Search This Blog

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Concentrating the Mind

Germany Charges 4 Syrians in Plot to Attack Düsseldorf

BERLIN — The German police arrested three Syrians on Thursday who are suspected of traveling to Europe on behalf of the Islamic State to attack a popular district of the western city of Düsseldorf, federal prosecutors said.

A fourth man, also a Syrian citizen who is in custody in France, was charged with supporting the plot. The plan involved suicide bombings, as well as attacks with firearms and explosives, the prosecutors said.



At least two of the suspects entered Germany during last year’s influx of refugees, the prosecutors said. German news media reported that two of the men had been living in refugee shelters and at least one had submitted an application for asylum.



Prosecutors said Saleh A. and Hamza C. joined the Islamic State in early 2014 in Syria, where they were ordered by leaders of the organization to carry out an attack in an area of Düsseldorf that is packed with bars and cafes and is popular with residents and partying tourists.

Like all the other horrors in the seemingly endless abattoir that is Islamism, the Paris attacks, San Bernardino, and Brussels, provoked widespread outrage.

While unsurprising, it is nonetheless striking how much more focussed that outrage becomes when the threat is practically in one's neighborhood. In the picture below, the Altstadt, the intended target, is directly to the right of the Rhine River freighter.


The Altstadt is perfect for tourists and residents. Picturesque. Lots of restaurants, stores and bars. Always crowded if the weather isn't beastly.

I guess that makes it perfect for Allah's faithful murderers, too.

Four friends of ours live there. Less than a mile from our apartment, we go there frequently. So while the litany of other atrocities is immersed in a vague, blurry buffer, no such comfort is on offer here. It is all too easy to imagine a wonderful area I know well turned into a charnel house.

By the Religion of Peace™.

This reminded me of a post from more than six years ago, Enhanced Condemnation:

No small amount of writing, and plenty of writers, have made the bold claim that torture is always, irrevocably, wrong, and that those who sanction it are, by definition, moral monsters. Oddly, they take this bold stand without coming to terms with their subject, giving a nod to context, or recognizing that the sin of commission must be assessed against the sin of omission.

What they arrive at is a position with precisely the same supposed lofty superiority of pacifism, while completely failing to understand how such blanket condemnations, just like pacifism, are completely amoral.

In the comments on my post, and in the links, I was accused of moral deficiency by suggesting that blanket condemnations of "torture" (scare quotes, because the term has all the definitional rigor of "art") are facile moral preening.

Having captured these suspects, I wonder how much "sweating" of other suspects was involved. Just as I wonder how much some people — relatives of the victims, perhaps — wish a bit more "sweating" had happened before the Brussels atrocity.

Interesting how one's view on things might change with a bit of skin in the game.

24 comments:

Clovis e Adri said...


Yeah, you want to punch those animals in the face, I get that. But does it solve any other problem, other than your need to punch them?

Because I see no indication any "sweating" of other suspects was needed to get those guys. And I see no indication that waterboarding them will make them spill the beans, either.

Now, if you are talking about real torture - sort of breaking their legs, cutting their fingers, electrocution, and so on - you ought to at least make that clear. That kind of torture I can believe to be somehow more effective.

But since you are at the subject, you can tell us what to say of the classical problem of knwoledge limitation. It is far too easy to picture yourself beating the hell out of some homicidal monster. But what to say of the (far more usual) case where you actually don't know if the subject is guilty at all? He being innocent, what does it make of you the torturer?

Barry Meislin said...

In related news, it appears that Gaia is not happy about the latest shenanigans in Canada's Parliament:

https://twitter.com/AP/status/740642335130849280

Hey Skipper said...

[Clovis:] Because I see no indication any "sweating" of other suspects was needed to get those guys. And I see no indication that waterboarding them will make them spill the beans, either.

You see no indication of anything, because there is none. And by that I mean not that no pressure was applied, only that the article is completely silent on the issue.

And I see no indication that waterboarding them will make them spill the beans, either.

This sentence, and But what to say of the (far more usual) case where you actually don't know if the subject is guilty at all? suggest you don't understand the problem.

Some suspects were recently captured in France and Belgium. The first key is that there are more than one. When interrogating for information -- which is decidedly not the same as obtaining a "confession" -- the interrogator exploits two facts: the detainees do not know what the interrogator knows, and they don't know what any of the rest have admitted to.

Which means an interrogators can ask questions to which they know the answers, and "sweat" the detainee when the right answer isn't forthcoming, then start introducing questions to which the answers aren't known. And if there are multiple detainees, then interrogators not only say, whether truthfully or not, that others are giving away the store, or use any new information as a lever against the others.

Given that various kinds of evidence were captured along with the suspects, it seems likely that the authorities had some information going in.

So, rather than extracting confessions, given what's really in play, how much latitude do interrogators get?

That kind of torture I can believe to be somehow more effective.

Why, when means exist that bien pensants call torture, but do not cause injury? (Waterboarding being one.)

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

A drunk lost his keys and goes tracing his steps back to the bar, stopping in every lamp post to check the ground. What are the odds he will find it so?

It is effective to use torture. It works in some specific situations as the one you mention - with lots of data and connected fellows to "sweat". And therein lies the problem: once it often works, history (old and recent) shows it gets to be used where it should not.


---
Why, when means exist that bien pensants call torture, but do not cause injury? (Waterboarding being one.)
---
Once the detainee knows for sure he won't be injured, you lost half your leverage, hence half the effectiveness.

Hey Skipper said...

It is effective to use torture. It works in some specific situations as the one you mention - with lots of data and connected fellows to "sweat".

Therein lies the problem that I insisted was facilely ignored. Apparently the Germans have five suspects from whom they can extract information.

So, read them their rights, or something more? How much more?

Once the detainee knows for sure he won't be injured, you lost half your leverage, hence half the effectiveness.

Not true. There are many forms if imposed unpleasantness that don't cause injury, but are very persuasive nonetheless.

Water boarding, properly done, is one of them.

Peter said...

There are two problems here, Skipper, and you are only addressing one of them. The first is the effectiveness of torture and the second is the corruption of the torturer.

I suggest this issue is linked to the question of whether the threat is existential and that since very shortly after 9/11 there is little evidence that it is.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

---
Not true. There are many forms if imposed unpleasantness that don't cause injury, but are very persuasive nonetheless.
---
Care to give a reference?

AFAIK water boarding, "properly done", means drowning people until they pass out, repeating over and over.

Now, if you are a lunatic who defined your life in terms of killing people in the name of your great crazy cause, does that look scaring enough for you to give it all up and to spill the beans?

Hey Skipper said...

[Peter:] The first is the effectiveness of torture and the second is the corruption of the torturer.

No, the first is how much coercion we are willing to employ in order to get information that prevents a future attack.

Shortly after the latest Paris atrocity, the Belgian police had tracked down one of the conspirators. But since there was a law against raiding a residence after 10pm, they did nothing.

And the guy escaped.

Who, as it happened, played a role in the Brussels airport atrocity.

Now, I don't know about Belgians, or Europeans, in general, but I rather suspect that the dead, although they are beyond wishes, and the injured, would have rather preferred a bit more pressure been applied.

I may be bold, but I suspect that maybe, just maybe, waking people out of REM sleep isn't so awful that it should be out of bounds.

That leaves the issue untouched: with aspiring terrorists in hand, what is in bounds in order to prevent future atrocities? This is a question of war, not of law enforcement.

As for corruption of the torturer, that is an occupational hazard, just as it is for police officers.

[Clovis:] Care to give a reference?

Here. Hitches calls it torture. I am certain it is extremely unpleasant, but I disagree. Your mileage may vary.

Now, if you are a lunatic who defined your life in terms of killing people in the name of your great crazy cause, does that look scaring enough for you to give it all up and to spill the beans?

I have read in various places that there are plenty of coercive techniques that are sufficiently unpleasant to extract information, without injury.

Let's say you are a sufficiently awful human being to interrupt a terrorist suspect's sleep. Having done so, in this hypothetical, he does not get away. You have enough info to suspect another atrocity in the offing.

What do you do?

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

---
As for corruption of the torturer, that is an occupational hazard, just as it is for police officers.
---
So you believe there is no evil done to single innocents that can not be justified by the greater collective good?


---
Here. Hitches calls it torture. I am certain it is extremely unpleasant, but I disagree. Your mileage may vary.
---
It is torture. But a comparatively mild one. That's the reason you can train your Special Forces to *resist* it.

---
You have enough info to suspect another atrocity in the offing.
What do you do?
---
That's easy.

I give him to you.

And go back to sleep :-)

Peter said...

As for corruption of the torturer, that is an occupational hazard, just as it is for police officers.

Perhaps that explains why we don't allow police officers to choose their interrogation techniques on the basis of what they think will be effective in preventing future crime.

Peter said...

Skipper, if the "effectiveness" of interrogation techniques is the governing issue, what principle would you say distinguishes waterboarding from attaching electrodes to genitals? Something meatier than "bit over the top, that" I hope.

Hey Skipper said...

It is torture. But a comparatively mild one. That's the reason you can train your Special Forces to *resist* it.

Really? Do you have a cite on that?

[Peter:] Perhaps that explains why we don't allow police officers to choose their interrogation techniques on the basis of what they think will be effective in preventing future crime.

Except, other than as a statistical consequence for putting people in jail for previous crimes, that isn't what the police do.

Skipper, if the "effectiveness" of interrogation techniques is the governing issue, what principle would you say distinguishes waterboarding from attaching electrodes to genitals? Something meatier than "bit over the top, that" I hope.

You are both reading waaayyyy too much into my comments.

Assume a completely plausible hypo: you have five people caught in the act of conspiring to commit an atrocity, and they have a password protected laptop, on which you have very good reason to believe is information that could stop other plots.

What lengths do you think permissible in order to get the password?

Peter said...

Skipper, I would have thought that after all this time you would understand you lose blogging points for responding to a question with a question.

I have no way to answer that, and I don't think I should try. It's not a question I would put to a popular vote. Every first year philosophy student know that it's possible to think up scenarios where the case for murder, theft, torture, etc. is morally compelling or at least ambiguous. Every first year law student knows how difficult and dangerous it is to try and convert these scenarios into rules of general application. I don't think for a moment you would support the electrode route, but your reliance on efficacy as a first principle separates us. You are talking about something that many people think is ipso facto wrong. Put another way, you want to argue definitions and relativist hypothetical circumstances while others think "On your knees!".

BTW, waterboarding is torture. Deal with it.

erp said...

... not to make light of torture, but I remember when Noriega was tortured with John Denver tapes 24/7 -- don't remember why, do remember I would "talk" after about 20 minutes.

If one of my kids' safety were at stake, I wouldn't care a pin about the niceties. No holds barred and I think most people would agree if the stakes were high enough.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,

---
[Clovis] It is torture. But a comparatively mild one. That's the reason you can train your Special Forces to *resist* it.

Really? Do you have a cite on that?
---
Sure I do:

"After being captured by ISIS (or maybe CIA, who knows) and being 'invited' to a torture session, you are given the option of (i) being waterboarded or (ii) have your scrotal sac cut from you while you watch - which one you choose?"

- Clovis, GreatGuys weblog, 06/23/2016




---
Assume a completely plausible hypo: you have five people caught in the act of conspiring to commit an atrocity, and they have a password protected laptop, on which you have very good reason to believe is information that could stop other plots.

What lengths do you think permissible in order to get the password?
---
Really? You could have chosen a better example. First, because it is probably easier to hack their computer than to torture them. Second, it is not unfathomable that none of them have the password (they could be carrying it without having access themselves).

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp,

---
If one of my kids' safety were at stake, I wouldn't care a pin about the niceties. No holds barred and I think most people would agree if the stakes were high enough.
---
Of course.

And that's why we don't make laws taking personal point of views.

erp said...

... I feel the same way about other people's kids.

Hey Skipper said...

[Peter:] Skipper, I would have thought that after all this time you would understand you lose blogging points for responding to a question with a question.

Okay. I shall not repeat that mistake.

The anti-"torture" (scare quotes because the notional use of the word) position is mostly moral preening and virtue signaling. It is made by people who mistake war for law enforcement, and thereby try to impose the latter upon the former.

While the mistake comes with the best intentions, and deserves sympathetic listening, it is really of no help.

The anti-torture position, whatever that might mean, is a moral conclusion, without a moral argument. Near as I can tell from reporting here, the Brussels airport bombing was the consequence of perplexingly passive security forces deeply involved in mistaking law enforcement for war.

Nowhere in your response do I detect even a nod toward the dead and wounded who might well be alive and whole except for a decision to not do whatever it took to extract information bearing upon the next attack.

Which is exactly where the moral preening and virtue signaling extracts a real toll. If the state has in its possession avowed terrorists, and a source of information that could prevent future attackes, a shrug of the shoulders if they don't willingly give it up seems a rather facile answer to a serious moral question.

I get that many people think torture — whatever the hell they mean by that word — is wrong, but IMHO they are hypocrites: torture is wrong only so long as the threat is diffuse, and the victims distant.

So when a close-to-my-home atrocity was headed off (it seems likely that it came about from interrogating a survivor of the Brussels atrocity — and who knows what was involved in that), it very much focused my attention. I have several friends who live right there. What would I not do to a conspirator in an attack that hasn't yet happened to stop it happening?

I can't think of any moral reference frame that prefers death and dismemberment to water boarding, no matter into which category of unpleasantness you wish to bin it.

[erp:] If one of my kids' safety were at stake, I wouldn't care a pin about the niceties. No holds barred and I think most people would agree if the stakes were high enough.

You raise an interesting point. As a rule, the US won't negotiate with terrorists to free captives. Makes sense, because doing so just encourages future kidnappings.

But that isn't anything like wanting to do whatever it takes to prevent something which hasn't yet happened. It is hard to see how, in the event of being caught, coming in for a very rough ride (a decision up to the terrorist, by the way) further incentivizes terrorists.

[Clovis:] Really? You could have chosen a better example. First, because it is probably easier to hack their computer than to torture them.

Must you be so bloody literal?

On my computer I have a portion of the mass storage set aside as an Encrypted Sparse Disk Image using 256 bit encryption. No amount of hacking will untangle that, and it difficult to believe that such a thing would exist without anyone having access to it.

And that's why we don't make laws taking personal point of views.

That is a very good point. However, in the context of an attack that hasn't yet happened (as opposed to assessing guilt and punishment for one that has), I have a real hard time figuring out where, with regard to the treatment of a captive with useful information, the interests of the state and individuals diverge.

erp said...

Skipper, I agree with a policy of not negotiating with kidnappers/hostage takers as a deterrent, but that isn't the same as a policy of not torturing those in our custody in order that we might be able save lives of the victims instead, as we seem to be doing, worrying about the sensibilities of the perps.

I don't care how much pain and suffering is heaped upon the heads of those seeking to harm innocents.

Clovis e Adri said...

Skipper,


---
On my computer I have a portion of the mass storage set aside as an Encrypted Sparse Disk Image using 256 bit encryption. No amount of hacking will untangle that, and it difficult to believe that such a thing would exist without anyone having access to it.
---
At present, it looks to me it is likely the NSA is able to hack even that. Not by breaking the encryption itself, but by all sort of backdoors your computer probably has, introduced in the main board, BIOS and the hard drives themselves. Your passwords may well be stored in some hidden piece of memory there.

---
I have a real hard time figuring out where, with regard to the treatment of a captive with useful information, the interests of the state and individuals diverge.
---
Only because you keep ignoring the knowledge limitation problem. What are the rules you'll use to assess that someone is positively involved with the terror plot, to justify giving him some water?

It is not like I am talking about some hypothetical case, if you need any example. Since you are in Germany, you could well pay a visit to Mr. El-Masri and ask his opinion on your thoughts here.

erp said...

Clovis, sorry, I can't read that link. Please tell me, was he guilty and if so, did he provide useful information after all?

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp,

The first paragraph is enough:

---
Khalid El-Masri [...] is a German and Lebanese citizen who was mistakenly abducted by the Macedonian police, and handed over to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). While in CIA custody, he was flown to Afghanistan, where he was held at a black site and routinely interrogated, beaten, strip-searched, sodomized, and subjected to other cruel forms of inhumane and degrading treatment and torture. After El-Masri held hunger strikes, and was detained for four months in the "Salt Pit", the CIA finally admitted his arrest and torture were a mistake and released him. He is believed to be among an estimated 3,000 detainees whom the CIA has abducted from 2001–2005.
---

erp said...

... Do you think he was subjected to all that for fun and games or did the CIA think he had something to tell them?

Hey Skipper said...

[Clovis:] At present, it looks to me it is likely the NSA is able to hack even that.

I bet not, other than by brute force. (My passwords are stored on the hard drive, behind 256 bit encryption.)

So, yes, they can be hacked. Eventually. Very, very, eventually.

Only because you keep ignoring the knowledge limitation problem. What are the rules you'll use to assess that someone is positively involved with the terror plot, to justify giving him some water?

Probably exactly the same rules that I'd apply to someone caught with weapons, ammunition, bomb making materials and ISIS propaganda isn't involved. (Not a hypo, BTW.)

So I'm not ignoring the knowledge problem, I'm applying it. If you catch a terror suspect about whom you know nothing, without any corroborating evidence, and without any ties to other known suspects, then coercion will almost certainly fail.

But since there is a distinction to be made, then, unless we have no respect whatsoever for people who aren't dead or wounded yet, then it seems like a distinction we need to make.