Thoughts about torture and our self-referential president

I finally got around to watching Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden.  Before it came out, conservatives were concerned because the White House gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to information about the hunt and about the actual hit on bin Laden.  This opened up the possibility that (a) the movie would betray America’s security secrets and (b) the movie would become a pro-Obama piece of political propaganda.

I don’t know whether the first fear was realized, but the second certainly wasn’t.  Those who claim that the movie supports using torture to obtain information are correct.  The movie opens with audio of phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers, and then shifts to a torture site somewhere vaguely Middle Eastern looking.  The torturer is a CIA man.  The person being tortured is a money man for al Qaeda.  Having heard that audio, you are not sympathetic to the al Qaeda guy.

Because of the CIA’s torture tactics, the man gives them useful names.  This happens repeatedly, with al Qaeda members getting hung in chains, hit, subject to water torture, deprived of sleep and human dignity, etc., and eventually revealing names and phone numbers.  The movie makes it clear that they are not being tortured for fun.  They are being tortured to get them to yield information about their, and other people’s, role in killing 3,000 Americans.

The film also makes the point that this information is necessary.  Every so often, after showing CIA interrogations aimed at drawing out a little more information about al Qaeda, the film breaks in with news reports about the Khobar Tower bombing, or the London bombing, or the Islamabad Marriott bombing.  The implication is that it’s vitally necessary for the CIA to crack open al Qaeda’s notoriously closed infrastructure.

The CIA operatives in the movie are dismayed when the situation in Washington changes, making “enhanced” interrogation techniques impossible.  As one says when his boss demands that he get information, if they ask someone in Gitmo, he’ll just get lawyered up and the lawyer will pass on the question to al Qaeda, which can then use it to their advantage.  The only “anti-torture” argument in the movie is a 30 second or so snippet of President Obama saying torture is “not who we are.”

That’s not who we are?  What a funny way to frame a rather more fundamental argument:  Are we, as a society, willing to have our public servants use torture for certain limited purposes?  That’s the question, and the movie answers with a definitive “yes.”  If using torture will get information that can save hundreds, thousands or (G*d forbid) millions of lives, torture is not just appropriate, it’s necessary.  We don’t torture for pleasure or “to make a point,” we do it to save lives.

As for Obama’s that’s “not who we are” statement, I was struck then, as I always am, by how self-referential Barack and Michelle are.  They were at it again in Africa.  Michelle, the spoiled darling of a middle-class Chicago family, said that she’s just like the Senegalese (and before that, she was just like youths in Chicago’s worst ghettos).  I know she’s striving for empathy, but it just ends up looking narcissistic.

Obama is worse, though, because he is America’s official spokesman.  While in Senegal, the press asked him about his response to the Supreme Court’s decisions opening the door for national gay marriage.  (By the way, I like Andrew Klavan’s take.)  Obama, of course, approves.  Not only did he say that, he used the question as an opportunity to talk about gay rights as human rights.  This is actually an important thing, because gays are subject to terrible abuse in both Muslim and Christian Africa.  No matter how one feels about gay marriage or homosexuality, the torture, imprisonment, and murder gays experience throughout Africa is a true crime against human rights.

With the gay marriage question, Obama — who is the greatest orator since Lincoln, right? — had the opportunity to make a profound statement about basic principles of human dignity.  Instead, he embarked upon a wandering rumination about his feelings and his thoughts:

The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa. So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions. And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.

But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally. I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.

So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally. And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.

Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated. And I think that applies here as well. (Emphasis added.)

No wonder that the Senegalese president Mackey Sall had no compunction about delivering a smackdown to the American president. And I do mean a smackdown, since he told Obama that he was a hypocrite to say that every culture has its own way of doing things, and Obama totally respects that, it’s just that the American way is better:

These issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures. We have different religions. We have different traditions. And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.

Obama is a petty mind with a bully pulpit.

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  • Call me Lennie

    Since the days of Rome, all human societies have recognized the distinction of “bellum” (war between states) and “guerra” (war conducted by brigands or stateless warriors)  In the former, the combatant fought with honor in a conflict which had been openly declared and was generally afforded some consideration when defeated and taken prisoner.  Those who conducted guerra, generally observed less rules and were put to the sword immediately upon capture.  Terrorists are the worst form of “guerrists” as they fight with no concern for honor at all — they don’t forewarn, they don’t identify themselves as combatants, and their sole goal seems to kill non-combatants.
    Accordingly, such people have never been given the slightest consideration by any previous society ever. So when Obama says we can’t torture these people because “that’s not who we are”, he’s saying that no judgment of previous societies informs us at all — that all human history starts anew every time he himself utters something in his precious tone of voice

  • Ymarsakar

    The thing is, they can use this propaganda to support torture of American citizens that they don’t like. All on the accusation that they are terrorists or planning terrorism. People like gun makers, sellers, and buyers. People like at WACO when Clinton’s FBI decided enough was enough.
    When a Democrat is in power, the propaganda is different than when a Republican is in power.

  • Ymarsakar

    I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort.”
    Unless you are his enemy, the Tea Party or an american. Then it’s pig’s blood time.

  • Charles Martel

    If Boy Wonder doesn’t believe in discrimination of any sort, God forbid he mistake Valerie for Michelle on some moonless night.
    No, wait a minute. . . Since he doesn’t discriminate, what difference would it make?

  • Ymarsakar

    “These issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures. We have different religions. We have different traditions. And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.”
    Aka “take your American justice and truth and shove it”.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Ah, Valerie and Michelle. The slumlord and the princess. Sounds like a fairy tale to me.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Only slightly off-point, but am I being unnecessarily paranoid in thinking that the Obama administration knows exactly to whom these firearms have been diverted? [note: file with reports of Federal government ammunition purchases].

  • Charles Martel

    Danny, I don’t think you’re being paranoid. Our rogue government has made it obvious that our concerns are not its. What’s really galling is that even as our “paranoia” is turning out to be justified, it will be used against us: “See how these paranoid Tea Partiers and bloggers are creating an atmosphere of division and distrust?” Eric Holder will ask. “That’s why we’re asking for special investigations into the fear mongers and naysayers among us.”

  • Michael Adams

    Valerie and Michele? Shrivel me timbers!

  • Michael Adams  This is a short story with a couple or more implausible elements, but was quite encouraging, nonetheless.

  • Ymarsakar

    Eric Holder wouldn’t be arming up his hoodie death squads in preparation for Emergency Rule vis a vis the Zimmerman trial is he?

  • Beth

    Michael–link goes to error page…did they take it down. Couldn’t find it otherwise.

  • Ymarsakar

    Beth, delete the period at the end of the link. The rest of the link text is fine. You can use copy or paste or click on the link and adjust the browser’s bar.

  • Jose

    I think it was Mark Steyn who stated that waterboarding terrorists should be an Olympic sport.

  • Spartacus

    It’s interesting.  On the one hand, USG ammo purchases alone don’t account for nearly enough of the market to cause the shortages we’re seeing; they are merely one catalyst (along with legislative efforts and general distrust) to the reaction of panic buying, hoarding, and ammo speculation by private citizens, who *do* have the power to dry up the market.  Further, a clever government intent on disarming The People by snatching up ammo from the market would scratch the idea before getting started, as The People are far better armed after a binge of panic buying than they otherwise would have been.  And while the feds seem to have an exorbitant appetite for ammo, it’s easy to forget what a ridiculous number of DHS et al. employees there are, and how many rounds one can fire in training regularly.  And finally, given the fiscal proclivities of this administration, only frugal spending in any given category should raise eyebrows.
    On the other hand…  One should not overestimate the intelligence of these folks, and assume that they would foresee the buying binge that they would help cause by buying more themselves; they may indeed have been trying to alter the balance a bit.  And while it is admirable and prudent for a law enforcement agency to seek proficiency in the ballistic arts in not just its tactical animals, but its secretaries, IT guys, and janitors as well, an administrative assistant doesn’t need to fire very many rounds per year to remember the basics.  And it’s a bit odd that the op for (“opposition force”) in every single drill they run is always a notional group of “right-wing extremists.”
    But the real kicker, for me, is the 2,700+ MRAPs transferred to DHS after they came back from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Each is 14+ tons of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protection, with landmine-resistant bottoms, thick steel hulls, gun ports, and a heavy weapons turret on top.  Now suppose, hypothetically, the FBI actually got around to opening email from their Russian counterparts and found out about a couple of yoots from Dagestan or somewhere with ill intentions and decided to round them up:  Would an MRAP really make any sense?  Of course not.  It’s not for counter-terrorism, but for counter-insurgency.  And that’s a hint.  It would be as if, after V-J Day, the Navy transferred a bunch of aircraft carriers to the Coast Guard and various municipal police departments and harbor patrol units.  For all the yammering we do about the danger of government security forces, they seem to be the ones with the deep paranoia and bunker mentality.
    Distrust the government that distrusts its people.

  • Ymarsakar

    Well… either Bush or we were going to use COIN learned from Iraq to destroy the Democrat fiefdoms in New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, etc…. or they would use it on us.
    Use it or lose it. Be the counter insurgency… or be the insurgency.