a quote for the middle of the afternoon

“I’m sick to frigging death of people – self-identifiedly conservative or otherwise – whose reaction to the ongoing revelation of what our government and its representatives did post-9/11 is to say, Oh, well, I’m really opposed to torture, and clearly there were some cases where a few bad apples crossed the line, but we were just trying to do our best, and national security is really important, and these people are pretty awful people after all, so despite the fact that I’m really opposed to torture I’m still okay with what our government did. NEWSFLASH: If you’re okay with all or most of what our government did, you’re not opposed to torture.” ~ John Schwenkler responding to Sonny Bunch et al

Exactly right.  It makes me wonder when the tide will turn.  How many years (decades?) does it take for the now-supporters and apologists of the Bush “interrogation tactics” to wipe the blindness from their eyes, take a hard look at the history books and say: no, that was torture; that was wrong….?  Because at some point in time, from one moral conflict to the next, a sort of two-pronged history unfolds.  For every wrong we admit to, a separate myth is woven, which casts our actions in a softer, even noble light. Hard denial gives way to denial-lite.

This is why the general sentiment surrounding Lincoln is so positive despite the fact that he was hugely unpopular in his day; and why the second World War is thought of as a “good war” without any irony at all.  We embelish.  We create of the world archetypes by which to measure our values.  In the second World War, the villains were larger than life; Hitler’s crimes were far more despicable than anything we could possibly imagine.  America was the hero par excellence.

Which isn’t exactly true, of course – the reality is we dropped atomic bombs on Japan; we firebombed Germany; we killed lots and lots of civilians unnecessarily; we put our own citizens in internment camps.  We were certainly not even remotely as bad as the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean our hands were clean.  We have admitted to much of this, but we keep the heroics front and center.  We’re not as bad as the terrorists either.  We’re only just beginning to learn how bloody our hands are now.

How will we spin this myth together?  How will we hand this story down?

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29 thoughts on “a quote for the middle of the afternoon

  1. It wasn’t torture. Which is why we continue to see the by-now-quite-tired “lefty getting waterboarded” youtube every couple months. If waterboarding was torture, people wouldn’t sign up for it — that is kinda the definition.

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  2. For one, your post gives the lie to your own previous “we’re loosing our soul”-type opinions. We have done much worse than the worst the Bush administration authorized and we’re still breathing in air.

    I admit I’m not too clear on the legal issues involved and I do tend to agree with Mathew Dallman that the Bush “enhanced interrogation” techniques do not constitute torture. At least, I can admit that reasonable people, who are responsible for the national security, can disagree about one technique or another.

    However, from what I know, the enhanced interrogation of KSM did generate information that helped to thwart attacks against America.
    The following gives a new twist to this:

    Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, “as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, ‘brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.” In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that “Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable.” The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.

    This is the secret to the program’s success. And the Obama administration’s decision to share this secret with the terrorists threatens our national security. Al-Qaeda will use this information and other details in the memos to train its operatives to resist questioning and withhold information on planned attacks. CIA Director Leon Panetta said during his confirmation hearings that even the Obama administration might use some of the enhanced techniques in a “ticking time bomb” scenario. What will the administration do now that it has shared the limits of our interrogation techniques with the enemy? President Obama’s decision to release these documents is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible acts ever by an American president during a time of war — and Americans may die as a result.

    I can’t see anything in your discussions of torture that addresses this issue. I can’t see any evidence that interrogators were doing anything but what Thiessen says they were: “helping the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.” I think that this is at least defensible as a moral position but it is absolutely unassailable from a national security perspective.

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  3. Matthew Dallman,
    It was torture, because waterboarding. Has. Always. Been. Torture. Period. The United States has actually prosecuted people for waterboarding. Then when you combine it with sleep deprivation, no hope of a trial, stress positions, forced nudity, and so on, it definitely becomes torture because of the cumulative effect.

    If you don’t believe me, or the combined lessons of history, you should at least believe John McCain when he says waterboarding is torture.

    Roque Nuevo,
    How does the Thiessen article change anything? Thiessen is hardly a unbiased observer, and all he can do is make vague assertions about the effectiveness of torture. But let’s assume for a second that it was effective at getting information, does that really change the moral calculation? If it’s such a great technique why would the CIA have destroyed the interrogation tapes? Should we now abandon the Geneva Conventions as well as authorize local police forces to use tactics?

    Thiessen says they were: “helping the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely.” I think that this is at least defensible as a moral position but it is absolutely unassailable from a national security perspective.

    That quote from Thiessen just strikes me wrong in all sorts of ways. It’s hard to explain, but it could be twisted defend all sorts of morally repugnant behavior, just like it is here. If you murdered me, would you be helping me do my religious duty by sending me God?

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  4. If we just continue to pretend that every detainee knows about a bomb about to explode ANY MINUTE in a big building full of babies and nuns and puppies and baby nun puppies, we’ll all feel fine no matter what we do.

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  5. wow Matt, RQ you guys obviously have a mission in life now. that is to retroactively clear the names of the Japanese officers who were tried and convicted of torture for waterboarding our soldiers in WW2. go for it.
    umm Matt, people pay for the privilege of having foreign objects inserted into their bodies to improve their looks. so if we took a prisoner, cut them open, put silicon sacks in them, then closed them up, that would be just fine. some people voluntarily go swimming in ice cold water. so it would be fine if we threw prisoners in ice cold water. (hint the nazis did that to Jews, the answer is no). some people pierce their bodies……….oh never mind i could go on for a while. there is big diff between voluntary and involuntary.

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  6. Only tangentially related, but I’m sick of people here in the South who say things like:

    “Oh, I know unions were needed at one time because of all those horrible abuses, and all, but they’ve outlived their usefulness.”

    Oh–you mean the unions that organized to fight all those “horrible abuses” that existed in the first place because employers could get away with stuff like that WITHOUT ANY UNIONS TO STOP THEM?

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  7. How will we spin this myth together? How will we hand this story down?

    If the techniques remain controversial, then we’ll probably see several myths made over the next decades. Some will depict our torturers as heroic, others as flawed but well-meaning patriots, and still others as villains. Which myths will become dominant will most likely depend on which mythmakers have the most influence in our society and culture. What myths prevail may also depend on whether or not we continue to see ourselves as a great force for good in the world.

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  8. It depends on whether Obama’s CIA finds itself in a situation where it has to engage in the same thing.

    We’ll see people explaining how extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses. Besides, we only did this to exceptionally bad people whose innocence was never in doubt, unlike how Bush did it, with no controls for that sort of thing at all.

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  9. Jaybird,
    I appreciate the impulse that drives you to find false equivalences between sides on a political argument. Our media does it, Ralph Nader does, I used to do it. But sometimes you have to take a step back and realize that while everyone is flawed, some of us are more flawed than others.

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  10. Perhaps Obama will surprise me. Perhaps it will turn out that, say, the people who did these things will be prosecuted. Perhaps we will have trials rather than internal investigations. Perhaps it will come out that Obama does not use these techniques on high-value detainees whose innocence is never in doubt.

    Perhaps he will do things differently than he’s done with, say, warantless wiretapping. Or medical marijuana raids. Or the bailouts. Or deficit spending.

    Perhaps he will make me say “wow, he’s actually good” rather than “well, at least he’s better than Bush!”

    I’ll not hold my breath.

    (Seriously: watch what happens to Greenwald in the coming months. He will keep saying the exact same things as he always has and he will turn into a nut in the eyes of many, many of your peers as you watch.)

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  11. ChrisWWW:
    How does the Thiessen article change anything? Thiessen is hardly a unbiased observer, and all he can do is make vague assertions about the effectiveness of torture. But let’s assume for a second that it was effective at getting information, does that really change the moral calculation?
    It changes the moral calculation because, if he’s right, we were using torture selectively and safely–i.e., on “high-value” targets and with no danger of maiming or killing–to get information that saved American lives. Saving American lives is what we elect the president for. It’s his job, not making sure that our enemies are comfortable. It’s the same moral calculation involved in dropping the A-bomb: we killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese but ended the war so no more Americans would have to die. Are the human rights of our captive enemy combatants worth less than our human rights are? Plainly, no. Human rights belong to every human, no matter what. Should the president consider violating the human rights of our declared enemies so as to save American lives? For sure he should and I say that if he didn’t he’d be a goner politically, along with anyone who supported him. Is this a “moral calculation?” I don’t know. You tell me.

    I mentioned before, on another thread, that–historically–Americans will tolerate conduct in foreign affairs that they would never even consider tolerating at home. This of course bears on your argument that “we now abandon the Geneva Conventions as well as authorize local police forces to use tactics…”.

    You worry about “twisting” Thiessen’s argument and yet you proceed to do so in the most exaggerated and puerile way I can imagine: “If you murdered me, would you be helping me do my religious duty by sending me God?” Of course not. Are you serious? Why exaggerate in such a flimsy way? The situation you describe is not even in the same ballpark with the topic under discussion. For example, we haven’t killed anyone under torture–just the opposite: we made sure that they were safe and only made them believe that they’d die to get information to save American lives. If I murder you only to send you to what you believe is your Maker, I have no legitimate motive. If I murder you, and thereby send you to your maker, because you were threatening someone I love with death, then, yes, I have a legitimate reason to do so.

    Nobody says that Thiessen is unbaiased. But to attack his argument on that basis is simply a juvenile ad hominem fallacy. One has to consider the content of what he’s saying and refute that. I haven’t seen you do that at all. I haven’t seen anyone here do that at all.

    People here limit themselves to condemning torture and the people who authorized it without even trying to put themselves in their shoes. They had the responsibility of saving American lives and they evidently fulfilled it because there were no further attacks on American during their watch. If waterboarding, slapping, and putting them in cages with caterpillars played a part in this seven-year record, then I say they did the right thing.

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  12. Roque:

    There are a number of immediate red flags that pop up about Thiessen’s claims, not least of which is that they are unfalsifiable. We don’t know what would have happened were techniques that fell short of torture used; we don’t know whether information provided simply verified information that was previously known via non-coercive measures; we don’t know how many false leads came about as a result, and how many resources were expended in the pursuit of those false leads. Finally, the reports upon which those claims are based are the types of reports that are of dubious reliability, even assuming they were technically truthful – see here: http://www.popehat.com/2009/04/22/torture-and-actionable-intelligence-why-i-am-skeptical/

    As for the issue of there being no attacks on US soil since 9/11, that argument is equally a non-starter because, as has been oft-repeated, there weren’t any terrorist attacks on US soil by foreign extremists in the previous eight years, either. The only evidence that the torture program prevented attacks in the last eight years comes from self-serving and vague statements that are completely unverifiable even if honestly made.

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  13. Mark: Do attacks on our embassies and Naval vessels count as attacks on US soil? How about the ’93 WTC bombing? But there weren’t any foreign attacks on US soil in the Nixon admin either, or indeed since the war of 1812. What does this have to do with anything? There was a horrendous attack on 9/11 and that’s what Bush had to deal with. If I had been in his shoes, I’d have to assume that 9/11 was only the beginning. Most people did at the time. So, yes, it’s an acomplishment that there have been none since. If torture played a role in this, then I can accept it if only because I can try and imagine the terrible moral choices the president faces and support him if he fulfills his responsiblity. If he had refused to torture and then there had been more attacks that could have been prevented, I can’t imagine how he could have explained this to the people.

    You want to discount Thiessen’s claims because he challenges your position, not because of anything substantive. Your objections only amount to “the road not taken” and this will usually be a better road than the one we’re on today. You’re saying that intelligence info can be manipulated for political ends. This is undoubtedly true. But it’s just one more argument in my favor. If we had the information, then we could debate whether it was manipulated or not. How would you describe the blacking-out of the the pertinent info in the torture memos? Could this have a political end? I say it does, since it could show that Bush did the right thing.

    Obama has blacked-out the parts of the torture memos that deal with Thiessen’s claims, so, in this limited sense they are unverifiable. But I say that his claims are verifiable, if Obama had released the information. Then we could debate the points you raise. But even then, we’d be using hindsight. The point is to judge the decisions the Bush admin made using the info they had available at the time. The fact that Omaba declined to release the info makes me suspect that they were correct, but I don’t know. Of course. I reserve the right to change my opinions when the information does come out and so should you.

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  14. Saving American lives is what we elect the president for.

    Hm, I thought the oath was to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. At least that’s what the Constitution says.

    Nobody says that Thiessen is unbaiased…. One has to consider the content of what he’s saying and refute that. I haven’t seen you do that at all. I haven’t seen anyone here do that at all.

    OK, I’ll do it. First, there are no specifics. We don’t know how important the “actionable intelligence” was, nor how serious the plots allegedly uncovered were. We’ve seen several such “plots” that really amounted to little more than idle chatter. Without more, we can’t judge his claims. (Indeed, his claim that waterboarding KSM in 2003 averted the Library Tower plot in LA seems demonstrably false, since it was foiled in 2002–to the extent it was a plot to begin with.)

    Second, we don’t know whether this information, and perhaps more information, would have been accessed without the “enhanced” techniques. Just because we got some information by one method doesn’t mean we couldn’t have gotten it–and perhaps more–by other methods.

    Third, Thiessen’s cost-benefit analysis looks only at benefits, not costs. Our endorsement of these techniques serves as a recruiting tool for those who want to harm us. Our failure at Abu Ghraib to uphold the principles we said we stood for resulted in people joining the insurgency and cost American lives. Also, the torture of al-Libi in Egypt resulted in his false confession of a link between Saddam and al-Queda, which the administration used to bolster its case for war. So you can’t just look at the instances where torture gets good information; you also have to look at when it gets bad information and/or results in blowback.

    Fourth, Thiessen seems to imply that anything goes as long as it improves our security. If that were the case, this nation would never have gotten off the ground. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and the rest could have lived much more securely under the British, but they though there were values worth risking their lives for. I would rather live in a marginally less save nation that stands for something than live in perfect security in a nation that stands for nothing.

    But Thiessen makes one thing clear: we tortured. He thinks it’s justified in the name of security, but that doesn’t make what we did not torture.

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  15. Rogue,

    We were attacked by Tim McVeigh, a US citizen. Should we have treated him the same way we treated KSM et al? To this day there are still questions about possible accomplices. Have these accomplices been laying low, patiently waiting and planning for another deadly strike?

    Perhaps we ought to have subjected Richard Jewell to enhanced interrogation techniques in order to learn more about his plot to kill Americans at the Atlanta Olympics. Oh, wait… he was innocent. Umm, nevermind.

    Maybe Stephen Hatfill knows more than he let on with regards to the anthrax attacks, which killed 5 Americans. Do you advocate holding him without due process and subjecting him to a little harmless waterboarding?

    Maybe you object. But why? Not into subjecting US citizens to such treatment? Jose Padilla is as natural-born a citizen as you or I (I assume you’re a citizen). Will you denounce his ill-treatment?

    I’d love to know where and how you draw the line.

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  16. For the avoidance of doubt the leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross is absolutely crystal clear. The detainees were TORTURED repeatedly over an extended period (which hardly supports the arguments for its efficacy).

    This passage is a quote from one the testimonies:

    “…

    There then followed a period of about one month with no questioning. Then, about two and a half or three months after I arrived in this place, the interrogation began again, but with more intensity than before. Then the real torturing started. Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area 1m x 0.75m and 2m in height. The other was shorter, perhaps only 1m in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face. As I was still shackled, the pushing and pulling around meant that the shackles pulled painfully on my ankles.

    I was then put into the tall back box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside. It had a bucket inside to use as a toilet and had water to drink provided in a bottle. They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.

    During these torture sessions many guards were present, plus two interrogators who did the actual beating, still asking questions, while the main interrogator left to return after the beating was over. After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

    I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to a horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

    I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me. I remained in the box for several hours, maybe overnight. I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before.

    I was then made to sit on the floor with a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began. The room was always kept very cold.

    This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.

    …”

    How is this not torture?

    “one month with no questioning”! It’s lucky all the clocks on those ticking bombs suspended themselves until the torture was resumed.

    It is clear from the ICRC report that they regard the detainees’ testimonies as compelling and consistent. To that extent they have a great deal more credibility than the weasel worded justifications and outright lies provided by members and officials, including legal officials, of the Bush administration.

    We all know the US has done much worse than this and encouraged others to do worse still. What is critical is less the degree and extent of the torture and more the legitimisation of it. The United States has unilaterally absolved itself of solemn treaty commitments. On what basis should its promises be trusted in future?

    How will we spin this myth together?
    How will we hand this story down?

    “We” won’t, except to ourselves.
    However, I’m willing to bet that there are many more people fighting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and with more bitter determination than there would have been if the US had not so utterly destroyed its own moral authority.

    Torture is wrong, absolutely wrong, whether or not it “produces results” and whether or not those are results that we want or intended. Our morality and humanity are determined by our own actions, not those of our adversaries.

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  17. Roque: “Saving American lives is what we elect the president for. It’s his job, not making sure that our enemies are comfortable. ”

    This is incorrect. We elect the President to uphold and defend the Constitution, not the lives of American citizens.

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  18. dsimon:I thought the oath was to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. At least that’s what the Constitution says. Yes, but the president is also CIC, which means protecting American lives.

    First, there are no specifics. We don’t know how important the “actionable intelligence” was, nor how serious the plots allegedly uncovered were.

    This is true, but only because the relevant information was blacked out by Obama. If it hadn’t been, then we could discuss your questions.

    I’d also like to know where this “recruiting tool” meme comes from. I just don’t see the logic in it. Logically, the best recruiting tool is success. Therefore, if we defeat the jihadists their recruiting will go way down, like what happened to the Nazis after WWII. So far, the evidence is that al Qaeda-style jihadism is struggling even within the world of radical Islam. Recruiting was way up in the aftermath of 9/11—the jihadists’ greatest triumph.

    You say, “Thiessen seems to imply that anything goes as long as it improves our security.” Of course he doesn’t say or even imply such a thing. Just the opposite. He says that we can use torture in a selective and safe way to enhance our security. If you disagree with this, then, fine. Go ahead and do it. But don’t distort his words to prove your point because that just won’t work.

    AC: I’d draw the line where people are US citizens, which means that I wouldn’t support torturing McVeigh or anyone else you mention. Therefore, I hereby denounce Padilla’s torture. Happy now?

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  19. Yes, but the president is also CIC, which means protecting American lives.

    The Constitution doesn’t say anything about CIC powers overriding his oath to protect the Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t even grant the CIC the power to go to war without Congressional approval. What makes you think he has the power to completely supersede Congressional law?

    I’d also like to know where this “recruiting tool” meme comes from.

    From logic. When the 9/11 bombers attacked us we went into a psycho rage of hatred toward Muslim’s and their countries. Military recruitment went up. We were so blinded by emotions that we cheered on a war against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Do you not think the countrymen of the men we’ve wrongly tortured (and sometimes killed) would not have similar anger against the country that did that to them?

    Therefore, if we defeat the jihadists their recruiting will go way down, like what happened to the Nazis after WWII.

    We had to kill roughly six million Germans (or 10% of their population) before their spirit and war making abilities were crushed. Are you proposing a similar “solution” here? I, for one, think it’d be easier and less morally reprehensible to stop giving Muslims excuses (like invading their lands, supporting their brutal dictators and torturing their people) to kill us.

    He says that we can use torture in a selective and safe way to enhance our security.

    Since torture – outside of simply murdering the prisoners – is the worst thing we can do to them, I would say he’s implying that “anything goes.” Also, the idea that torture is safe is laughable, since we know detainees died during their interrogations.

    I’d draw the line where people are US citizens

    Why would you draw the line there? If another 9/11 were at stake, why would a local terrorist be any different from a foreigner?

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  20. I’d also like to know where this “recruiting tool” meme comes from.

    From logic. … Do you not think the countrymen of the men we’ve wrongly tortured (and sometimes killed) would not have similar anger against the country that did that to them?

    I would take it even further than that. Torture is *evil*, it is what the Bad Guys do. When we do it — when we excuse it, when we *endorse* it — we become Darth Vader, the obvious embodiment of Evil. We make people opposed to us look like the Good Guys. Of course it’s a wonderful recruiting tool — lots of people (especially the young kind who make good soldiers) *want* to fight Darth Vader, they *want* to be a Good Guy and fight the Bad Guys.

    How could you expect it to be otherwise? Unless, of course, you yourself would rather be on the winning side than on the side of undoubted moral Good.

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  21. Rogue,

    So you think the president as CIC shouldn’t condone torture when the subject is a US citizen, even if the potential victims are still US citizens?

    How is that protecting Americans? Explain that to the families of the domestic terrorist’s victims.

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