Thursday, June 25, 2009

Terrorist Interrogation Techniques and Home Runs

Reeling from the unfortunate news of celebrity deaths, I called a friend for an impromptu "un"happy hour. 3/4 a bottle of chianti and a nice chunk of gouda later, we remembered that we were supposed to be attending another friend's Amnesty International event at the famous Left Bank Books.

Matthew Alexander (that's a pseudonym) was doing a talk about his book How to Break a Terrorist. I'd heard him before on NPR and I was actually interested in this talk but for some reason had been confused about the dates when I got the Facebook invite and had RSVPed that I'd be out of town. At any rate, I was in town and we decided to go.

The one-way streets downtown attempted to lead us astray, but we found a parking spot just in time to snag two seats at the front of the room. They eventually ran out of chairs entirely and several people stood to the side and in the back -- it was a great turnout.

Matthew Alexander (not his real name) was surprisingly hot, which was like a totally unexpected bonus.

He was also intelligent, articulate, and made very good sense. He argues that torture as an interrogation technique is both impractical and immoral. Besides the fact that it is in itself an act of terrorism with which we should never want our country to be associated, it is ineffectual. It simply does not encourage terrorists to talk -- in fact, it has the opposite effect. He told stories about his own experience with terrorists and made it incredibly clear that at the root of this conflict is ignorance, intolerance, and prejudice. He believes (and has seen in practice) that connecting with terrorists on a human level, understanding their motivations and making the interrogation an exchange of information (the interrogator wants to know where things are going down, the prisoner wants to know how long he will be held and what will happen to him next) is more likely to get the interrogator the answers that he wants and that the U.S. soldiers need.

I was disturbed to learn that of all the U.S. soldiers and interrogators he knew personally (all of whom had personal contact with Al Queda terrorists), none had ever read the Qu'ran. He pointed out that the essential theme of the Qu'ran is mercy -- a pretty freaking good starting point for a conversation with someone who appears to hate America.

One of the most startling things he said was that all of the people he saw who were captured for acts of terrorism explained that their reasons for joining Al Queda were not blind hatred, brainwashing, religious fanaticisim, or narrow ideologies. Their reasons are economical, social, and desperate. They are angry because they feel that America has left them no choice. They are acting out of frustration, desperation, doing what they feel must be done to protect themselves and their families. The most human of motivations prompt people to commit inhumane acts. It is nothing less than a tragedy for everyone involved and I don't see how anyone could think that this war should be perpetuated by acts of torture -- how can we condone crimes against humanity committed by the very people who should be protecting it?

Perhaps most frightening story he told was about a discussion he had recently with a group of congressmen. He explained the purpose of his book, the ineffectual use of torture, the terrible long-term ramifications of condoning and acceptance torture as a practice in times of war, and his desire to clearly and definitively (you know, in case the Geneva Convention was, like, vague) make torture a crime. After his talk, one congressperson came up to him and said, "You know, I agree with you. But 80% of my constituency supports torture in times of war."

Obviously, the resolution for this war or conflict or whatever you want to call it is complex and horribly messy and unavoidably unfair since thousands of innocent people have already lost their lives. Understanding and respecting other cultures is critical. We as Americans demand respect -- or simply expect it -- but we sure do find it difficult to do the same for cultures so different from our own. I admit that I'm as guilty of this as the next person -- the feminist in me has some major issues with certain cultural practices that take place elsewhere in the world and I definitely feel judgmental. I think it's wrong to limit women's rights. But torturing the people who believe differently from me is not going to change their minds -- according to Matthew Alexander, it will only harden their resolve.

The thing is, it is not easy to look at a situation fraught with violence and value judgments and conflicting ideologies and see it through someone else's perspective. But Matthew Alexander's talk tonight made clear how vital it is that we -- the public, not just the soldiers, not just the media -- make every effort to do just that.


While I was at the local independent bookstore, waving my liberal academic flag and nodding vigorously at the attractive and well-spoken Matthew Alexander, D was hitting a homerun for the Red Sox. That's a big deal for a pitcher and he got to keep the ball and everything. Looks like the number one pitcher is making his move for MVP!

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