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“A Stupid, Bone-Deep Republican Orthodoxy”: The Quack Science Behind Donald Trump’s Love Of Torture

Torture is utterly worthless for interrogation. This fact is now established beyond doubt, thanks to extensive scholarly investigation and specific investigations conducted by the Senate and independent groups.

And yet, vastly too many people, from the average citizen up to top political elites, still believe otherwise. Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson recently argued that torture should again become American policy.

Sadly, yet another work on the pointlessness of torture is rather timely. This time it’s Shane O’Mara, a Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Dublin College. His book is called Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation.

I have previously recounted Professor Darius Rejali’s argument against the utility of torture. He builds a comprehensive case, from simple mechanical problems with inflicting pain on someone to how it corrodes the professionalism of organizations that practice it. O’Mara, by contrast, restricts himself to the effects of torture on the nervous system, which are explored in extreme detail.

He does this through an exploration of the notorious Torture Memos, written by Bush administration lawyer John Yoo. The memos provide a view of the Bush administration’s original pro-torture case, as well as a reasonable approximation of the lay arguments in favor of torture. In O’Mara’s work, each memo section dealing with a particular torture technique is compared to a thorough investigation of the corresponding studies.

In each case, the memos are found to be utterly disconnected from the relevant scientific literature. The psychiatric and medical evidence is very complex, but it basically boils down to the same basic problem with using torture for interrogation, just manifested in different ways. Interrogation is the act of trying to induce a captive to recite the contents of his memory, but torture deeply damages the memory functions of the brain.

Memory is complicated and delicate, prone to faults and breakdown. Eyewitness reports are unreliable and easy to influence. More surprising, it is extremely easy to induce false confessions — and not only through torture. Simply hurting someone until they agree to to sign a confession they know to be false generally works well (as the Chicago police department could tell you). But it’s trivially easy to get people in laboratory experiments to actually believe they have committed crimes they did not do in reality, with well-placed suggestions and social pressure.

Extreme stress, such as that brought on by severe pain or drowning panic (eg., from waterboarding) directly damages an already shaky and unreliable memory system. Many experiments have demonstrated that “extreme behavioral stressors caused grave memory deficits: in particular, impairment in visuospatial capacity and recall of previously learned information,” writes O’Mara. Extreme heat or cold similarly disrupt brain function — and can even result in permanent brain damage.

Sleep deprivation can be even worse for memory function. Extreme lack of sleep — the memos state that prisoners can be kept awake for up to 180 hours — induces a state akin to a major psychiatric disorder. Victims become profoundly disorientated and incoherent, and often hallucinate vividly. That it might be problematic for an interrogation method to induce an inability to distinguish between reality and imagination seems not to have occurred to anyone: “The vast empirical literature showing these deleterious effects is uncited in toto in the Torture Memos.”

Worse still, there in an additive effect when such techniques are combined — sleep deprivation plus hypothermia is worse for brain function than either one in isolation, and so on. This, naturally, was the default approach to CIA interrogation in the Bush years.

Torturing for information is like trying to build a sand castle with a firehose, and it is patently obvious that Yoo (and by extension, the rest of the Bush torturers) did not do the slightest scholarly investigation of it. However, Yoo adopts a confident, expert tone, often stating categorically what the medical literature does and does not show (constantly getting it wrong), and citing all manner of empirical data — just none that are remotely relevant. It shows every possible sign of an amoral legal hack backfilling to justify a preconceived decision, and papering over his utter medical ignorance with bluster and citation of half-understood or straight-up fabricated evidence.

It’s a sad irony that a great deal of this evidence on torture comes from experiments on U.S. soldiers being trained to survive enemy capture — but there is virtually no science on actual interrogation practices. Indeed, ordinary police are given a mere handful of hours in interrogation instruction, while the CIA actively threw out the government’s best interrogators. Of all the trillions spent on the war on terror, it’s beyond disgraceful that none of it managed to finance a couple studies on quality interrogation.

At any rate, as O’Mara notes, the pro-torture case, from Yoo on down, rests entirely on folk wisdom — probably instilled by one of a hundred action movies or TV shows, where the tough hero saves the world from a nuclear explosion by a quick and easy application of brutal violence. Such portrayals are as immoral as they are unrealistic.

That brings me back to Trump. In his justification for bringing torture back, he inadvertently let slip one of the real lizard-brain motivators behind torture: a desire for retribution. “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing,” he recently said at a rally. This attitude is not just monstrous (recall that a great many people tortured by the U.S. were entirely innocent) but dangerous. It places the desire for vengeance against suspected terrorists above the need for quality interrogation and intelligence work. It’s stupid, childish, and bone-deep Republican orthodoxy.


By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, Donald Trump, Torture | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Obama Makes His Case; ‘Freedom Is More Powerful Than Fear’”: Our Success Won’t Depend On Tough Talk, Abandoning Our Values, Or Giving Into Fear

President Obama’s Oval Office address on the terrorist threat treated the American public like grown-ups. His critics hated it.

It’s true that for many of the most engaged observers, last night’s remarks broke little new policy ground, but Beltway pundits and Republican presidential candidates probably weren’t the intended audience. Rather, Obama was speaking to a broad American mainstream, which includes folks who may be asking questions like, “Why aren’t we going after ISIS?” and “Do we have a strategy to deal with the threat?”

You and I may know the answers to those questions, but the president directed his message to those who don’t necessarily follow public affairs closely.

“Here’s what I want you to know: The threat from terrorism is real, but we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us. Our success won’t depend on tough talk, or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL are hoping for. Instead, we will prevail by being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.”

The four-part plan includes familiar tenets: a continued military offensive against ISIS targets; training and equipment support to Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting on the ground; strengthening an international coalition; and pursuing a political resolution to the Syrian war.

It’s a detail that goes largely overlooked, but many of the leading Republican presidential candidates have sketched out their plans for U.S. policy towards ISIS – and they look awfully similar to what Obama presented last night. Change some of the rhetoric – add more chest-thumping bravado – and take out some of the president’s calls for preventing gun violence, and the simple truth is that the Obama administration’s plan is largely indistinguishable from many GOP plans.

But presenting this policy vision wasn’t the sole point of the Oval Office address.

The president challenged Congress to limit suspected terrorists’ access to guns and to authorize the military offensive against ISIS that began nearly a year and a half ago. He challenged Muslim leaders to “continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda promote; to speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

And he challenged Americans of every stripe not to give into fear and embrace discriminatory attitudes. Obama made the appeal on principle, but just as importantly, he made clear that respect for diversity can be part of an effective counter-terrorism strategy. “It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently,” the president explained. “Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL…. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

Broadly speaking, this apparently wasn’t what the right and many pundits wanted to hear. It seems Obama’s critics see a president with a steady hand, showing grace under fire, and it leaves them unsatisfied. The president’s detractors demand more righteous fury, and less calm, resilient leadership.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan added over night that the question is now “whether common sense and an awareness of limits still have a place in American politics.” If some of the initial reactions last night are any indication, the answer may prove to be discouraging.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | American People, Fearmongering, GOP Presidential Candidates, ISIS | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Lindsey Graham’s Untimely Truth”: The GOP Battle Over Identity Politics Has Already Been Won

It would be easy to dismiss Lindsey Graham as a sore loser even before the contest has been decided. In the Republican presidential campaign, his support has hovered between the negligible and the nonexistent. “I’m at 1 percent,” Graham quite honestly admitted to the Republican Jewish Coalition last Thursday. “The election is still long away. Help me stay in the race.” But it is precisely because Graham is doing so poorly that he offers some valuable insights on the outcome of a battle within the GOP that began with Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012.

When not begging for a lifeline from the audience, Graham went on the offensive against the three candidates who have the clearest path to winning the nomination: Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. All three, Graham argued, were waging campaigns that threatened to alienate constituencies that the GOP could ill-afford to lose, Hispanics (in the case of Trump) and young women (in the case of Rubio and Cruz). Both were identified by the Republican National Committee as voting blocs that were key to the GOP’s rehabilitation.

Given the fact that the three targets of Graham’s wrath have all been doing well in recent polls, it’s tempting to wave away his speech as mere sour grapes. Yet as a rock-bottom candidate, Graham also has the freedom that comes with not having any real supporters to alienate. His speech was remarkably blunt, and articulated the very real issues around ethnicity and gender that the GOP is facing in national politics.

Graham pitched his speech as a direct response to Cruz, who was the previous speaker. During the question-and-answer period of his speech, Cruz was asked how he, as a pro-lifer, would make his pitch to “staunchly pro-choice voters” who are otherwise conservative. He argued that in order to win the next presidential election, the GOP had to tack to the right, not the center. “In Washington, there are political consultants who tell us over and over and over again that the way you win is you run to the middle,” Cruz said. “Every time we follow that advice we get clobbered. It doesn’t work. And the reason it doesn’t work is very simple. If you compare 2004, the last race we won nationally, to 2008 and 2012, the biggest difference is the millions upon millions of conservative voters who showed up in ‘04 and stayed home in ‘08 and stayed home in bigger numbers in ‘12. And I believe if we are going to win, the central question in this general election is how do you motivate and inspire and bring back to the polls the 54 million evangelical Christians who stayed home in 2012.”

Speaking immediately after Cruz, Graham dropped the prepared talk he had been planning on giving, which focused on ISIS and the Middle East. Instead, Graham said, he wanted to “take issue” with Cruz’s analysis. “Why do we lose?” Graham asked. “How many of you believe that we’re losing elections because we’re not hardass enough on immigration?” There was a smattering of applause, as some in the audience seemed to agree with this premise. “Well, I don’t agree with you,” Graham went on, with a tightly pursed smile. “I believe we’re losing the Hispanic vote because they think we don’t like them.

“I believe that it’s not about turning out evangelical Christians,” he added. “It’s about repairing the damage done by incredibly hateful rhetoric driving a wall between us and the fastest-growing demographic in America, who should be Republicans. I believe Donald Trump is destroying the Republican Party’s chance to win an election that we can’t afford to lose.”

Graham went on to note that Republicans aren’t just turning off Hispanics, but also young women. “How many of you believe we have a problem with young women as Republicans?” Graham asked, before zeroing in on both Cruz and Rubio’s opposition to abortion even in cases of rape.

As a critique of how Republican identity politics are alienating key demographics, Graham’s speech would be hard to top. The only problem is that Graham’s own way of finessing divisive social issues was hardly better than those he criticized. “How do you get a pro-choice person to vote for you?” Graham asked. “Let me tell you what I will do: I am pro-life, you are pro-choice, ISIL is neither.” This bizarre non sequitur was no more a response to the problem than Cruz’s fantasy about 54 million missing evangelical voters.

Graham seemed angry for most of his speech and when he walked away from the podium he stumbled and nearly fell. His flustered behavior seems to mirror the frustrations of sidelined Republicans, like John Kasich and Jeb Bush, who have gotten nowhere with their appeals to voters outside the conservative hard core.

Graham spoke like a prophet crying in the wilderness. Given the fact that Trump has not just dominated the polls, but also set the terms of the Republican political debate, there is no real audience for the message Graham was preaching. With the contest narrowing down to a battle between Trump and Trump-lite figures like Cruz and Rubio, Graham’s arguments that the GOP needs to be more inclusive and reach out to voters it has alienated in earlier elections is an untimely truth—accurate enough as analysis, but with no bearing on who the Republican nominee will be.


By: Jeet Heer, The New Republic, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP, Lindsey Graham | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Political Stupidity Of The GOP’s Political ‘Experts'”: Simply Out Of Touch With Political Reality

The GOP’s political specialists — its political operatives and consultants — aren’t very smart about politics.

GOP operatives seem to believe that what GOP voters really like about Donald Trump is his “style” and “populism.” If only other Republican candidates would imitate some aspects of Trump’s style, the consultants bleat, they could surf some of the Trump wave.

This is facile nonsense.

Political operatives and the media like to blast “Trumpism” as substance-free bluster. But the parts of Trumpism that have most resonated with GOP voters actually map onto a clear and fairly obvious political agenda: hostile to immigration, trade and globalization, foreign adventures, and an economic and political system that seems to be rigged by insiders against outsiders. Combine that with a big appetite for national greatness. Regardless of the merits of this agenda, it’s an agenda. Call it the radical center, as my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty and the Washington Free Beacon‘s Matt Continetti have.

This is why Republican insiders’ attacks against Trump have been singularly ineffective. He’s not a true conservative! they shout. Yes, and Trump voters are, at least in part, rebelling against conservative orthodoxy. If you want to deflate Trump, you have to put forward actual proposals that will appeal to Trump voters in a package that doesn’t have Trump’s baggage. Emoting like a reality TV star while peddling a flat tax simply won’t do.

But the GOP political class’ political stupidity goes beyond Trump. Consider immigration. I’d have my own super PAC if I got a dollar for every time a GOP political operative told a journalist on background that the way for the GOP to be nationally competitive and win Latinos is to support comprehensive immigration reform. This is simply not true, as Real Clear Politics Sean Trende has exhaustively and laboriously documented.

If it supported comprehensive immigration reform, the GOP would lose a chunk of the white vote, and anyhow, Latino voters are by and large driven by the same concerns as other voters, not just immigration. The GOP’s disadvantage among them has more to do with the income difference between Latino voters and median voters than with anything intrinsic to Latino voters.

Or consider another issue where GOP political operatives are simply out of touch with political reality: abortion. While most Republicans are socially conservative, most GOP political operatives tend to fall more on the libertarian side of the conservative spectrum and are often socially liberal. Their advice to most GOP politicians: Just shut up about abortion, lest you turn off women. Just do the minimum required to signal to pro-life voters that you’re on their side, and thereafter duck the issue.

This is wrongheaded, and almost certainly hurts the GOP nationally. Millions upon millions of women are more likely to call themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice.” What’s more, the significant political gap within women is between single women and married women. Single women are very pro-choice, and very Democratic anyway. Many more married women are Republicans — and the rest are up for grabs. They may even be the single most important swing constituency. And many of them are pro-life, albeit squishy on the issue.

Republicans have a built-in political advantage against Democrats on abortion. They could use something like late-term abortion to drive a wedge between the Democratic nominee and key swing voters — especially suburban moms. For the GOP, it is a tragedy of politico groupthink that the party doesn’t use this strategy more.

Political operatives think voters are boobs. And sure, your average voter may not be a policy wonk, but that doesn’t mean she’s stupid. People can be quite canny, especially when you’re talking about their wallet. So no, Trumpism isn’t just about flash, and giving flash without substance in response won’t change it, because voters (yes, even Trump voters) do care about substance. Similarly, Latinos are not an interest group that cares only about issues related to their identity, but care instead about a broad spectrum of issues. And women, believe it or not, are not defined by their uteruses, and are just as capable as men of forming their own considered views on abortion, as with any other issue.

Voters want to feel like politicians understand them, yes, but they also want politicians to give them answers that will solve their problems, and they do have a capacity for evaluating these answers and formulating views about them, and that does influence how they vote.

And if the GOP got a better class of politicos, it might win more elections.


By: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Political Consultants, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Staying True To Our Traditions”: President Obama Reminds Us Of Our Better Selves

Our airwaves have been filled lately with calls for war crimes from the likes of Donald Trump and hate-filed screeds against Muslims as Republican candidates for president try to one-up each other on how tough they can sound about dealing with terrorists. Following the shootings in San Bernardino, that has only escalated.

Meanwhile, the American public hasn’t been privy to much of a reasoned discussion of what we can (and can’t) do about ISIL and the threat of terrorism. That is why President Obama chose to give a speech on the topic last night. It was a reminder that yes, we are fighting ISIL by:

1. Launching airstrikes against ISIL leaders, heavy weapons, oil tankers,     infrastructure.

2. Training and providing equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces  fighting ISIL on the ground.

3. Gathering and sharing intelligence to stop ISIL operations.

4. Pursuing a political resolution to the Syrian civil war.

But perhaps even more importantly, President Obama articulated what we shouldn’t do when it comes to dealing with terrorism. First of all, “we should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want.” Not only that, it wouldn’t work – as we saw in Iraq.

But secondly, he took on the fear-mongering against Muslims directly.

We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like ISIL want…

It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. Because when we travel down that road, we lose. That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL…

Even in this political season, even as we properly debate what steps I and future Presidents must take to keep our country safe, let’s make sure we never forget what makes us exceptional. Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear; that we have always met challenges – whether war or depression, natural disasters or terrorist attacks – by coming together around our common ideals as one nation, as one people. So long as we stay true to that tradition, I have no doubt America will prevail.

For those who were willing to listen, President Obama was basically cutting through all the noise to remind the American people of our better selves. In this season of campaign promises where candidates are expected to outline how THEY can do better, he might be the one person who is best positioned to do that.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 7, 2015

December 8, 2015 Posted by | American Values, Donald Trump, GOP Presidential Candidates, Muslims, Terrorism | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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