Saturday, October 14, 2006

Watch How We Used To Fill The Empty Spaces

Over at Inactivist, Alex has found the Washington Post’s heartbreaking story of Abdul Rahim, one of our prisoners at Gitmo. Rahim was captured and tortured by the Taliban, and to stop the torture he made a video denouncing the West:

Rahim left his family home in the United Arab Emirates after a quarrel with his strict father and was captured by Taliban fighters as he crossed into Afghanistan. They took him to an al-Qaeda training camp, and when he tried to flee, soldiers put him in prison and tortured him, the records say.

While in a cell in Kandahar, Rahim said, he gave his captors what they wanted to hear: He falsely confessed on videotape that he was a spy for the United States and promised to renounce the West and wage jihad. Among the people who tortured him, he said, was one of America's most notorious enemies: al-Qaeda operative Muhammad Atef, who was killed in 2001.

Rahim's account of being imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban is supported by newspaper accounts about Rahim and fellow prisoners whom the Taliban abandoned when U.S. forces began bombing Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It is also supported by documents from impartial agencies that had contact with Rahim, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross.

I wonder if it's also supported by, say, a lack of any U.S. records showing that Rahim was one of our spies? If he never spied for us, that would lend more credence to his story; if he did spy for us, shouldn't we assume that his statements were uttered to stop the torture, rather than evidence of a sincere change of heart? Apparently our government chooses not to view Rahim's case in that light. I wonder why?

And then I think of this: there’s a guy named Patrick McManus who writes humor columns for various hunting and fishing magazines. I’ve read several of his books and found them mildly amusing; I’m sure I’d enjoy them far more if I were an outdoorswoman myself.

Anyway, he once wrote a piece about what a big deal it is for a young outdoorsy boy to finally receive his first very-own tackle box. When this happens, said McManus, the first thing the boy does is go to the discount store and buy several cards of extremely cheap, gaudy fish-lures in shapes and colors not found in nature. According to McManus, no fish has ever been enticed by one of these lures, and no fish ever will. So why buy them? Because the lures serve a very important purpose: to fill the spaces in a young boy’s tackle box so he can open it and see a boxful of lures rather than a boxful of emptiness.

More and more it looks like a lot of the guys we’re arresting in the war on terror fill the same purpose: not to help catch anyone who needs to be caught, but only to fill the empty spaces. “Lookit all the lures in my tackle box! And all the terrorists in my prison!”


Blogger rhhardin said...

You get type I and type II errors. One is failing to deal harshly with a genuine enemy, and the other is dealing harshly with somebody who isn't an enemy.

A good implementation is not one that never makes either mistake, but one that deals with a high percentage of genuine enemies with the smallest number of mistakes.

(It's easy to deal with a high percentage of genuine enemies - just deal with everybody as an enemy. It's easy never to deal harshly with a non-enemy - just don't deal harshly with anybody. Competence in the harsh dealing deals with most genuine enemies, while keeping the non-enemy level low. So that's the question to be asking.)

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...


Good procedures can reduce errors. It's not that we have procedures in place and the procedures didn't work. It's that our leaders have absolutely refused to implement the basic procedures of a justice system.

Sure, due process produces type I errors while reducing type II errors. But it needn't be zero-sum. For instance, on the matter of surveillance, I maintain that a properly designed system of judicial warrants can actually reduce type I errors by improving resource allocation. If you can't come up with a good reason for doing the search or wiretap or whatever, then why are you doing it? Why not spend those resources on something more promising?

Also, while hard cases will inevitably produce errors, a guy who was tortured by the Taliban into saying what they wanted should not be that hard of a case, especially if his coerced statement contains easily falsifiable (or provable) statements like "I am an American spy." Shouldn't be hard for America's spy agencies to figure that one out, one way or the other.

8:26 PM  

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