Monday 26 January 2009

Safety and Ideals

In the course of his impressively downbeat, much analysed inaugural address, the new President said something which went down well at the time, but I sincerely hope he didn't mean. It was the sonorous statement 'We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals'. False it may be, but that choice has been forced on states with high ideals throughout history, and, in the face of a sufficiently real threat, safety invariably trumps ideals. Even Obama's mentor Abraham Lincoln enacted legislation that most definitely didn't square with the high ideals of the founding fathers (who themselves passed repressive legislation in the face of external threats to the young nation). In essence, the apparatus of rights on which a state is built is intended to work to the benefit of the citizens of that state, those who have bought into the project - it was surely never envisaged that it should be extended to those who refuse to buy in and/or who wish active harm to the state,to use that very apparatus of rights to work towards bringing down that state. The trick is, I think, to limit the modification or suspension of rights/ideals to what is essential for safety - but the choice has to be made.
I'm also worried about Obama's order that the CIA's 'secret' overseas centres be closed down. This is because, in the small hours the other night, I heard on the World Service an ex-CIA man arguing very plausibly (and passionately) that without such centres and the regrettable activities that go on in them we'll have a whole lot more terrorist atrocities. He cited information obtained by these dubious means from one terrorist bigshot, who had resisted conventional interrogation, that aborted a wave of attacks on half a dozen cities. Was he talking nonsense? Am I turning into a foaming-mouthed neo-neo-con, or what? Should we be worried?


  1. I assume you're talking about Marc Thiessen, Nige. The 'regrettable activities' he was defending were torture techniques. His was making the argument that, counter to accepted wisdom and empirical evidence, torture is more effective than more established interrogation techniques (persuasion, trickery etc.) As such we should continue the Bush-Cheney approach of ignoring those boring things like human rights, habeas corpus and due process, and ship suspected terrorists to secret torture sites. And this keeps us safe. Of course, what goes on there is secret, so we'll have to take his word for it.

    (I'm not convinced.)

  2. Bit of a big question this, hard to come up with a meaningful answer in a blog comment.

    But it is interesting that in the tension between freedom and security, the American 'right' (neo-cons) goes statist for terrorism, but pro-freedom for economics; whereas the 'left' is the other way about.

    Maybe this is why Americans call left-wingers 'liberal', another very confusing term. In America 'liberal' means the opposite of 'conservative', although I think I'm a bit of a liberal conservative.

    Such is the quantum flux. I welcome Obama's further confusion of the issue. Break down these simplistic Platonic categories; they are outmoded.

  3. Yes but the trouble is we're confused, we're in the flux, but these guys have absolute certainty of purpose. The only thing modern about them is their technology (of communication and destruction)- and that's scary.

  4. Oh you're talking about the practical business of whether we should torture, suspend habeus corpus etc.

    There hasn't been much since 9/11 and the London bombings. The Madrid ones were over 4 years ago. So either the threat is overestimated, in which case Obama is right to loosen the grip, or current anti-terrorist policies are working, and Obama is wrong.

    The problem is that there seems to be no clear, undisputed evidence that torture works better than other means, nor that imprisoning people without charge prevents enough terrorist attacks to outweigh, say, the possibility of radicalising people.

    That being the case, I tend to the view that we have to try to stick to our liberal principles, or we've lost what we're trying to defend anyway.

  5. Once you allow torture under the law then an industry promptly springs up around it - secret facilities, "rendition", etc - and soon it's become another institution. And the need for torturers means you're letting into your ranks the kind of people - psychopaths and sadists, Abu Ghraib-type goons - you normally go to great lengths to keep out. Soon, you've created a monster than makes you no different from the opposition. Then there's the question of whether information of value emerges from the whole ghastly business. So I think there are good practical as well as moral reasons to say "no" very firmly.

    In World War Two, many alleged fanatics - spies captured in London, etc. - recanted pretty quickly when confronted with a noose. And the information of value seems most to have come from code-breaking. I'm not trying to play down the dangers and difficulties which must be very hard, but I don't see how torture helps at all.

  6. By all means, let make sure we protect the rights of terrorists, who have vowed to kill innocent people because of something wrtitten in a book.

    I've worked in the goverment and I know a little about this. None of those terrorists were arrested without reason. They were involved, they were plotting, and they were going to kill people.

    I'm not advocating torture, but using extreme means to get fanatics like this doesn't really bother me.

    Or is the assumption that it's okay for innocent people to die so the rights of murderers are protected?

  7. When you say 'these guys' have absolute certainty of purpose, I think you're talking about cases where we know 'these guys' are guilty. The problem with going over to the dark side (to use Cheney's phrase) is that 'guilty' loses any legal meaning and becomes whoever the boss says is guilty. Worse still the innocent suffer more with no information to offer and no way to end their treatment.

    Assuming we have some certainty of a prisoner's knowledge of a future attack and the efficacy of gestapo-style methods, you might want to have an abstract discussion about sacrificing our ideals in this hypothetical situation. (I would argue that we still shouldn't) But this is obscuring the fact that after 9-11 Rumsfeld etc. detained and mistreated indiscriminately. I'm not sure what government Ron Rollins works for but it's no secret that the majority detained at Gitmo were not terrorists, that many innocent people have been tortured and at least a dozen killed using these methods.

  8. Do you have some facts to back any of that up, or is this just the ramblings of a watchdog group that is spreading lies to make a point.

    Just like when they accussed the guards of flushing the Koran down the toilet, which was a complete lie made up by the prisoners to make the US look bad.

    And instead of having any proof, all the bleeding hearts around the world choose to use it to thier advantage, insteading of reporting the truth.

    I would really like to see anyproof you have that all the detainnees are innocent and a dozen have been tortured to death?

    Thanks for your time.

  9. It's amazing how many experts in the efficacy of torture/coercive interrogation methods there are out there. Seems like everyone knows what works and what doesn't, how much 'research' and 'evidence' there is an whatnot. Maybe the CIA should start recruiting from internet message boards.