Quote of the day, far and away

Lay it on the line, why don’t you?

Does anyone believe that if Iran, say, captured an American soldier, kept him awake for eleven days straight, bashed his head and body against plywood walls with a towel around his neck, forced him to stand and sit in stress positions finessed by the Communist Chinese, stuck him in a dark coffin for hours, and then waterboarded him, that the NYT would describe him as a victim of “harsh interrogation techniques”? Do you think Mike Allen would give anonymity to a top Iranian official who defended these techniques as vital to Iran’s national security?

The last seven years have revealed that almost the entire American establishment views itself as immune to the moral and ethical rules it applies to every other country in the world. Now we know, at least. And you can be sure they will protecting each other to the bitter end.

And you wonder why it’s more difficult for us to challenge China from a moral high ground?

Be sure to see that extraordinary post for the jpeg that says it all: we are doing exactly what the State Department has called “torture” when other countries do it. When it’s America doing it, it gets dressed up in euphemisms. There is only one thing to do: Prosecute.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 73 Comments

Australian farts smell like eucalyptus.

April 21, 2009 @ 11:33 am | Comment

Sun Zhigang’s death was reported by one daring paper in Guangzhou and then the Internet took over. It was not widely reported in the mass media until it became an Internet sensation and the government had not choice but to step in. Torture is routine in China, and it is not regularly reported and there is nothing the victims can do about it. And let me ask again, did you not once excuse the behavior of Sun’s torturers and say he kind of had it coming? Think back real hard….

Of course a news is always reported by one paper first. If a paper reported it 2 mins before another paper, then you can say it reported it first.

Torture is routine in China but is not regularly reported. Then how do you know it’s routine? Your uncle works for secret police in China? Tell me, how do you know it if it’s not reported? Please buy some logic in the store.

Guantanamo was reported by one daring paper in Washington DC and then the Internet took over. It was not widely reported in the mass media until it became an Internet sensation and the US government had not choice but to step in.

April 21, 2009 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

Torture is routine in China but is not regularly reported. Then how do you know it’s routine?

Hey, HongXing. Pull my finger…

April 21, 2009 @ 1:19 pm | Comment

Twisted Colour wrote:
“Australian farts smell like eucalyptus.”

That’s what Rupert Murdoch’s new wife, Wendy Deng, says.

April 21, 2009 @ 2:42 pm | Comment

Sorry, TL, but Rupert doesn’t hold Australian citizenship, he’s a Yank. We aussies don’t want him back. His mother, though, is an absolute legend.


April 21, 2009 @ 3:02 pm | Comment

Speaking of farts, who won the Miss America pageant?

While I was watching the Miss America pageant, everyone kept saying: “It’s gonna get really ugly.”

What did they mean?


April 21, 2009 @ 9:12 pm | Comment

@Matt – I’m just going to say this again. Geneva is not vague – it is very clear, it has no loopholes and places precise but non-onerous duties on its signatories. And no, people cannot be executed as spies under American law if they are captured overseas, as this is not within American jurisdiction. Instead what happens is that captives are handed over to the local government to be dealt with.

That captives might be shot out of hand is actually an entirely false argument – local authorities are tasked with detaining the vast majority of detainees. US officers do not have the authority to order men shot out of hand on charges of spying and would be committing a crime if they did so. Summary execution of spies out of uniform (or, indeed, anyone) is in fact a war crime under national law.

Not torturing is not a ‘high road’, it requires only a very basic and minimal level of respect for human rights and the rule of law. There is no excuse for it, neither in the pressure of a job, nor in the duress of circumstance. Even in the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario duress can only be accepted as a partial defence – a guilty sentence must still be delivered. The only explanation for its use as a general practice is moral bankruptcy.

Look, this may be hard to accept, it may seem to add an unfair burden to the challenge faced by service men in the line of fire, but it is in fact for their own protection, and in the long run the observance of international law renders their victory more likely, as no insurgency can be defeated without winning hearts and minds.

You’re probably wondering why I’m arguing like this when we essentially agree, and you touched on the reason in your comment. If this is not dealt with now then a future government will dig it up and make use of it, allowing the idea that there are grey areas around something so basic as the prohibition against torture, even of international terrorists, is an extremely dangerous business.

April 22, 2009 @ 12:04 am | Comment

Well, speculate no more:

“Senior members of the Bush administration who approved the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation measures could face prosecution, President Obama disclosed today .

He said the use of torture reflected America “losing our moral bearings”.

He said his attorney general, Eric Holder, was conducting an investigation and the decision rested with him. Obama last week ruled out prosecution of CIA agents who carried out the interrogation of suspected al-Qaida members at Guantánamo and secret prisons around the world.

But for the first time today he opened up the possibility that those in the administration who gave the go-ahead for the use of waterboarding could be prosecuted.

The revelation will enrage senior Bush administration figures such as the former vice-president Dick Cheney.”


Good, it’s not 100%, but the fact that they’re looking into it means that if they don’t investigate they’re going to have to explain why – and that will be tough. One big question: if they are charged, how many of them will be willing, like Gordon Liddy was, to do federal time rather than turn on the men they worked under? Men can surprise you, but my impression of Jay Bybee, Addington, John Yoo and the rest is that they’ll crumble. I can’t say that this opinion isn’t informed by the cowardice and lack of moral fibre which shine out from every page of the memos they drafted.

I also can’t see Cheney’s request for evidence of the ‘success’ of the use of a procedure – one which needed to be used 183 times in one month on one man to be ‘effective’ – to be released as anything but an attempt to forestall this. It is also remarkable how the man speaks as though he were still in charge.

Ideally, I think the men who carried out the torture should be held responsible for their actions, but I’m certainly aware that this is too likely to raise public anger at the thought of foot soldiers being punished for following orders in what they thought was a good cause.

April 22, 2009 @ 2:39 am | Comment

Could be interesting to have the attorneys who outlined the legality of torture to be tried. FOARP, I think you’re missing my point about the US being one of the only countries out there willing to undergo such self-scrutiny. Give us brothers some props.

For my tastes, bring these attorneys to trial and see what comes up. Don’t hold a trial of the underlings that were told it’s perfectly legal — that ignorant, nauseating Army Reservist Lyndie England comes to mind… just a private or a specialist, and gets held as the straw man. I was once a private, and even I remember the section in the field manual that tells you how to treat prisoners. And I was not an MP.

April 22, 2009 @ 3:45 am | Comment

@Matt – I give absolute credit for what the current US administration has done so far, and I’m sure that the majority of US servicemen, like yourself, are well aware of the correct way to treat prisoners and stick to the rules. I’m sure some will try to accuse the President of hounding his predecessor, but it would have been an easier decision to let the whole thing slide, especially as the economic situation has everyone’s attention.

Please don’t get the impression that I’m some kind of purist or anti-war crusader, everyone knows that in war prisoners catch the rough end of the stick, but there’s a difference between squaddies roughing up looters, and the sanctioning of torture by the highest office in the land. You might also wonder why a Brit like me would get so het up about this – well, apart from my concern about human rights in general, British soldiers may well be getting shot at and bombed by people recruited using Islamist propaganda which makes hay out of the torture scandal. Not just that, but Britain’s role as a US ally may have lead to compromises being made over our own laws prohibiting torture, or to a distancing of the UK from the US.

Your very correct about the people who were involved in the Abu Ghraib having been patsies. Their ‘ringleader’ is still in jail for having done pretty much the same thing these CIA investigators did, the only real difference is that the CIA men had the wise idea of getting a legal opinion to cover their arses with.

April 22, 2009 @ 5:11 am | Comment

Looks like Obama is on the right track (gasp, did I just say that?!) with the nod to the possibility of prosecuting the attorneys. That’s the money shot, not the CIA field agent. It won’t be ultimately rewarding to the far left, but it’s not a bad compromise IMO.

My human side of me says that torture is wrong, it’s against everything I’ve been taught, and that the US has no business in doing it — don’t give the bastards a chance at drawing equivalence to crackpots and despots. The cynical side of me says — do it if it gets actionable intelligence. Lucky for me, though, I don’t think torture works. So I can resolve the internal struggle, and it’s convenient but I’m on slightly shaky ethical grounds.

The vestigial soldier side of me says to drop the insurgents in their tracks while they are still fighting.

April 22, 2009 @ 6:38 am | Comment

Torture is valued not an instrument for arriving at the Truth, but as an instrument for creating a false reality since under intense pain people will say anything. Torture is an instrument of propaganda. In the Khmer Rouge torture center of Tuol Sleng victims were only tortured as much as was needed to obtain their “confession”, after which they were promptly executed.

One wonders to what extent the so-called “War On Terror” is a false reality.

April 22, 2009 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

combatants captured in afghanistan or iraq should have been kept in afghanistan or iraq and then turned over to our allies in the afghani or iraqi government to be tried by them.

others “arrested” outside of combat areas in other countries should have been treated as criminals and handled with current law.

thang is correct it was propaganda.

the concept that 911 created a unique situation requiring that the bush administration be given immunity to do whatever they want with no accountability was driven by laziness and a lack of values.

it is interesting how paulson used the same argument about “uniqueness” so he could get all the money he wanted and have a free hand to use the money how ever he wanted with no accountability.

i think the obama administration should follow the law and us principles and let the chips fall were they may. if clear violations of the law are uncovered then the DOJ should do their job.

Cheney is sticking around and keeping his foot in his mouth in public on the issue because he knows he is a liar and violated the law and american values. give cheney his day in court. he knows he only got away with it because he surrounded himself with “yes” men who fought over who got to please the old man the most. with out his chorus of yes men and no authority to silence dissenting positions cheney must listen to his own conscience and you can see in his eyes that it is not what he wants to hear.

Clinton’s method in the lewinski issue was “deny, deny, deny” Cheney uses that same playbook. Unfortunately for him he is not in a position to control the story, the facts, how they are presented nor silence opposing facts and arguments.

I sympathize with the politics of the situation. there is unfortunately a large number of americans, not a majority, who don’t understand what is wrong with torture some may even think cheney did not go far enough.

Our system of law has held for this long. if bush had forced them to stick to our laws and principles we could have dealt with all the prisoners at gitmo and elsewhere and there would be no problem.

surprised cheney did not push to rename DHS the ministry of peace.

April 24, 2009 @ 4:21 am | Comment

Torture is routine in China, and it is not regularly reported and there is nothing the victims can do about it

Fact is though Richard, the Chinese government does not countenance torture. Its just that there is lack of a transparent enough judiciary and society to prevent it from happening on a widespread scale. But that is a problem with newly industrializing countries. When America was at a similar stage of development she was hanging cattle rustlers without much due process, and lynchings were common. But still lynchings were not approved by the Federal government of the time – so they could be blamed for slackness and inaction perhaps – but not for the deed itself.

Blaming the Chinese government for the beating deaths of some inmates in custody is the same as blaming the American government everytime someone is wrongfully gunned down by the police in the US, or given a beating (which I am sure happens sometimes still).

Torture, and beating confessions happens too often in China – but again it is not something that is considered to be a desirable thing on the part of the government. And it is illegal. Hence the difference between Chinese government and the official legitimizing of torture by the Bush government.

Having said all this – regardless of whether you are anti-China, anti-American or pro-whatever, it is unreasonable to prosecute people who carried out policy which was legal at the time, and which they thought was in the best interests of their country at the time, and most of all which they thought would save lives. If you do prosecute, the relevant agencies will in future be gun shy in their pursuit of terrorists.

April 24, 2009 @ 11:06 am | Comment

You are really putting words in my mouth John. I didn’t say the Chinese government countenances torture (that can be debated), just that it does occur here routinely (as it does in many countries, for the record). I never said I blame “the Chinese government” for the beating death of Sun Zhigang. The question of the government’s role in torture is murky

Completely disagree with the “when America was at a similar stage of development” BS. But that’s a whole day’s work. With that argument, you can justify any act of barbarism and say, “But look, America did that when it was at a similar state of development.” The parallels aren’t nearly as neat and clean as that. Licensed brutality to blacks in the south was sometimes carried out by urbane, highly educated, “developed” people. Singapore is as developed as you can get, yet torture is a perfectly legal punishment there.

it is unreasonable to prosecute people who carried out policy which was legal at the time, and which they thought was in the best interests of their country at the time, and most of all which they thought would save lives.

You really need to study up on your history and ethics, John. The most bestial SS monsters believed they were doing what was best for humanity, saving the life of Europe from the hell of Jewish domination. And it was perfectly legal to smash in the skulls of children in front of their mothers. They were only doing it to save lives and make Germany and Europe a better, safer place.

April 24, 2009 @ 12:27 pm | Comment

Here’s Liz Cheney trying to keep her dad out of jail:


Here’s someone who hasn’t mortgaged their soul:


I’m going to say this one more time. There is no debate to be had about whether torture is wrong or not, there is no debate to be had about whether the things done to the detainees was torture. Either you accept that depriving people of sleep for more than a week, slamming their head 30 times against a wall, drowning them 183 times in a month, shackling them in a standing position for days, beating them about the head and stomach, and threatening to kill their family are torture, or you are a morally bankrupt person who wishes to deny reality.

April 24, 2009 @ 9:46 pm | Comment

Very good post. Made me think.

April 25, 2009 @ 5:00 am | Comment

Speaking of false realities:

“Scientists said the virus combines genetic material from pigs, birds and humans in a way researchers have not seen before.”


I guess that the leadership could create an entirely false reality in a society if the people in the society were: (a) institutionalized such that they are infected with conformity and group think and promoted on the basis of conformity and group think; (b) kept in a constant state of fear of authority, being different, fear of the external bogey man; and (c) fed with a constant stream of “evidence” obtained through torture confirming the false reality.

April 25, 2009 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

US has a lot of transparency and hence all these mild techniques of torture (did I say mild? Well double that) are talk of the town the world over. To put things in perspective, this torture should be reported alongside the kind used by other countries. This kind of skewed reporting gives people esp in Islamic countries the idea that oh US is the only one torturing. Since their own countries are not transparent, they do not know what freckin hell is going on there.

Why does US have to occupy the high moral ground on anything? It is but one amongst equals and not the first.

April 29, 2009 @ 9:57 am | Comment

A Chinese – The US may not be more moral than China, but then again, when does country A need to be ‘more moral’ than country B before it can criticize B? Who is to judge when country A is ‘morally superior’ enough to criticize B?

It is a naive to think that a country is clean simply because it didn’t invade a foreign territory. Britain did nothing when Hitler invaded Poland, and likewise western nations stood idly for a long time when people were killing each other like pigs in the former Yugoslavia. Do you seriously think these countries are “clean” for the general principle that no invasion of foreign countries is involved?

In any case, US troops are now in foreign soil to eradicate elements they deem hostile to their national interest – a notion called forward defense – and virtually the very same notion based on which China had justified its involvement in the Korean War as well as Sino-Vietnam conflicts. So what exactly it is that makes the US ‘dirtier’ than China?

Even if you think China is cleaner than the US because it hasn’t invaded any foreign countries at least the last 30 years, that doesn’t mean China is innocent by a mile – it was exactly 30 years ago, in 1979, that China was involved in a armed conflicted with Vietnam. And how did you come up with the notion that 30 years is a long enough period for China to have washed off its “sins”? Did China set itself as a moral role model by refraining from criticizing other nations when it was involved in a conflict with Vietnam 30 years ago? Whatever aggressiveness China may not be showing to other country now, it is showing it with a vengence against domestic dissent. Does your sense of morality apply only to international relations?

Let there be no mistake – politics, especially international relations, has always been about interest – and morality is nothing more than an after-the-fact justification. China can criticize others just as it can be criticized. If China wants to call itself a world power, then be prepared to face the real world where nations CAN and DO express their opinions of each other freely.

May 11, 2009 @ 9:08 pm | Comment

@another chinese

i don’t believe you have posted here before, so please let me welcome you here as a fellow commenter. i basically agree with what you said so please don’t construe this as an attack on your points but there are a couple of errors in your examples:

“Britain did nothing when Hitler invaded Poland”. This is incorrect, the UK declared war on Nazi Germany as a direct consequence of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. I presume you are confusing Poland with Czechoslovakia, and the European nations’ policy of appeasement during the 1930s. This was due, I think we should all remember, to guilt over a perceived injustice against Germany in the aftermath of WW1

“and likewise western nations stood idly for a long time when people were killing each other like pigs in the former Yugoslavia.” Again, you are overlooking the Dayton Agreement of 1995 and various attempts at a peaceful solution thoroughout the 90s. If you are in China I should let you know the link is wikipedia:


The NATO bombing only commenced when it became extremely clear these attempts to bring people to the table were not working, and required a good deal of arm twisting to get the US involved.

With all due respect, I think maybe the Rwandan genocide might be a better example of how the west could have intervened in an unfolding tragedy and decided to sit on their hands. I submit these points just to pre-empt criticism of your points and provide examples backing up your excellent points

“It is a naive to think that a country is clean simply because it didn’t invade a foreign territory”


“The US may not be more moral than China, but then again, when does country A need to be ‘more moral’ than country B before it can criticize B? Who is to judge when country A is ‘morally superior’ enough to criticize B?”

Hope to see you again!

May 11, 2009 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

Thanks to both Si and Another Chinese. Excellent comments, though they won’t do much to change A Chinese’s mind.

May 11, 2009 @ 10:10 pm | Comment

The best wife of all to marry, of course, is Math. Because then you can divorce him/her/it. The only question is, in terms of legality, etc., is Math a man, woman, animal, or vegetable? Is it straight marriage, gay marriage, or animal marriage. Unfortunately, I can’t be as absurdist as Math. Sorry.

May 12, 2009 @ 12:10 am | Comment

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