Sunday, May 16, 2004

The abuse excuse 

There are many who are always happy to remind you that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but I'm yet to hear the same people proclaim with equal relativist conviction that one man's abuse is another man's interrogation techniques.

As the media stampede keeps rushing after Donald Rumsfeld, we are already seeing two separate issues - the gratuitous abuse of prisoners, and the use of special interrogation techniques - being unfortunately blurred together. Contra the media frenzy, there are some important differences between the two. Despite lame excuses about "softening up" prisoners, the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is just that - abuse, which doesn't have any real purpose except to seemingly satisfy some twisted sado-sexual urges of bored and ill-disciplined prison guards. Despite disingenuous attempts to link it with piling up naked Iraqis, practices such as sleep and sensory deprivation are useful techniques to assist interrogation in some very special and exceptional cases, without having to resort to physical torture.

It's clear that for many commentators any behaviour towards prisoners that falls short of assigning them pro bono legal representation and granting them access to the prison gym and conjugal visits constitutes prisoner abuse. This might or might not be an arguable proposition when your average suburban burglar or pot grower is concerned, but for others logic would suggest that special and exceptional circumstances (the war on terror) create special and exceptional needs (obtaining information of national importance in a speedy way from potentially deadly and fanatical suspects). This all comes back to the different perceptions of the challenges with face and the best ways of dealing with them. For most of the left, the war on terror is still a law enforcement operation - you send in the cops, serve subpoenas, place a wire-tap or two, gather documents, institute proceedings, and after a few years in the court system you might get a convection - or maybe not. In the meantime you can expect another few airliner flying into sky-scrapers, or a dirty bomb going off in a central business district if you are particularly unlucky. For many on the right, on the other hand, the war on terror is just that - a war, which means that the situation cannot be adequately and speedily enough dealt with while using the same methods and procedures as one would in peacetime.

Over the next few days expect hear and read a lot more on these topics, so do remember, even if media will forget: prisoner abuse is wrong; special interrogation techniques might or might not be - it's certainly open to debate where to draw the line; but the two are not the same.


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