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Torture and War


(I wrote this on March 8, 2003)

In my continuing quest to understand those with whom I differ, I read the Amnesty International report about Iraq's systematic torture of political prisoners. I'll assume for the moment that the report is error-free, and that whatever's happening to the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo Bay at the hands of my own government is none of my concern ...

OK, so, Iraq is unapologetically torturing those citizens who dare to express anti-government sentiments.

This bothers me a lot more than allegations of "weapons of mass destruction" ... probably because I think the United States is hypocritical to complain when it has the largest and most deadly stockpiles of such weapons in history, and has killed more people with them than any other country with such weapons.

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See, part of my opposition to this war is really opposition to the pot calling the kettle black.

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In the past I've contributed money and time to Amnesty International. This is one of the charities on my short-list, when I've got extra money to give.

Amnesty International attempts to conduct impartial research on human rights abuses around the world. Genocide, extra-judicial killings, unfair trials, imprisonment without trial, imprisonment for non-violent expressions of dissent ... all of these are happening right now. The Holocaust Museum is not history ... it is happening now ... Never Again is Today.

So, should the United States go to war against a country because Amnesty International has documented torture or other human rights abuses?

Well ... it is entirely possible that such a war would kill more Iraqi people than the government of Iraq has itself tortured. Just as the war against the Taliban probably killed more innocent people in Afghanistan than died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Even looking at the Holocaust itself ... all those deaths in the gas chambers were probably less than 10% of the total deaths attributable to World War II. If, somehow, World War II had been fought over the sole issue of ending the Holocaust, it would have killed far more people than died in the Holocaust.

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War is a very expensive way to force change upon the world. Expensive in money, environmental damage, denial of civil liberties, injuries, and deaths. There is practically no discussion of these costs when people contemplate going to war. The typical war argument begins with a recitation of injustice or insecurity, followed by a demand of zero tolerance and a prediction of victory. The costs are difficult to estimate, and are typically ignored -- the costs are often ignored after the fact as well, when people look back and debate whether a war was successful. A war is won, or lost. There is no relative balancing of pros and cons, of costs and benefits.

The typical peace argument also fails to balance the costs and benefits -- arguing from "war is bad" sentiments, or "war is a last resort" or even "war is a conspiracy of the military-industrial complex". All of which I agree with ;-) But, these arguments don't convince people who are fixated on the casus belli.

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What is to be done ... in the face of torture. The war supporter will expect me to have an answer. How am I going to stop torture in Iraq?

I don't know that I can.

Perhaps war would stop torture in Iraq. Perhaps. But at what cost?

In 1914 Serbian terrorists assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. In revenge, World War I ensued, and over 8,000,000 people died in combat. Sure, assassination is wrong, but responding with a war made a huge mess of things.

There are nonviolent ways to respond to injustice.

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And, nonviolence doesn't always "work" ... there is still injustice in the world. Petty crime, murder, rape, torture, terrorism, genocide ... all the human rights abuses we find in the annual report of Amnesty International ... abuses on every continent, under every form of government.

If we go to war to stop such things, we'll always be at war.


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