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Harry Binswanger on Torture

“Guantanamo and the Geneva Convention”  by Harry Binswanger,  board member of the Ayn Rand Institute  (Capitalism Magazine  October 4, 2006).

Back when the Abu Ghraib story broke Harry Binswanger pretended that U.S. torture didn’t exist. [1]  Since then his thoughts have matured:  he not only acknowledges the existence of U.S. torture he embraces it. None of Alan Dershowitz’s “necessary evil” for him, it’s the right and proper thing to do:  U.S. torture is a moral obligation.

Torture, not as in some crazy juvenile fantasy of personal vengeance where you or Superhero does it, torture as in a police operation, with employees and managers, and their managers. Torture as a job, done by people attracted to the work. Torture with a budget and protocols – not too explicit protocols. Torture facilities overseen at the top by the likes of Bush, Mukasey, Gonzales and Yoo, and their unknown successors.  Government institutionalized torture.

Mr. Binswanger expresses his mature view in an article entitled  “Guantanamo and the Geneva Convention,”  written a few days before President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 legalizing U.S. torture.  Though Mr. Binswanger focuses on Guantánamo his statements apply equally well to U.S. torture facilities elsewhere:  at U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at U.S. extraordinary rendition destinations in Eastern Europe and the Middle and Far East, where U.S. officials collaborate with their foreign counterparts in torture – together forming a system of which Guantánamo is but one part.

Torture is the deliberate infliction of pain beyond that required to restrain or incarcerate, on someone already under control. Here Mr. Binswanger has me at a disadvantage. I’d intended introducing my review with graphic descriptions of men tortured by or at the behest of the U.S. government. However I balk at writing up accounts of cranial beatings, 24-hours a day ear-splitting noise causing permanent hearing impairment, electroshock, controlled crucifixion (e.g. the “Palestinian hanging,” named after a technique the Israelis use), contused joints, swollen bloody bodies. Mr. Binswanger and his ilk, not us, are the ones who ought to be pouring over these stories. You risk helping advocates of torture by even replying to them, for they want us to become inured to the idea, desensitized.

At Guantánamo itself the torture which U.S. agents use to extract meaningless confessions may be, for now, less severe than at some of the other facilities, not necessarily in the pain inflicted but in rarely leaving gross visual marks. In any case, according to a 2003 Justice Department memorandum by Yoo, then an assistant attorney general, anything goes.  Mr. Binswanger is at Yoo’s side, and time marches on. [2]

ARI writers always couch their praise of torture in the form of an implication:  If torture can save our troops, America ought to torture.  Thus, you are to believe, if you are against torture you are against our troops – and who would want to be against our troops?

The unstated premise of Mr. Binswanger’s argument, as we shall see, is that the West’s enemies are so powerful they will destroy us unless we return to the logic and methods of the Middle Ages.

Mr. Binswanger begins his article with a straw man – the Geneva Convention – setting it up, knocking it down effortlessly.  He writes:  “I oppose any pretense at such a thing as  ‘international law.’ ”  and goes on to argue the point. He can have it. [3]  No international law or treaty can alter the political and moral standing of government institutionalized torture. If the Geneva Convention were turned on its head and approved of it, so much the worse for the Geneva Convention.

Next Mr. Binswanger harkens back to a better time  “in centuries gone by, when there were non-fanatical, semi-honorable combatants ... .”  In those halcyon days (I’m being sarcastic, the man is an ignoramus) he would have “conceivably” opposed using torture. [4]  Today, he continues, things are different, been different for years:

“But even in the second half of the 20th century, even in the Korean war, American prisoners would routinely be beaten to a bloody pulp and tortured. And the Soviet Communists were expert at torture.”

“But”  here means  “in contrast to that.”  What then is his point in bringing up the North Koreans and Soviets? Are we to approve of the North Koreans and Soviets regarding torture, and emulate them? He will come to that conclusion before he is done. [5]

Mr. Binswanger goes on to say that in the case of fanatical terrorists “the idea of applying the Geneva Convention is grotesque” – thus expressing his approval of taking anyone whom the Administration labels an enemy combatant and sending him to a U.S. torture camp. Mr. Binswanger then expresses his contempt for someone who (emphasis his):

“... worries about the consequences to our soldiers if we don’t play nice with the terrorist captives in Guantanamo.”

Note the mockery, in the childish phrase  “play nice,”  of those who oppose government institutionalized torture. Note the failure to acknowledge the gap between the Administration’s deployment of U.S. soldiers and authentic American interest.  (In a way those soldiers really are his soldiers.  ARI enthusiastically promoted the Iraq War right in step with the neocons. [6]  Note the assumption – which we will see him abandon before he’s through – that only terrorists are detained at Guantánamo.

“... there’s simply no relation between the treatment of Guantanamo captives and what will or won’t happen to American POWs in some unspecified future war against some unspecified enemy.” [7]

He addresses the future when he could have said the same with equal fatuity about the present.

Finally we come to the meat of Mr. Binswanger’s article.  But wait.  We interrupt this review for a historical interlude.

Historical Interlude

The period is the Middle Ages, the year 1209. The place, what will later be known as France. The French nobles have returned from the Fourth Crusade, for now there is trouble closer to home:  a heretical group called the Cathars infests southern France. Pope Innocent III initiates the Albigensian Crusade against them.

Some Cathar heretics are holed up in the town of Béziers. The crusaders finally breach the surrounding wall and prepare to storm through. At this point the commander, one Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, has second thoughts. He knows that not everybody inside is a heretic, most are good Catholics. So he asks his Papal Legate, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, for advice. A monk records the Papal Legate’s answer:  “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

So that’s what the crusaders do. They kill everyone they find in Béziers, Cathars and Catholics alike.

Presumably the Papal Legate uttered his infamous reply in Medieval French and the monk wrote it down in Latin. The above account features an English translation of that, so perhaps we may be permitted some latitude in our translation:  “Kill them all, let God sort them out !”

Hold that thought.
·   ·   ·
    Back to Mr. Binswanger. We come to the meat of his article, the final paragraph, which could stand alone.

The paragraph begins with the  “If-Then”  fallacy you get from ARI again and again: [8]

“If ... torturing any terrorist captive can be expected to provide information that will prevent the murder of Americans, we are morally obligated to do it.” [9]

First let’s fill in Mr. Binswanger’s  evasions, the actors whom he blanks out:

When U.S. officials proclaim a man an enemy combatant, if in their wisdom they expect torturing him will provide information that will prevent the murder of Americans, they are morally obligated to torture him.

Granted, torture is useful for protecting the leaders of a totalitarian state;  Mr. Binswanger leaves out how torture would help even a partly free country. How does a state agent torturing a man to get him to tell the torturer what he wants to hear, help defend anyone? The following news story, however, illustrates how “information” obtained under torture is useful for extending government power.

Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi  headed an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, once part of an operation created and financed by the U.S. to fight the Soviet occupation of that country.  Libi was captured by the Pakistanis and passed on to the U.S. in January 2002.  Evidently he didn’t tell the CIA what they wanted to hear, for he was then “renditioned” to Egypt to be interrogated there at U.S. expense. Eventually – after being locked in a coffin for 17 hours, released, punched and kicked for a quarter hour, then told he had just one more chance to tell the truth or he’d be buried alive – he hit on what they wanted to hear:  he told them the Iraqis had trained Al Qaeda to use biochemical weapons. The truth at last !  The Bush administration then used this “testimony” to help justify invading Iraq:  President Bush in a speech October 7th 2002 and Colin Powell  February 5th 2003. A few days later Congress voted to authorize a pre-emptive Iraq War.

This helped American troops?  (It did help the neocons.)

A year later, safely outside Egypt, Libi recanted. One wonders if Mr. Binswanger would like to see the man beat some more. To be sarcastic, the information so obtained might restore the public’s faith in the Iraq War. Or reveal that Syria is the number one threat to the United States. [10]

We needn’t argue against the benevolent usefulness of what is an outrage on its face, Mr. Binswanger must argue for it. Nowhere does he do this.  His  If-Then  formulation –

If torture helps America then America must do it.
– is not intended as an implication. Rather it’s  the assertion of both premise and conclusion. What Mr. Binswanger is really saying, ex cathedra, is:
Torture will help America  and  America must do it.
The  If-Then  formulation is an underhanded way of asserting torture’s benevolent utility without giving any evidence for it – for what, to repeat, is an outrage on its face. Torture helps a totalitarian state become even worse. In all of human history when has it helped an even reasonably free country as a free country? All torture’s promoters have to offer are fantastic scenarios and the assurances of barbarians. [11] 

Mr. Binswanger continues. He says there is only one problem, as if government torture were unequivocally praiseworthy otherwise.  Here is Mr. Binswanger in his own words, and keep in mind that “interrogating” and “questioning” are euphemisms:

“The only problem ... is if any of the detainees are actually innocent. But, by now, after holding them and interrogating them for three years, we should be quite clear on who is innocent and who is not. We must give each detainee the benefit of any rational doubt on this score, but not hold back in questioning those we [rather, omniscient government agents] know to be guilty.”

Once upon a time and place if a man were so foolish as to act suspiciously, or just annoy the wrong people, the powers that be would put him in an iron cage and throw the cage in the river. If he drowned, by God he was as bad as they had suspected. Today, torture him, after giving him the benefit of any rational doubt, and when he furnishes information, – but why repeat such nonsense.  To the torturer, and Mr. Binswanger, torture always works.  The logic behind this is medieval, as medieval as the practice. Mr. Binswanger would have you believe this is Objectivist logic and Objectivist practice.

Torture them all, that’ll sort out who is innocent and who is not !

But of course it won’t and didn’t. This doesn’t phase Mr. Binswanger in the slightest. Restoring the elided text in his first sentence:  “The only problem — and it’s a real problem — is if any of the detainees are actually innocent.”  But obviously the “only problem” is not real to Mr. Binswanger. His clod-like indifference to torturing some random guy is consistent with his same attitude toward torturing an enemy.  “The purpose of torture  is torture” (George Orwell)  and Mr. Binswanger twists himself into a pretzel trying to justify it otherwise.

Government institutionalized torture has created a class of Americans for whom studied cruelty is a job. Doubtless it has discouraged disaffected Al Qaedans from coming forward to provide information about their former comrades. It has ruined America’s previous (and even then tarnished) reputation for decency.  And because the government can label even an American citizen “enemy combatant,”  it is the worst violation of our individual rights in American history.  ARI  “Objectivists” — our  self-proclaimed  “new intellectuals” — have become cheerleaders for the corrupt powers that be, like medieval priests pandering to the king, in days when the king kept the people poor while the priests kept them stupid.  They are outside intellectual discourse and beyond pathetic.

Nothing one could possibly say would do a better job convincing people that ARI is a pack of malevolent power-worshiping snobs than simply reading their own words as in Binswanger’s mendacious article.  Merriam-Webster:  “Snob ... 2.  One who blatantly imitates, fawningly admires, or vulgarly seeks association with  those he regards as his superiors.”   See  Our Bold, Fearless Leader  on this website.

1  See his  “The Wreckage of the Consensus Revisited”  reviewed on this website.

2  For information about the Yoo memorandum see the  Links  page on this website, under “Government Institutionalized Torture.”

The Administration makes it difficult to tell just what is going on at Guantánamo  by destroying records and invoking the notion of “state secrets.”  (Regarding the latter see  “We Have Ways …”  by James Bovard, on the  Links  page).

There are several Administration torture memoranda. Besides the one by Yoo mentioned above there are also the earlier Bybee Memorandum of August 2002  (see footnote 2 of  The Military Commissions Act of 2006 ) and others.

The Administration now disavows these memos, but then it also says it never tortures anyone.

For an overview of U.S. torture see  “The Who’s Who of Gratuitous Torture”  by L. Reichard White, though his flippant tone is misplaced:
www.thepriceofliberty.org/06/11/06/white.htm .

One ex-Guantánamo detainee, Murat Kurnaz, has testified publicly about his treatment at a U.S. base in Afghanistan and later at Guantánamo. Kurnaz was a German-born Turkish citizen, age 19, abducted by Pakistanis soon after 9-11 during a visit to Pakistan. They sold him to the CIA for the $3,000 bounty the U.S. had placed on al Qaedans. The CIA first took him to the U.S. base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and weeks later to Guantánamo. He was kept at Guantánamo until mid 2006. He was released only because of pressure from the German chancellor. (That the German KSK had helped the U.S. torture program was reported in the European press, and the German government became concerned about public reaction.)

May 20, 2008 he testified from Germany via video link to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, broadcast on C-span 2.  “I did nothing wrong and I was treated like a monster.”  He told how at the U.S. base in Kandahar he was subjected to electric shock, hung by his arms for days on end, and given the “water treatment,” where they forced his head into a bucket of water and then punched him in the stomach, forcing him to inhale water involuntarily. They “knew” he was guilty of helping Osama bin Laden. They forced him to sign papers admitting it.

The following is from an interview with Amnesty International. As you read recall that five years later Bush would say that Osama bin Laden is unimportant. (English is not his mother tongue, the “shotgun” referred to was probably a rifle or pistol.)
“After a few days [since arriving in Kandahar], somebody came from the Red Cross. He was from Germany. He wrote a letter to my family for me. Then, in the night, I was thrown out of my cell. A guard held a shotgun to my head. ‘You are a terrorist!’ he screamed. ‘What kind of dumb stuff did you write about your treatment here?’ My hands and feet were bound, and someone kicked me from behind. I fell. The interrogator pulled me up again by my hair. ... They asked where Osama was, where I had seen him. They claimed that they knew everything already and that I should give evidence to improve my situation. 
“I had been there for less than two weeks when, one evening, I was led behind two trucks. It was two German soldiers who wanted to see me. They wore camouflage uniforms ... . I had to lie down with my hands tied behind my back. One of them pulled me up by my hair.  ‘Do you know who we are?’  He wanted to boast.  ‘We are the German Kraft [Kommando Spezialkräfte, or KSK].’
“... he hit my head on the floor, and the Americans found it funny.”
Unlike the hapless Afghan cab driver known as Dilawar, also sold for U.S. bounty, held at the U.S. detention center in Bagram (Afghanistan), beat and stress-positioned to death by American agents, Kurnaz survived. Taken to Guantánamo he was subjected to  sleep-deprivation which the officials dubbed “Operation Sandman,”  pepper-spray attacks, and beatings.  “Torture lite” as the black humor goes (or not so lite, there is at least one case of broken bones, not however Kurnaz). From the House testimony again:  “I was beaten multiple times. The guards forced me to accept medication that I did not want.”  “There was no law in Guantánamo.”  “I didn’t think this could happen in the 21st century. ... I could never have imagined that this place was created by the United States.”

He should pay more attention to the  “Ayn Rand Institute.”

Hypocrisy is the keynote of ARI writers – a disconcerting contradiction between the principles they profess and the actions they endorse or are content to ignore.

www.ariwatch.com/Links.htm#MuratKurnaz .

See also the case of Abu Zubaydah, who had no connection to “Al Quada,” and was tortured by U.S. agents to make him say otherwise:
www.ariwatch.com/Links.htm#AbuZubaydah .

3  Mr. Binswanger argues against international law as follows:
“The concept of ‘law’ implies governmental enforcement. Where there is no government, such as between nations, there can be no law.”
A bit glib that, as if there had never been treaties or commerce between like-minded nations. Mr. Binswanger goes on to pretend that the issue, though, is between unlike-minded nations:
“This is all the more true when nations are at war. War is an attempt to destroy the enemy — to kill as many of them as needed in order to win. How, then, can [t]here be ‘conventions’ concerning anything between warring nations? It’s a stolen concept — pretending that killing is okay, but not breaking one’s word.”
Then he refers to  “a mutual understanding regarding treatment of prisoners of war.”  With the word “mutual” he presents the Geneva Convention as a treaty (or “word”) between combatants when in fact it is among Western nations (signatory to the treaty) regarding torturing anyone, whether from a nation signatory to the treaty or not. But as we indicated above, let it pass. The point of Mr. Binswanger’s article, in spite of its title, is to make a moral rather than a legal point.

Mr. Binswanger has been less than consistent over the years. In the early 1980s Ariel Sharon sued Time Inc. for libel (Sharon vs. Time Inc.) regarding an article Time magazine had published in 1983 when he was Israel’s Defense Minister.  When Sharon lost, Mr. Binswanger published an article – “The Injustice of the ‘Public Figure’ in Libel Law”  The Objectivist Forum  February 1985 – arguing in favor of Ariel Sharon in his lawsuit, the very existence of which depended on international law. (Sharon was an Israeli, the trial was held in Manhattan.)  When it comes to promoting Israel Mr. Binswanger finds the idea of international law unobjectionable.

4  The full quote is:
“Conceivably, in centuries gone by, when there were non-fanatical, semi-honorable combatants, some sort of mutual understanding regarding treatment of prisoners of war was feasible.”

5  The U.S. had already emulated North Korea and Soviet Russia before Mr. Binswanger wrote this endorsement.  See  Torture  on this website.

Regarding the less severe methods, the following is from  “China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo”  by Scott Shane, New York Times, July 2, 2008 (emphasis mine):
“The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of [what they termed] “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners ... .
And it turns out,
“their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions ... from American prisoners.
[The study] was entitled “Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions From Air Force Prisoners of War” and written by Albert D. Biderman ... . Mr. Biderman had interviewed American prisoners returning from North Korea, some of whom had been filmed by their Chinese interrogators confessing to germ warfare and other atrocities.”

6  See  Relentless Propaganda  on this website.  Nor do ARI writers feel today that they have any explaining to do. Here’s Yaron Brook, president of ARI at the time, on the Thom Hartmann radio show – Sept. 21, 2005 – regarding the Bush Administration and the Iraqis:
“I think they’ve handled the Iraq, uh, War really-really badly, primarily by being too soft on them.”

7  I’ve silently corrected two typographical errors in the original:  “Guantanmo” to “Guantanamo”  and  “future future” to “future.”

8  See  A Question for Leonard Peikoff  on this website for more examples. The  If-Then  fallacy consists of using the sounding reasonableness of an implication to assert both the premise and the conclusion.

9  As for the ellipsis in
“If ... torturing”  etc.,
the full text reads
“If  ‘abusing’  or even torturing”  etc.
There are two rhetorical tricks here:  “abusing”  in quotes, as if abuse weren’t abuse (or torture were merely abuse),  and  “even torturing”  as if torture weren’t what he’s writing about.  The effect is to soften “torture” in the reader’s mind.
Later he will use the euphemisms “interrogate” and “question” for torture.  A case of double-think, it’s torture and not torture at the same time.  Perhaps even Mr. Binswanger recoils at the thought or questions the efficacy of sweeping up some hapless cab driver and demanding that he talk while beating him to death.  But don’t bet on it.

10  Regarding Libi’s testimony, a Defense Intelligence Agency memo of February 2002 stated:
“Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.”
In “Outsourcing Torture” by Jane Mayer (The New Yorker  February 14, 2005)  Dan Coleman, a retired FBI agent, is quoted as saying:
“It was ridiculous for interrogators to think Libi would have known anything about Iraq.” ... “He wouldn’t have had anything to do with Iraq. Administration officials were always pushing us to come up with links, but there weren’t any. The reason they got bad information is that they beat it out of him. You never get good information from someone that way.”
www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/14/050214fa_fact6 .

See also:

“The Missing Terrorist”  by Michael Isikoff, Newsweek May 29, 2007,  reprinted at
www.freethoughtmanifesto.blogspot.com/2007/05/missing-terrorist.html .

Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War  by Michael Isikoff and David Corn.  (“Spin” and “scandal” are words far too mild for fraud and treason.)

Libi later said:  “I told them what they wanted to hear. I had to say that if I wanted to live.”  Administration apologists try to present all this as Libi’s fault. Torture, they insinuate, had nothing to do with it, he intentionally misled his interrogators in order to embroil the U.S. in Iraq !

Mr. Binswanger doesn’t address the issue of disaffected Al Qaedans coming forward of their own free will. A retired FBI agent once asked rhetorically:  “You think all of this stuff about torture is going to make people want to come to us?”

11  Again see  A Question for Leonard Peikoff  on this website.

The following is from the “Outsourcing Torture” article mentioned in the previous footnote (we leave off our external quotation marks):
His [Dan Coleman’s] methodical style of detective work, in which interrogations were aimed at forging relationships with detainees, became unfashionable after September 11th ...
Coleman was angry that lawyers in Washington were redefining the parameters of counter-terrorism interrogations. ... he had learned to treat even the most despicable suspects as if there were  “a personal relationship, even if you can’t stand them.” ... Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. ... “Brutalization doesn’t work. We know that. Besides, you lose your soul.”
(There are a few things to criticize in the interview. Contrary to his use of the word “humiliate”  abuse humiliates the abuser not his victim – the victim shouldn’t feel humiliated. He also needs to explain “plea bargains,” which can be bribes for lies.)