Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Logic of Rendition

There's a new movie out called Rendition. It's about (guess what) torture and seems to be loosely based on the experiences of Maher Arar, although with American characters.

The pro-torture argument is laid out by the US official played by Meryll Streep. When prodded about the illegal use of torture on hidden detainees, she responds:

"Because of this, there are 7000 people alive in London who would otherwise be dead."

In a nutshell, there's the logic of rendition.

And it begs for deconstruction.

1. "Because of this": Translation: "Rendition is the end justifies the means." In effect, if torture can save lives, then torture is good. But let's quantify this saving of lives. What if torture can save only a dozen lives? Or only one life? Is it okay then?

Does it have to be thousands?

And how will an agent know if the plot will involve thousands until after the torture has taken place?

Does this also take into account that violent people like to brag during confessions?

And is the limit just the saving of lives? Could it be extended to other benefits? What if a terror plot involved the sabotage of the US's electronic banking system-- say, a computer virus that destroys valuable information on a massive scale? Would torture be justified if it prevented economic turmoil and the loss of people's life savings?

Should suspicious American geeks be renditioned?

Could we not also propose that George Bush should be killed because he is blocking the world's efforts to stop global warming? Global warming will kill not just thousands, but millions or billions of people, as well as non-human populations, and it will wreak havoc on our economies. Would that be okay according to the end justifies the means?

The problem with the end justifies the means is that it justifies anything -- any end, any means. The end has not been defined or limited; and if officials are working secretly, then there is no way of holding them to any definitions and limits anyway. They could be doing anything for any reason. The public would never know.

2. "7000 people": Really? Keep in mind that rendition is secret offshore torture. This means there are no official records, and everything is "deniable." The public has a jaundiced eye about intelligence-related secret information ever since non-existent weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the invasion of a sovereign state.

If officials want to keep their "facts" secret and deniable, then they can't also expect to be able to use these "facts" as public arguments. Sorry, but you can't have your cake and eat it too.

3. "Alive in London who would otherwise be dead": I want to examine this idea more closely. Does foiling a terror plot save lives? On the surface, one would think so. But this idea fails to consider that most terror plots fail. It also doesn't consider whether more terror agents would simply move in to redo the job if someone got arrested. Al Qaeda keeps trying the same objective until they succeed. So stopping a terror plot simply stops that terror plot. One can't say with any certainty what other effects -- long- or short-term -- might have resulted.

There are also two unstated premises in Streep's character's statement:

1. Saving lives is what government is all about.
Apparently, saving lives trumps the constitution, the laws of the country, the values and principles that have developed through history, and the integrity and scrutability of government leaders. It is also more important than the nation's international reputation, its relations with other countries, and its self-respect. It's more important than justice: tortured confessions are not admissable in court, so legal trials have to be replaced with secret trials, extrajudicial hearings, or just no trial at all.

These are the costs of the lives that torture is allegedly saving. The character that Streep plays simply accepts these costs as something external to the job she has to do. Fortunately for the plot of the movie, another US agent comes to have misgivings.

2. Torture is the most expedient way to get intelligence information--and it's a pity we can't use it more often. Alas, tortured people lie. They'll say anything. The tortured wiccans of the Middle Ages tossed out as many names as they could scream while they begged to be put to death. This creates dubious evidence that is then used to arrest, deport, and rendition more people. Since there is no open scrutiny of this evidence, it can take on a power of its own, like an online meme or an urban legend. When those people in turn are tortured, the net grows wider. More wires are tapped, more calls are traced, more people are arrested. The government leaders crow about how expedient their methods are. Their fingers itch for even more powerful methods.

Yet how much of it is untrue? There is no habeas corpus, no defence lawyers, no trials. The public doesn't know if it is expedient. They don't even know how many people have been arrested or who they are.

Fear makes people behave in terrible ways. If bin Ladin's objective in the 9/11 attacks was not so much to kill as to create a climate of fear that would cause Westerners to turn against themselves and commit democratic suicide, then he was enormously successful.

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At 8:55 PM, Blogger Robin M. said...

What is scary to me is that torture is seen as an appropriate topic for entertainment.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Nancy A said...

Hi Robin - I think movies teach more than they entertain. They let people see something that isn't yet real to them. For most people, rendition is just a whispered word for something that can't possibly really be happening. Seeing it on the big screen will help change that. The cold, pragmatic evil of the US officials in the film will also help put a crick in the campaigns of election candidates who support rendition!

At 6:25 PM, Blogger cherice said...

This is a really well thought-out response to pro-torture arguments. Thank you for posting this--it's very helpful and brings up many great points.

I especially appreciate your last paragraph, that if bin Laden's goal was to create a culture of fear so we'd destroy ourselves, then he's done a great job. Isn't it sad that by trying to defeat him using his own methods, we've inadvertently caused him to win? Isn't this the way with all violence??? Frustrating.


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