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The Moral Measure of a Civilization Is in Its Treatment of Enemies

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Scott Atran
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In the heat of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made a speech in which he referred sympathetically to the Southern rebels. A member of the audience lambasted him for wanting to treat his enemies kindly when he ought to be thinking of destroying them. Lincoln's answer: 

"Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" 

Harshness and cruelty were to be banished from the moral imagination of the nation he was trying to save. 

The late Jack Maple, a famously flamboyant but phenomenally effective former deputy commissioner of the NYPD, wrote that "the more information a detective has, the more creative, authoritative and effective he or she can be." Under attack in 2001, and then at war in Iraq in 2003, American law enforcement, intelligence and military really didn't have much information at first. They rounded up the usual suspects, but didn't know what usual meant. So they smacked people around, and that was always a bad idea, as Maple said: 

"Forget that smacking somebody around is illegal and just plain wrong, it's also the quickest way to ruin the chances of getting a statement of any kind." 

Professional interrogators talk about building empathy and dependence. Maple would get down on his knees and pray with a suspect if he thought that would work. But the best technique? "If you can get them to laugh, you'll get a statement. That's always true." Internal CIA documents reveal that empathy is also likely what got Abu Zubaydah to reveal how Al Qaeda planned 9/11 and its other operations. His torture brought nothing of real value, only the moral demeaning of him and his tormentors. 

The Bush administration had long maintained that the overtly cruel and abusive detainees of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, "a few bad apples." But the recent release of CIA documents now shows plainly that the Bush administration's approach to prisoner abuse was rotten to the core. The Obama administration, to its eternal credit, has resolved to expose this moral canker to the light (although 4 former CIA directors would prefer to let it fester in the fog of secrecy). But refusal to allow justice to hold anyone accountable, and excise the abuse from our body politic, makes its return more likely. 

When military officers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, struggled in the fall of 2002 to find ways to get terrorism suspects to talk, they turned to the CIA, which had had spent several months experimenting with the limits of physical and psychological pressure. They took the top lawyer for the CIA's Counterterrorist Center to Guantánamo, where he explained that the definition of illegal torture was "written vaguely": 

"It [torture] is basically subject to perception," said the CIA lawyer, Jonathan Friedman, according to meeting minutes released at a Senate hearing in June 2008: "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." 

The CIA used waterboarding on prisoners with the approval of the Justice Department. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice later confirmed in a statement to congressional investigators in September 2008 that the Bush administration had issued a pair of secret memos that explicitly endorsed the CIA's use of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation techniques against terrorist suspects. 

The 2002 meeting at Guantánamo showed how CIA lawyers believed they had found a legal loophole permitting the agency to use "cruel, inhuman or degrading" methods overseas as long as they didn't lead to the detainee's death. Some military personnel objected, to their credit. Others, like military lawyer Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, did not: 

COL Cummings: We can't do sleep deprivation. 

LTC Beaver: Yes, we can - with approval. 

Dave Becker: We have had many reports from Bagram [military prison in Afghanistan] about sleep deprivation being used. 

LTC Beaver: True, but officially it's not happening.... The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] is a serious concern. They will be in and out, scrutinizing our operations.... This would draw a lot of negative attention. 

Friedman: The CIA is not held to the same rules as the military. In the past when the ICRC had made a big deal about detainees, the DOD (Department of Defense) has "moved" them away from the attention of the ICRC. Upon questioning from the ICRC about their whereabouts, the DOD's response has repeatedly been that the detainee merited no status under the Geneva Convention. 

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Scott Atran is research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris; presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City; and visiting professor of psychology and public (more...)
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