Monday, September 11, 2006

On Stalin's (Torturous) "Alternative Set of Procedures"

Brian Tamanaha

Robert Conquest, a leading historian on the Soviet Union, a vociferous anti-communist, and a favorite of conservatives, wrote the following in his recent book, The Dragons of Expectation (labeled "a frontal assault on the pieties of the left"):

A central characteristic, seldom actually omitted from nonjudgmental accounts of Stalinism, was indeed torture. It was applied on a huge scale to produce a totally false picture of terrorism, sabotage, and espionage.

Even the ostensibly nonphysical methods used in 1936 are described by victims as both mentally and physically devastating. One man arrested briefly told me that the comparatively mild-sounding stoika, when a prisoner was kept standing against a wall for days, was hardly bearable. Torture is, one might say, a worse crime against humanity than killing.

A central theme in Conquest's book (and in his earlier books) is to point out the shockingly immoral behavior of the Soviet leadership, which was unparalleled in the West--a difference that leftist intellectuals infatuated with communism lost sight of, he claims. In the above passage, Conquest presents Stalin's willingness to inflict torture as a prime example of this difference.

Given his moral condemnation of torture, Conquest no doubt was relieved to hear President Bush utter these strong words in his speech last week:

I want to be absolutely clear with our people, and the world: The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it--and I will not authorize it. Last year, my administration worked with Senator John McCain, and I signed into law the Detaineee Treatment Act, which established the legal standards for detaineess wherever they are held. I support this act.

Skeptics point out that the Bush Administration fought the bill, and inserted a signing statement which appeared to detract (at least potentially) from the bill. Skeptics also note that in the same speech Bush insisted on the necessity to utilize what he called a lawful "alternative set of procedures," which he failed to detail, but which skeptics surmise includes actions that many people would consider "torture."

Let's take President Bush at his word. His above assertions clear up any ambiguity that might have been raised by the signing statement: Bush supports the Act and his administration will live up to its requirements. Any government officials who violate the terms of the Act will do so without his authorization, contrary to his explicit desire.

Here's a simple way to determine whether any of the "alternative set of procedures" constitute "torture:" check if any of the techniques on the list--whether physical or mental--were also utlized under Stalinism. By this standard, the hours-on-end standing position, and other similar stress positions, constitute torture and must not be done. To help provide information or to resolve close calls, Bush can consult Conquest (who he awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year). Conquest, no soft liberal, knows torture when he sees it.

As Bush's statement indicates, and as Conquest insists, a repudiation of torture is one of the factors that hitherto has distinguished our government from immoral regimes.


The Soviet Union actually avoided torturing its detainees when it wanted information from them. It treated them pretty well.

It only tortured the detainees they wanted (false) confessions from or people they wanted to crush.

I think the test should be that most things the Soviets did to procure false confessions or to break people are bad.

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