Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Devil's Pitch: Sell Your Soul to Save Yourself

Brian Tamanaha

In a familiar movie scene, the Devil appears before the dying man with a compelling proposition: "I will save your life, exchange for your eternal soul."

Predictably, a weak character will take the deal. And the audience knows that, even though he has bought some extra time, he is lost forever.

The hero, who loves life just as dearly, feels the temptation, but ultimately says "no," knowing that death is preferable to losing one's soul. The audience applauds this decision, for living--and sometimes dying--with integrity is what defines a hero.

The Bush Administration's pitch is this: "I will do whatever it takes to save the American people,...even if that involves ignoring the law and torturing suspected terrorists."

This is a powerful pitch, for who does not feel anger at the idea that the lives of our fellow citizens is being threatened by our enemies. In exchange for our survival, however, we being asked to sacrifice the commitment to moral and legal ideals that define America.

But there is an additional twist here. By many accounts, it is a false dilemma, because we can save ourselves with methods that are consistent with our moral and legal ideals. It is like the trickster Devil who, knowing that the person's wounds are not fatal and that rescue is just around the corner, offers the proposition to a person who falsely believes that death is imminent. It was never necessary to make the deal.

We know what the hero would do. But that's in the movies. The choice now facing Congress and the American people is real.


Good blog!

The Koran expressly Commands World Jihad and World Domination for Islam. Here are the verses:

In answer to Aaliyah Hannah's "comment," perhaps another literary analogy is instructive. I don't know what, if any, religion Aaliyah Hannah subscribes to, but President Bush regularly cites Judeo-Christian beliefs as underlying his decisions. (Incidentally, immediately after 9/11/01, and repeatedly up to now, Bush has sought to distinguish between an interpretation of Islam that doesn't advocate violence and other more violent interpretations). In any event, people like Aaliyah Hannah who want to cite the lower standards of others in order to justify crossing an ethical boundary can be compared to the serpent in the garden who tempted Eve to partake of the fruit by calling into question the motives of the God who issued the proscription.

Whatever may be the fact of the matter as to Islamicist desire for world domination, there is no doubt whatsoever that such a desire motivated Alolf Hitler and his minios, BUT NOT A SINGLE GERMAN SOLDIER OR FUNCTIONARY WAS TORTURED (OR SUBJECTED TO "SEVERE INTERROGATION") AS PART OF OFFICIAL POLICY DURING WORLD WAR II. To be blunt, it seems lunatic to view Islamacism as a greater threat than the Nazis and therefore to justify war-fighting methods that we never thought of using during "the good war." Had, of course, we captured Werner Heisenberg, it would have been an open question, in my opinion, as to what kinds of methods of interrogation we should use to find out whether the Germans were building atomic weapons. But that is a distinctly special situation and there are many people I respect who would not have used highly coercive interrogation even with Heisenberg.


You're right, we didn't as a matter of official policy, because there wasn't an official policy that expressly stated the use of torture.

Instead, some captured and surrendering soldiers were just shot without a seconds thought.

Even more important, take the firebombing of German cities, particularly Dresden. Untold tens of thousands were killed to specifically demoralize the German population. The city itself was of little military value. While there was not an American law affirmatively allowing the mass killing of innocent German civilans, it happened nonetheless, repeatedly, and for all intents was "official policy."

If, as you posit, some did think Islamicism is a greater threat, maybe they would advocate the mass destruction of particular Arab cities, notorious for housing terrorists. But, wait, they don't.

So, in your perspective, its okay to kill/injure hundreds of thousands of innocent civilans, but not okay to apply harsh techniques to individuals we think can provide information that will save the lives of other innocents.

Now, you may try to argue that the above isn't relevant because you restricted the scope of your comments to official policies during WW2 as related to torture. Nevertheless, this restriction, if true, destroys the effectiveness of your analogy because it limits the analogy's scope so much as to make it worthless, e.g. the US used policies far worse in WW2 than the mild torture of a few suspected terrorists.

Bush's opponents' arguing about whether FDR was really more moral than Hitler is Karl Rove's wildest dream.


Is that a point in response? If so, its a complete canard.

I only raised our tactics in WW2 in comparison to the authority requested by Bush today. There was no comparison between our tactics in WW2 to the Nazis. I take it for granted that the US was right and fought a far more justly war than Germany.

Humblelawstudent, I saw the exchange between Sandy and you as not helpful in the effort to thwart Bush's policies. I hoped to demonstrate this with black humor in pointing out that one of Karl Rove's fondest goals is to de-lionize FDR. Jokes really aren't funny when you have to explain them.

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

I think that "humblelawstudent" raises a legitimate point, not with regard to the summary execution on occasion of prisoners, which was never official policy, but with regard to the use of terror bombing and, perhaps even more to the point, the acceptance of "collateral damage" that involves the killing of clearly innocent people.

I think that I have earlier posted with regard to Elaine Scarry's magnificent The Body in Pain, which includes not only the classic critique of torture, but also a tremendously important and moving analysis of war in general. I do think that non-pacifists must explain, more than they have been wont to do, precisely why "collateral damage" is acceptable, but all acts of torture are equally unacceptable. I've posted on this before and will not rehearse all of the arguments. But dismissing "humblelawstudent" as an agent of Karl Rove is much too facile.

For the record, I think that it is important to maintain the absolute ban on torture, but I do not regard people who disagree, like Alan Dershowitz, as moral monsters. The only true "purists," I believe, are pacifists, and I'm not sure that anyone who has contributed to Balkinization takes such a position. Everyone else is necessarily implicated in what Harry Blackmun once so memorably called "the machinery of death," and we have to figure out where we draw our lines.

Line drawing is a serious problem, but this sort of thing doesn't invite neutral responses:

"So, in your perspective, its okay to kill/injure hundreds of thousands of innocent civilans, but not okay to apply harsh techniques to individuals we think can provide information that will save the lives of other innocents."

This doesn't follow from SL's comments. They simply did not spell out he found it "okay" to firebomb cities per se, or in individual cases. His concern with possibly torturing one man suggests the point.

I think a reasonable stance can be taken that under modern rules firebombing of that sort is truly questionable. Certain people at the time, including here, thought so in fact.

I also think in many cases once a person is taken into custody different rules apply. Thus, lethal force might be used on a person to capture them in certain cases, but care must be taken once they are in custody. Given the person involved is rarely if ever the proverbial "Werner" this is surely the case.

I also find the term "mild torture" a bit amusing -- how many here agree with that little toss in? Tricky. Along with the combative tone and arguably strawman sounding argument, I don't find the comment neutral by any means. Rovian? Well, that is a bit facile.

As to "purists," so hard to find them. We are talking about treatment, not even war per se possibly, making it even harder.

But, no, I don't think many of the tactics used during WWII -- including firebombing -- is apt here. I might even say that I'd find some of them rather hard to justify. But, either way, we managed to give some due process to even saboteurs back then.

Well there are certainly lines that can be drawn; see e.g.:

U.S. v. Ohlendorf ("The Einsatzgruppen Case"), Nuernberg Military Tribunal Vol. 4, 466-470.

The section on "Death of Noncombatants by Bombing".

A prisoner is defenseless and out of action. A city which has not surrendered is a legitimate military target. You kill civilians by attacking the city, but the object isn't to kill the civilians per se, it's to defeat the enemy power. If a city has surrendered, to attack it is clearly a war crime.

Each prisoner is a specific individual, and an attack on a prisoner is an assault on that individual as a person. Under Geneva, all prisoners are protected one way or another.

Now you can argue these things one way or another, but distinctions are possible.

It also might be said, especially if excessive force is used, that even a non-surrendering city is only to some point a legitimate target. This is surely the case if the city serves no real threat. Bombing major industrial cities and the like can be a dif. situation.


Look up the bombing of Dresden. The city was of negligible military value. It was chosen specifically to demoralize the German people. It was also known that many refugees packed the streets and would likely die in an attack. They specifically picked conditions in an effort to create the enormous fire that consumed the city. There is a specific term for it that I forget at the moment. But, the point is, it was purposefully chosen and bombed to cause the greatest possible civilians causalties - with negligible military value.

From Wikipedia:

"On January 27 Sinclair replied [to Churchill]:

"The Air Staff have now arranged that, subject to the overriding claims of attacks on enemy oil production and other approved target systems within the current directive, available effort should be directed against Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig or against other cities where severe bombing would not only destroy communications vital to the evacuation from the east, but would also hamper the movement of troops from the west."[6][7]

The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had come to the conclusion that the Germans could reinforce their eastern front with up to 42 divisions (half a million men) from other fronts and that, if the Soviet advance could be helped by hindering that movement, it could shorten the war. They thought that the Germans could complete the reinforcement by March 1945. The JIC's analysis was backed up by Ultra Enigma-code intercepts, which confirmed that the Germans had such plans. Their recommendation was:

"We consider, therefore, that the assistance which might be given to the Russians during the next few weeks by the British and American strategic bomber forces justifies an urgent review of their employment to this end. …Attacks against oil targets should continue to take precedence over everything else,…"[8]

The Soviets had several discussions with the Allies on how the strategic bomber force could help their ground offensives once the eastern front line approached Germany. The US ambassador to Russia, W. Averell Harriman, discussed it with Joseph Stalin as did General Eisenhower's deputy at SHAEF, British Air Marshal Arthur W. Tedder in January 1945, when he explained how the strategic bomber could support the Soviet attack as Germany began to shuffle forces between the fronts. On January 31 after studying the JIC recommendation which was contained in a document entitled "Strategic Bombing in Relation to the Present Russian Offensive" and consulting with the Soviets, Tedder and his air staff concurred and issued a recommendation that Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and associated cities should be attacked. The intention to use the strategic bomber forces in a tactical air-support role was similar to that for which Eisenhower had employed them before the Normandy invasion in 1944. He was counting on strategic airpower in 1945 to "prevent the enemy from switching forces back and forth at will" from one front to the other.[9][10]

When the Allies met at the Yalta Conference on February 4, the Western Allies had already decided to target Dresden. The Deputy Chief of the Soviet General Staff, General Aleksei Antonov raised two issues at the conference relating to the Western Allied strategic bomber force. The first was the demarcation of a bomb-line running north to south where to avoid accidentally bombing Soviet forces, Western Allied aircraft would not bomb east of the line without specific Soviet permission. The second was to hamper the movement of troops from the western front, Norway and Italy, in particular by paralysing the junctions of Berlin and Leipzig with aerial bombardment. In response to the Soviet requests, Portal (who was in Yalta) sent a request to Bottomley to send him a list of objectives which could be discussed with the Soviets. The list sent back to him included oil plants, tank and aircraft factories and the cities of Berlin and Dresden. In the discussions which followed, the Western Allies pointed out that unless Dresden was bombed as well, the Germans could route rail traffic through Dresden to compensate for any damage caused to Berlin and Leipzig. Antonov agreed and requested that Dresden be added to his list of requests. Once the targets had been agreed at Yalta, the Combined Strategic Targets Committee, SHAEF (Air), informed the USAAF and the RAF Bomber commands that Dresden was among the targets selected to degrade German lines of communication. Their authority to do this came directly from the Western Allies' Combined Chiefs of Staff.

RAF Air Staff documents state that it was their intention to use RAF bomber command to "destroy communications" to hinder the eastward deployment of German troops, and to hamper evacuation, not to kill the evacuees. The priority list drafted by Bottomley for Portal, so that he could discuss targets with the Soviets at Yalta, included only two eastern cities with a high enough priority to fit into the RAF targeting list as both transportation and industrial areas. These were Berlin and Dresden. Both were bombed after Yalta.

Soviet military intelligence asserted that trains stuck in the main station were troop trains passing through Dresden to the front. This proved incorrect, as they were trains evacuating refugees from the east[11]. RAF briefing notes mentioned a desire to show "the Russians, when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do." The specific intent of this statement is now unclear, and there are different possible interpretations: a statement of pride in the RAF's abilities; or to show the Soviets that the Western Allies were doing all they could to aid the Soviet advance; or an early cold war warning."

I have my doubts about this bombing and others in WWII (e.g., Tokyo), but I don't think the case is as clearcut as torture.

Post a Comment

Older Posts
Newer Posts