31 December 2009

Terrorists: Criminals or Warriors?

I like Glenn Greenwald. I subscribe to his RSS feed, and I read most of what he writes. Most times I agree with him; sometimes, I don't. But sometimes, on rare occasion, I disagree enough to sit down and write a response. (I would have commented directly to his blog, but Salon.com requires you to create an account, something I'm not interested in doing, for a number of reasons.)

Back to the topic at hand. Today, Glenn wrote an article entitled "Fulfilling Al-Qaeda's 'warrior' wish." It's worth reading, but for those of you who don't, I'll summarize. He says that terrorists are common "murderous criminals" and should be treated as such. They should not be glorified as warriors or participants in some grand cause.

I want to agree with Glenn that terrorists like he describes: Richard Reid (a.k.a. the shoe bomber) and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the so-called mastermind of 9/11) are criminals. I further believe that they along with all of the other terrorists we're holding deserve a trial (but that's another post). My issue with what Glenn wrote this morning is that to take away the "warrior" or "soldier" title from these people, while gratifying to the rest of us, ignores the reasons for their actions.

To treat these people as common criminals is to assume simply that they're evil, that their actions are the product of an unwarranted hatred of the United States. In the statements posted in Glenn's article given by Richard Reid and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, they both list retaliation for the killing of innocent civilians and U.S. oppression as reasons for their actions. Aside from the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the U.S. is also dropping bombs in Pakistan and now Yemen. In fact, the Christmas Day bomber claimed that his attempt to blow up his flight was in retaliation for the U.S. strikes in Yemen. To treat these people as common criminals is to deny they fact that they have very real and valid claims against U.S. actions.

But they attacked us first, on 9/11, you say. Why do you suppose that was? No, they don't hate our freedom. They hate our unqualified support of Israel and implicit backing of their treatment of their Palestinian neighbors. They hate the fact that we set up military bases around the world including on what they believe to be holy land. Look at it another way. Just yesterday, China announced plans to set up a military base in the Middle East. What do you think about the possibility of Chinese military bases on American soil? If you don't like the idea, then why do you think it's right for the U.S. to set up bases elsewhere?

Still not convinced? After being attacked on 9/11, why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan? Ostensibly, it was to find and destroy Al-Qaeda, a group of maybe 300 people at the time, but instead it ousted the Taliban government; a government that the U.S. itself had propped up and to whom the U.S. was providing aid up until 9/11. The U.S. invaded a sovereign nation, without a declaration of war, and ousted its government. It did the same thing in Iraq two years later, all the while, killing innocent civilians and causing all sorts of collateral damage. It's gearing up to do it again in a number of places. Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen are all possibilities. Predator drone strikes are already having disastrous results in Pakistan.

Now consider being on the receiving end of all of this "democracy." This spread of democracy looks a lot like terrorism, doesn't it? It should also put terrorist actions like trying to bomb a plane in a little better perspective. Don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to justify terrorism or the killing of innocent civilians (or anyone for that matter). My point is simply that U.S. actions around the world are contributing to the terrorism against it, and to simply label these people criminals, without understanding their motivations and their view of themselves as justified warriors, is to attack the symptom and not the underlying problem.

23 May 2009

"Enhanced" Interrogation

For those who didn't immediately notice the timestamp, it's about 5am on a Saturday morning. I've been laying awake for about an hour because I finally fixed a bug at work, and now I'm excited about getting back into work on Tuesday and testing out some more code. (Sick, right?) That's not why I decided to sit down and write this morning, though. I've also been thinking about a couple of blog posts I read yesterday by a friend of mine and his brother regarding enhanced interrogation a.k.a. torture.

I read them both quickly on my iPod yesterday, so feel free to correct me if I'm wrong on this, but the first takes the position that torture works but is wrong on moral grounds. The second argues also that it works and is morally justified when used in defense/preservation of the greater good. While I couldn't disagree more with the second, I was surprised to see anyone arguing that torture works in the face of the news reports of late.

I'm reminded of Matthew Alexander, a pseudonym for an Air Force interrogator, who came out very strongly against torture in an op-ed for the Washington Post back in November of last year. In it, he details his experience using (or really, not using) torture during the course of his work. It is a worthwhile read, but his main points are a) torture has a spotty record of producing good intelligence, b) traditional interrogation works much better, and c) our use of torture does not deter our enemies; in fact, it emboldens them. I'm not now, nor have I ever served in our nation's military nor have I had the opportunity to employ "enhanced" or traditional interrogation methods on anyone, so any pontificating I do here about whether or not I agree or disagree with what Matthew Alexander says about the efficacy of torture would be pointless speculation (as is much of what you see on television with respect to this topic).

While I can't take on the efficacy argument directly, I would like to pose some rhetorical questions about torture to make you, the reader, think:
  • If torture is used, how does one know that "good" intelligence has been obtained vs. "bad" intelligence given simply stop the torture?
  • If torture works, why isn't it used more often or even domestically?
  • If there is no "good" intelligence to be obtained, is the use of torture to find that out still morally justified?
I think the last point is central to this debate. The "morally justified" argument leads us down the path to torture anyone at anytime based simply on the belief that they have information that can preserve/defend the greater good. Pay attention here: whether or not there is "good" intelligence to be obtained cannot be known until after the interrogation.

My argument then is simply this: If we are willing to torture innocent people, there is no greater good to defend.