Torture, Ideology and Common Sense
Procrastinating with the latest Daily Show episodes, I saw this interview that made me quite curious. Matthew Alexander is a former US military who conducted and administered interrogations with detainees in Iraq and can claim to have collected the necessary information that led to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
As bleak as this might sound, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the man speak.
These are his two main points:
First: Torture is counter-productive and doesn’t yield positive results. In the short run, they bring no reliable information. In the long run, the practice of torture leads to resistance against the US army. While this is not particularly new or daring a statement, it is refreshing to hear it from a US army staff.
Second (and this might seem more surprising): He had more success with a cooperative approach. Supporters of anti-US radicals in Iraq seem to be in the game for rather pragmatic reasons, and not because of a fundamentalist ideology. By finding common ground, he says, he could get detainees on his side.
I don’t yet know what to make of the author personally. Having supervised more than 2,000 interrogations in Iraq, it is hard for me to belief that he did not participate in the misconduct that seems to be common practice. If he did, my sincerest respect.
But in any case, it’s worth listening to him. What he has to say challenges some beliefs the US and in the West in general holds about Al Qaeda and the supporters of radical Islamic violence. It shows that interpreting fundamentalism and anti-Western radicalism in the Middle East as clash of civilisations or a war of two irreconcilable cultures is fundamentally wrong.
I looked for more by Matthew Alexander and found among other things an opinion piece in the Washington Post and an interview with Anti War Radio, where he elaborates on his interrogations of Al Qaeda supporters.
His description does not at all fit with our idea of these people as fundamentalist Islamic radicals. According to him, supporters who actually believed in Al Qaeda ideology were a “very small minority”. Most most people joined the insurgency for economic reasons, for affiliation by clan or kinship, or for protection by the group from Shiite militant groups.
Most of the people he interrogated had reasons to join the fight that were understandable even to a US soldier. Interrogating Al Qaeda supporters in Iraq, Alexander says, was not much different from interrogating criminals in the US.
This realisation opens a whole new negotiation space based on common sense. Why, after all, would someone make a decision to use torture? Torture only makes sense if the person believes that there is no space for communication and for co-operation. Torture makes sense if there is other way to get information.
This is the fallacy if we believe in a clash of irreconcilable world views. It removes our ability to communicate. It makes coercion the only possible strategy.
Alexander describes the transformation of his staff when they started to understand the motivations of their detainees. He describes how these beliefs were challenged:
“We no longer saw our prisoners as the stereotypical al-Qaeda evildoers we had been repeatedly briefed to expect; we saw them as Sunni Iraqis, often family men protecting themselves from Shiite militias and trying to ensure that their fellow Sunnis would still have some access to wealth and power in the new Iraq. Most surprisingly, they turned out to despise al-Qaeda in Iraq as much as they despised us, but Zarqawi and his thugs were willing to provide them with arms and money.”
He calls his interrogation method one based on ingenuity. “It is not about converting, it is not about dominating, it is about negotiating and compromise.”
One might also call it common sense. It’s a “re-humanization” of an enemy who was dehumanized in the process of war, propaganda and ideology. It’s common sense because it is the attempt to understand another person; a person you were told you could not understand.
Once the “enemy” in a conflict is dehumanized, once communication is lost, once coercion is the only means of communication, the conflict gets protracted and violence intensifies.
According to Alexander, “it’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. “