Qui s’excuse, s’accuse

No, we’re not torturing anyone, says Gen. Myers. And anyway, the people we’re not torturing deserve it.

Sometimes a defense is tantamount to a confession.

Consider, for example, Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On his watch, the International Committee of the Red Cross has formally charged the U.S. military with torture. His reasonable responses, it seems to me, are:

1. To say that the ICRC is lying and ask for another outside inspection. (Of course, if that’s going to be the party line, it would help if the State Department spokesman, who has no need to cover his organizational butt, weren’t saying respectful things about the ICRC: “We take their reports very, very seriously.” “We value very much things they raise for us in their reports.”)

2. To say that he’s not sure about the ICRC charges, and has ordered an investigation. (But in that case it probably wasn’t very smart to deny that he’d read the lead story in that morning’s New York Times, which was no doubt also the lead item in that morning’s Pentagon newsclips.)

3. To say that the ICRC charges are, in whole or part, true, and that heads are going to roll as a result.

Instead, Myeres told the Economic Club of Indianapolis “We certainly don’t think it’s torture,” suggesting that the problem is one of interpretation rather than fact. That’s not a very satisfactory response, it seems to me, but it still might be the best one available if Myers knows the charges are true but lacks the courage or the backing from above him to carry out the necessary bloodbath.

But whether that was a good answer or not, Gen. Myers then virtually confessed by offering the wrong kind of excuse. “Let’s not forget the kind of people we have down there,” he said. “These are the people that don’t know any moral values.”

Forget, if you will. that when anyone connected in any way with George Bush uses the phrase “moral values” it means he’s covering up something horrible. Just think about the logic of the remark itself. Why should the fact that the people we’re holding are evil people have any relevance to the factual question about whether they’re being tortured?

It might be (I don’t think it would be, but it might be) an excuse or extenuation to the charge of torture. But purely as a logical matter it has no relevance to judging whether torture — a crime under international law and domestic statute — was being committed or not.

The only reason to remind your audience that the people you’re accused of torturing are bad guys is that you know, or suspect, or know that they suspect, that the charge is likely true, and you’re hoping that they will say to themselves, “Well, it’s not so bad. They probably deserved it anyway.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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