We threatened his mother with RAPE?!

So it would appear. But that isn’t “torture,” says the Army. Oh, no.

So it appears. From a Wall Street Journal article on Lt. Col. Stuart Couch, who refused to prosecute a significant al-Qaeda figure because his confession was tainted by his maltreatment at Guantanamo:

On Aug. 2, an interrogation chief visited the prisoner posing as a White House representative named “Navy Capt. Collins,” the report said. He gave the prisoner a forged memorandum indicating that Mr. Slahi’s mother was being shipped to Guantanamo, and that officials had concerns about her safety as the only woman amid hundreds of male prisoners, according a person familiar with the matter.

Don’t worry, though: according to the official Army investigation, (p. 26) threatening to put a prisoner’s mother in a situation where she is likely to be raped isn’t “torture.” Oh, no. (But then, neither is interrogating someone for 18-20 hours of every 24 for 48 of 54 consecutive days. [p.27]. It’s not even “prohibited inhumane treatment.) The Army report elides the nature of the threat against the prisoner’s mother by reporting that the fake letter: “The actual content of the letter simply indicates that his mother will be taken into custody and questioned,” leaving out the implicit threat in saying that the mother would be the sole female prisoners among hundreds of males.

The entire WSJ article is worth reading; I failed to read it when it came out, since like many others I’m suffering from torture fatigue. In addition to the disgusting details, it’s full of instructive elements:

1. Civil courage is a great virtue: indeed, an indispensable one in the operation of a republic. It’s neither as common as it ought to be (not, for example, nearly as common as physical courage) nor as rare as one might fear. Its exemplars, such as Lt. Col. Crouch, deserve to be celebrated.

2. Process matters, and virtually any process is better than no process.

3. Lt. Col. Crouch was both blocked and protected by bureaucratic rules. His superiors were able to block him from getting this concerns through to the General Counsel at DoD, but they either couldn’t or didn’t want to retaliate against him personally.

4. Religion can be a force for good, overcoming the strong pressures to conform to an organizational culture. The Creation story in Genesis, purely silly if viewed as cosmology or palentology, has great moral force:

“He wanted to be a good solider and yet on the other hand felt his duty to his God to be the greatest duty that he had,” recalls Bill Wilder, director of educational ministries at the Center for Christian Study, Charlottesville, Va. “He said more than once to me that human beings are created in the image of God and as a result we owe them a certain amount of dignity.”

Of course it’s possible to be moral without any religious basis; I try to be, and as far as I can tell I’m no worse (or better) at doing the right thing under threat or temptation than the average of the believers I know. But when doing the right thing is especially difficult, the support of religious ideas can make a difference. The particular passage that seems to have weighed most heavily on Lt. Col. Crouch is noteworthy because it’s the sticking point for many ordinary folks who are uncomfortable with teaching Darwinian evolution in schools.

But the central point of the story, from the viewpoint of a citizen rather than a philosopher or a social scientist, is that the United States has been doing, and probably is still doing, unspeakable things in the name of the War on Terror: things I would like to be able to attribute solely to our enemies. Almost no one explicitly defends torture; the question is where to draw the line, with Bush apologists essentially arguing for a “no blood, no torture” standard. That’s not good enough.

Maybe Heather Mac Donald will favor us with some more thoughts on this. And when she’s done explaining why “Special Interrogation Plan #2” wasn’t actually torture, she can explain why Glencoe wasn’t actually a massacre.

FootnoteThose in Right Blogistan, the right-wing punditocracy, and the Republican party who are terribly, terribly hurt by the accusation that they’re indifferent to, or supportive of, torture might help refute that accusation by helping to celebrate the quiet heroism of Lt. Col. Crouch. After all, it’s cases such as his that demonstrate the profound superiority of our way of life to its alternatives.

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