer? Do you want someone that the American public pays to torture? He's an employee of yours. It's worse than ridiculous. It's criminal; it's utterly criminal. This administration has been masters of diverting attention away from real issues and debating the silly. Debating what constitutes torture: Mistreatment of helpless people in your power is torture, period. And (I'm saying this as) a man who has been involved in the most pointed of our activities. I know it, and all of my mates know it. You don't do it. It's an act of cowardice. I hear apologists for torture say, "Well, they do it to us." Which is a ludicrous argument. ... The Saddam Husseins of the world are not our teachers. Christ almighty, we wrote a Constitution saying what's legal and what we believed in. Now we're going to throw it away.

This fear of a new thinking in the administration of government force is not just concentrated at the Federal level. Local law enforcement has is also undergoing a change that reflects the increasing hostility of public servants towards the "served". At the Agitator, Radley Balko has been writing a lot lately about indiscriminate use of force by police units. A recent article cites a veteran police officer's disdain for the attitudes of the "new breed" of cops coming in.

As a lifelong supporter of Law Enforcement allow me to say: It is now in some cases sadly attracting the wrong element of wanna be tough guys. The old guys call them "the new breed" and it ain't a compliment. Some younger ones in particular seem to relish weilding their authority, frequently use profanity, and a very, very small number border on sadistic. I don't know how the MMPI didn't weed them out.

Their mommy sat them in front of too many episodes of "COPS."

My friend was the assistant Deputy District Attorney and is now a Judge in the Criminal Division. The Sherriff's Dept asked him how to staff the SWAT team they were forming. His answer:

"Ask for volunteers, then take that list of names... and toss it in the trash. That'll eliminate the Cowboys."

He goes on to point out how some of the actions he's hearing about police committing scare him, commenting on the mental health of those involved in outright police brutality in one case.

We should listen to veterans of government institutions when they report alarming trends towards tougher, more pervasive government intervention in our lives and the lives of our international neighbors. I believe that an argument about the validity of torture as a military tactic is acceptable. However, I also am confident that in a fair debate the evidence is on my side: the anti-intervention side. I also think such a dialogue, expanded to include the broader picture and the long view policy and social consequences, would serve as a more accurate predictive picture of the hyper-brutal state; something the public needs to consider. We need to temper all our actions in a respect for ourselves, our principles, and our own sense of justice and conscience - no matter what the various agendas urge us to think, or rather, refrain from thinking about.

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Written on Friday, April 14, 2006