The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, April 24, 2009

State of Play (2009), Oldboy (2003)

State of Play (2009)

Was in a bad mood last night, and went to see this Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck vehicle, and it was just what I needed to take me out of myself. This is one of the most serious films I've ever seen, while simultaneously structured as a crackerjack (showing my age there!) thriller about the death of a Congressional aide, and how it derails the investigation of a Blackwater-type "private security" firm. The movie simultaneously warns

a) of the growth of these mercenary organizations (who was it who said that a country is dying when it hires soldiers rather than recruits its own citizens?) and the way they can be used to circumvent posse comitatus.

b)the death of newspapers and the growth of irresponsible blogging.

Trust me: the entertainment value here is almost as high as "All the President's Men." It has action and genuine suspense. But, adapted from a six-hour BBC production, "State of Play" (and I still have no idea what that title means) is concerned with forces that could actually destroy our nation. Doesn't get more serious than that.

Now, as for blogging versus newspapers, I think that eventually this will be moot. Print isn't frickin' sacred. The real advantage newspapers have is a traditional structure for error-checking, collaboration and mentoring. And blogging will eventually develop the same thing. There will be sites with the reputation of the New York Times, and they will link to, or stream (I don't know the right term) blogs that have been proven trustworthy. The future isn't as hierarchical, but in many ways that egalitarianism, once tamed, may be a force for good that is absolutely mind-blowing. At least, that's my take on it. "State of Play" is a B+ as a movie, an A+ for intent.

Oldboy (2003)

I hear that Steven Spielberg and Will Smith want to remake this Korean suspense film. All I can say is that it is WAY out of the zone for both of them, and I have a hard time imagining what in the world they're thinking of. Supposedly, they want to film the original Japanese Manga, not "remake" the movie, which apparently added some (no spoilers here) rather controversial elements to an already bizarre premise.

Here it is. An alcoholic businessman is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for fifteen years. Yep, you read that right. Then he is finally released, and given a limited period of time to figure out what the hell happened to him, or even more terrible things will occur. Violent, funny, sexy, suspenseful, existential, filled with bravura filmmaking (CNN called it one of the 10 best Asian films ever made) and heartbreaking almost beyond belief, "Oldboy" isn't like anything else you've ever seen. I don't want to say too much, except that it does all make sense in the end. And at the end is one of those choices no one should ever have to make. Lord God, Billy Bob...what a movie. Oh, and at least one octopus was DEFINITELY harmed in the making of this film. An "A." Strong, strong stuff, but if you enjoy bizarre suspense, or Asian cinema, or wonder what Spielberg is smoking these's your answer. Yow. Think I need some mental floss


Does anyone out there know a "crazy maker"? This is a person who cannot get their life together, and if you associate with them, their nuttiness starts creeping into your life. Even worse is that they have belief systems or world-views that are toxic, or distorted. Buy into them, see the world from their perspective, and your life stops working. Getting into a relationship with a CrazyMaker can be intoxicatingly first. But it can make you question your own reality after a while. It's worse if its a member of your family, someone like a mother or father who you want to please and connect with, but who is just flat toxic. Seems to me that about the only thing you can do is center yourself, and refuse to be defined by their emotional outbursts. Anyone know someone like that? How did you hook up with them, and how did you deal with it...or are you still dealing with it?


As the torture memos come out, I feel a need to say something that I really believe to be true. The experts seem to be unanimous that torture is less effective in extracting valid information than other interrogation techniques that require building rapport. But there is a catch here: to build rapport with someone, you have to respect them. You have to be able to see their essential humanity, and not place yourself above them. Torture basically strikes me as the attempt to wring information from the body of someone for whom you have absolute contempt.

To the degree that I am right, then it makes sense that those who think Islam is inferior to Christianity, Arabs are inferior to whites (or "Americans" as it is politely put), etc., would gravitate in that direction. If there is anyone who supports the "enhanced interrogation" techniques who believes in equality between these groups, please stand up and correct me. But the same radio shows where torture is supported has equal numbers of calls explaining why Islam is horrible. They really do seem to go together.

Again, please...if there is someone who can offer a dissenting opinion on this, I'd love to hear it.


Anonymous said...

Married a CrazyMaker and am still dealing with it, though divorced. She was the most exciting thing I had ever laid eyes on. We made a good couple for a long time in that I provided stability and she kept things interesting. We both got along very well. I think she wanted to be more like me in ways and vis versa. It was when her craziness started to conflict directly with what was best for our family that issues arose. I did not totally realize the extent of her craziness (or it got worse with time) until we started talking to marriage counselors, lawyers and eventually judges. Her instability was apparent. It did make me feel vindicated since, as you said, I had at times bought into her rationales to the point I wondered if I was the nut (she seemed to think so). Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was a Crazy Maker. A charming, petite little firecracker of woman with a personality as intense as her flaming red hair. I think her mother had undiagnosed bipolar issues, they run in our family. With a bipolar mother and an alcoholic father it's no surprise that Grandma's reality was a little more vibrant and unpredictable than the usual. My mother did her best to stand between me and the bad part of Grandma's crazy so I mostly knew that from anecdote. I got to play with the best parts of her. Grandma was an amusement park unto herself.

Then I married my grandmother. A different package, of course, but same kind of Crazy Maker. At first I just enjoyed the ride, the intensity of it all. Enmeshing feels good when you've been feeling lonely. I trusted him when he said he knew better than I did and I tried to be better so that he'd be happy again. That nearly broke me. So I tried to disengage and his wounds were so overwhelming I felt I had to apply myself again to stop the hemorrhaging. Now I am just trying really hard to find my own true north and not let him be my lodestone. When I know my compass is working, then I'll be able to choose my next move.

poltergeist said...

"State of Play" (and I still have no idea what that title means).

Spookanese. As-in the state of play currently in motion relative to the game at hand as it presently stands. The game-plan that one is currently using.

Craig B. said...

I've had a few of the CM's, friends and lovers. I walked. Nothing else even comes close to working.

I did have a roomate like that who I had an interesting seriies of conversations with- she'd come into my room and start raving about her day...and I'd demand actualy, provable facts- we'd basically go through her sentences: "These Asian women at the market think I killed Kurt Cobain". Oh, were they speaking English? No? OK, so you THOUGHT that's what they thought...pause "Yes". Why were you thinking about Kurt? was actually very amazing.

Anonymous said...

Chavo, your roommate sounds like a handful of schizophrenics I've known.

Marty S said...

Steve: I'm your contradictory case. I had Muslim coworker with whom I was friendly. When our company was taken over in mid 2000, he took a job out of state. After 9/11, when I heard a lot of people were giving Muslims a hard time, I sent him an email asking how he and his family were doing, saying I hoped wasn't experiencing any backlash. My general theory on religions goes like this. One day God held a seminar for all the prophets from all the religions and told them what he expected from us humans. Even though they all heard the same talk they each brought different experiences to the seminar so they all heard his requirements slightly differently and so reported them back to their followers differently. Hence, we have many different religions, with more similarities then differences, but being human we tend to emphasize the differences.
All the above, is background to my not being opposed to so called enhanced interrogation techniques. The opponents usually quote experts or studies that show the majority of information gotten this way is useless and therefore conclude they are not justified. This to me is like saying that writing a best selling novel isn't justified because less than one percent of the population reads it. To me if one piece of information gotten this way among hundreds gotten this way stops one 9/11 type attack then use of the techniques is justified. I have not seen any proof one way or the other that this is the case. But, the fact that there have been no successful attacks since 9/11 leads me to suspect the methods used under Bush worked. If we go through seven and a half years with a different set of procedures without an attack then I will begin to believe they might not have been necessary.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

The torture memos - I still can't believe that this country fell so far. In 1995, as a young second lieutenant, I taught a class to my platoon on the law of war. I had a soldier ask why we don't use torture. I still vividly recall the explanation: 1) It is immoral, 2) it is illegal, 3) it is ineffective, 4) it results in an enemy willing to fight to the death because there is no alternative.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be having this discussion on the national level.

Marty S said...

Reluctant lawyer: Flying planes into buildings to kill innocent civilians or blowing up school buses with children in them which the terrorists have done also seem illegal and immoral to me. Worrying about torture making an enemy that was already willing to die in those planes and which specializes in suicide bombings doesn't make sense to me. So all where left with is your claim that it is ineffective. As I said before I'm not convinced that nobody ever gave up any useful information due to torture since the concept was invented. If one or more useful pieces of information have ever been gotten from torture, then its question of frequency and which is the greater evil to torture the enemy or to suffer the consequences of losing potentially useful information.

Unknown said...

Marty, torture, in the very nature of things, doesn't just get used (and is now known not to have just been used) against people who fly planes into buildings to kill innocent civilians. It also gets used against people we mistakenly believed to be terrorists, that really aren't. So, even if you believe that anyone who has directly done that particular immoral act forfeits any right to considerations of law and ethics in our treatment of him, it doesn't follow that you've disposed of moral and legal argument.

And as for the effectiveness argument, saying it's effective if it has ever produced a piece of valid information is the wrong way to look at it; the question is whether, if you do a comparison of torture vs. traditional interrogation, torture nets you more useful information. If traditional interrogation nets more useful information, with fewer costs from running with bad information that you thought was good, then torture isn't effective. That argument has been made by multiple professional interrogators, and I buy it.

It isn't, though, the reason I oppose torture. The reason I oppose torture is the immoral and illegal business; I'd still oppose it if it were demonstrated to be effective.

Anonymous said...

As far as I'm concerned, both Islam AND torture are awful. And while I do abhor torture on principle, I too am unconvinced it's ALWAYS ineffective. I'm also a political realist: when the public and Powers That Be are scared shitless during a genuine life-or-death struggle with "evil", or through those psychotic breaks (Witch Manias, Stalinism, McCarthyism) that periodically infect the Body Politic, TORTURE WILL BE USED. After the enemy's crushed or the nation dispels its psychosis, politicians and historians seek to heal the nation by throwing open the sordid archives, shuttering the dungeons, scapegoating the most conspicuous or politically disgraced practitioners of depravity, and writing reams of pontificating "how could this happen?" and "never again!" tracts. And come the next attack or paranoia outbreak, the dungeons are flung open and filled, and the archives combed to reveal the most effective torture methods. Thus torture and other ethically compromising practices were used rampantly by the US security apparatus during the height of the Cold War, were denounced and purportedly abandoned after the COINTELPRO disclosures, and revived en force once Bin Laden escalated Global Jihad. Obama throwing Cheney and Rice to the do-gooder wolves reminds me of Khrushchev purging the Politburo after Stalin's death. How long will the Gulags stay closed this time?

Marty S said...

Lynn: I look at everything in life in terms of trade offs. So there is the saying it is better to let ten guilty men go free than convict one innocent man. But this is nonsense to me. If nine child molesters go free and molest 50 more children and nine rapists go free and rape 50 more women is this really to be preferred over two innocent men going to jail one for rape and one for child molestation? I look at the torture issue the same way. One would hope that people are not being tortured at random, but that there is good reason to believe they have useful information. As for your argument that if you get more useful information from other interrogation techniques then from torture then then torture isn't justified, that the same as saying that if police get more useful information from snitches than from hot line tips, they should not use hot line tips even if a certain percentage of hot line tips solve crimes. Again, if you get some information from enhanced interrogation techniques and this stops one or more 9/11 type attacks then when you make a decision between using these techniques between the thousands of lives from one successful attack and some number of possibly innocent people being subjected to these interrogation techniques you are making one off life's trade offs and it is not clear me that choosing not to use the techniques and allowing thousands of people to die is the more moral decision.

Unknown said...

Marty, your analogy doesn't apply. Using hot line tips doesn't prevent you from using snitches, but using torture does, for those people on whom you use torture, prevent you from using interrogation methods that get information by building rapport. It's not like using two things in parallel that each cover a different base; it's like taking money you could have invested wisely and spending it all on the lottery.

I'm also dubious about seeing everything as a trade off. Doesn't there have to be some boundary we won't cross?

suzanne said...

does it mean nothing to you
that higher ups in Inteligence
and in the military say torture is ineffective
and produces unreliable info
hold no water with you???

and I find your statement
that it's okay for a handful of innocents to be mistakenly imprisoned
or condemned
(or tortured)
if it keeps real criminals
off the street
takes my breath away
especially given how big that
IF is

Marty S said...

Lynn: I don't know the procedures actually used, but if I were in charge I would use all other techniques like building rapport first with an individual. Then if he still hadn't given me the information that I vitally needed and I strongly believed he had I would try more severe techniques So I don't see anymore incompatibility between the two approaches then between snitches and hot lines.

Suzanne: On the effectiveness issue. Some people say it is ineffective on the other hand the Obama administration has released memos saying some higher ups in intelligence approved thes procedures. These higher ups obviously believe they are effective or they wouldn't have approved them. Have you never gone to two doctors and had them disagree on the cause of a medical problem. I have said that the effectiveness question in my mind is still open.
As for the issue of how tough our conviction standards should be. Ask the mother of a child that has been molested by an individual who was previously arrested on a molestation charge, but got off what she thinks. Or do you think this never happens.

poltergeist said...


Some torture truths.

1. Just from reading the thoughts on torture here now as well as in the past the general consensus seems to be that torture is an exclusive means of extracting TRUTHFUL information all of the time. This is not necessarily so and I have news for you. A or several lies is also a jolly good way in which to verify what truths you may already have in your possession and need to confirm. Never confirmed a truth with a lie in your own lives? This is an intelligence staple.

2. Everyone does not possess the same mental and/or physical pain threshold, and everyone does not possess the same level of recalcitrance, resistance, stubbornness, or just say the intestinal fortitude to successfully endure a torture session, and in that, therein lies your wiggle room to motivate others that may have information you need w/o torturing THEM. You'd be amazed at the psychological effects a tortured person has on their confederates, pals, buddies, family, and all concerned. The North Vietnamese, for one group, found this out at the infamous Hanoi Hilton even though I suspect this wasn't news at the time. Just ask John McCain and those with him that spilled some useless intelligence beans at the time.

Just say everybody on this issue here right now knows where the Easter Egg is hidden, including Steve, but nobody wants to say where it is. Is anyone telling me that if Steve were taken into a wired room where all could hear what was going on in it and if Steve registered some fairly respectable decibels in reaction to some of the more esoteric interrogation techniques in Bose Sound that not ONE of you at the very least wouldn't reconsider and reveal the egg's location to avoid replicating Steve's aria? Think again. It would only take one of you and the rest is confirmation. Then poor Steve took a harsh session for nothing, except to know his buddies a little bit better and his operatic range. Assuming he survived the experience.

3. Last Thursday, I think, I saw President Obama address a nice crowd of people in the foyer at Langley High ... who without ANY doubt whatsoever were not members of the Clandestine Services Division standing merrily around grinning and having their photographs taken ...and state that he KNEW he had just made peoples' jobs much harder. Indeed he did. Think about that for a moment. He knew he made the job much harder. Just consider the implications of that if your boss told you he had knowingly made your job harder. Is he saying anything else? I think so.

You for all the world tell a bunch of people who's job it is to lie, cheat, steal, collude, destroy, deceive, sabotage, and otherwise toss a monkey wrench into the other guy's works against you how do you think they interpret that? And, Obama wasn't just addressing the Langley student-body either. There are more than a few acronymed significant others. However, do you truly think they're just going to do a 180 and pull a come to Jesus? Forget it. You tell people with those kinds of aforementioned skills you've made their jobs more difficult all they're going to do that amounts to hard is try all that much HARDER not to get caught doing what they've been trained to do. There's more, but ...

Sorry boys and girls, that's just the way it is.

Marty S said...

One more comment on effectiveness. The reason intelligent people may disagree on the effectiveness of an action is they may have different criteria for effectiveness. Lets take the case of a financial action in which six out of seven people will gain $100 and the seventh will lose $1300. If your criteria is percent of people who win then 85.8% will win so it is clearly effective. On the other hand if your criteria is average gain the average is loss is $100 dollars so its an ineffective action. An example of this is at what age you should take your social security benefit. More people will gain by waiting, but the average person will lose by waiting.

Steve Perry said...

Marty --

Your contention that it's okay to jail an innocent man for rape to make sure you catch the guilty pretty much goes against the whole rule of law that this country was founded upon.

Kill 'em all, God will know his own?

Golding was right in Lord of the Flies. We aren't too far away from killing Piggy at at any moment.

You seem to be leading the pack. Shame on you.

Marty S said...

Steve Perry: Actually I'm not going against the whole rule of law the country was founded on. The rule of law in this country is that you convict if you believe the person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The question I am discussing is what amount of doubt is reasonable. Is it one innocent man in a million, a thousand, etc. My method of deciding is to make a balance between the harm done to the innocent man who is convicted and the harm that will subsequently be done to other innocent people by the guilty man who gets away with the crime. If someone gave you a choice you could imprison a innocent man for eight years or you could allow 1,2,3 etc innocent women to be raped how many women would it take before you would concede their suffering matched the suffering of the innocent man in jail. If you think that my ideas on this are off the wall, just google the statistics on repeat offenders for rapists.

Marty S said...

My take on our justice system seems to be clearly unpopular. After my last post I decided to try and get some measure of the effectiveness of our justice system. It seemed to me if I could get some statistics on the percentage of convicted individuals who were later proven innocent and the percent of individuals who were found innocent of a crime, only to later be convicted of one or more similar crimes I would have some kind of indicator of how well we do. I therefore googled statistics on found guilty and later exonerated. I found dozens of relevant studies and articles bemoaning how often we convict the innocent. Then I googled the other side. How often people are later convicted of a crime that is similar to one they were found innocent of. No matter how I phrased the query I found no information. To me this shows we have far to little concern for the victims of crime.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

So all where left with is your claim that it is ineffective.1, it is. Almost all professional interrogators have said so. 2, it's not all you're left with; you're also left with the possibility or even probability of torturing someone who's not guilty.

My method of deciding is to make a balance between the harm done to the innocent man who is convicted and the harm that will subsequently be done to other innocent people by the guilty man who gets away with the crime.I don't use the word evil casually, but this is an evil idea. The innocent man, woman, child, has an absolute right to be free of wrongful punishment. A civilization that doesn't believe this doesn't deserve to exist.

Anonymous said...

Marty ...

For what it's worth insofar as justice and war are concerned you could find no greater oxymoron.

You want to find some incredible inconsistencies in today's climate, just do a straw poll on the number of people that want protection of their lives, home, property, and loved ones, and then turnaround and ask them at what costs to the OTHER GUY that potentially threatens them all.

"Protect me ... but don't hurt (torture) the other chap in doing it". WTF! OK .. YOU do it. Gotta be kidding me. The sheep telling the shepard don't harm the wolves in protecting them. Lord have mercy. I gave up long ago; ask Barnes, we've known each other since the discovery of black pepper, and worrying about their sensibilities because the duty to insure their safety overrode their displeasure in the methodology in which to do it. My own rationale that kept me sane in moments of doubt of right, wrong, or just staying alive, was more or less paternalistic in nature, admittedly. My own kids don't like punishment, but it's done to keep them safe and secure, and more importantly, ah well, you see where this is going.

Barnes is going to nail me for this shit, but Barnes also understands. I hope. After I'm gone he'll probably write my damn life story as he knew and knows it, but I like to think he'll be fair and favorably judgmental, as well as using a nom de guerre for me.

You're on the right track in my humble opinion.

poltergeist said...


BTW ... "Greg" and poltergeist are one in the same. I just forgot the name URL feature. Greg(ory) was my grandfather.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

If someone gave you a choice you could imprison a innocent man for eight years or you could allow 1,2,3 etc innocent women to be raped how many women would it take before you would concede their suffering matched the suffering of the innocent man in jail.This is the fantasy choice, very much akin to the ticking nuclear bomb scenario. The need to protect the innocent is the core of civilization. Harming Innocent A under the theory that you're protecting Innocent B is wicked all the way down. All you know you've done when you're finsihed is to harm Innocent A ... at which point you're deserving of your own jail cell.

Sadly, it appears Obama has no stomach for prosecuting the torturers. I'm not even remotely surprised, but I am a little sad.

Anonymous said...

In our discussions concerning the usefulness of torture, we should probe more deeply into precisely WHAT torture's potential usefulness might be. Apart from its dubious use for interrogation, torture's other applications appear more subtle and political/psychological. Specifically, torture's frequently used to systematically instill terror that re-enforces the power of occupying forces and jailers, and to break the resistance of subjugated peoples and prisoners. Presumably it also works to psychologically strengthen the Occupier and to degrade and weaken the Subjugated by graphically demonstrating the former's superiority, and the latter’s inferiority. Torture was clearly used for such purposes by Slave Masters, Nazis, the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, and by the Vietnamese against US POW's (the Hanoi Hilton that "hosted" McCain and others), among numerous others. This appears to be the main use of torture in Iraq. Clearly Lindsay England wasn't quizzing Iraqis on Al-Qaida plans in Abu Graib. Instead, she was reveling in sadistic glee over her new-found power. Consider: a poor, "White-Trash", borderline retarded lady suddenly welding life and death over thousands! (Further, a woman brutally dominating men in a Muslim country, where women are de facto slaves!). Obviously torture gave England and co. a titanic ego boost, and annihilated the self-esteem and will of many an Iraqi.
Although this analysis may seem callous, it's meant to be practical. The question to ask, with unflinching rigor and intellectual courage, is: Dos torture have ANY effective uses, and do these EVER justify its use? Minus the hard questions, we default to the hypocritical stance of the general public, which gleefully denounces the Cheney's and Rice's, and venomously hates the England's who do the actual dirty-work, while gladly benefiting from any benefits torture may yield.

Marty S said...

Okay let me make one more attempt to explain where I am coming from. If your view of the purpose of a system of justice is to punish the guilty for there crimes it is clearly a great failure to punish the innocent for a crime they didn't commit and the system should be very strongly slanted toward protecting the innocent from conviction. On the other hand, if you believe, as I do, that the purpose of a justice system is minimize crime, i.e. reduce the number of victims of crime, in the society rather than to merely punish criminals then optimization of the system requires balancing how well it accomplishes its goal of protecting society against its possible failure by convicting the innocent.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

The question to ask, with unflinching rigor and intellectual courage, is: Dos torture have ANY effective uses, and do these EVER justify its use?This presupposes you've already made the decision to become monsters.

I don't doubt monsters spend a lot of time and energy, unflinching rigor and intellectual courage and so on, working on how to become more efficient monsters. But as an approach for the civilized I see flaws in it.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Marty, neither of your definitions work for me.

The purpose of justice is not to punish the guilty, though it's a good correlation.

The purpose of justice is not to statistically reduce the number of crimes, though it's a good correlation.

The purpose of justice is to protect the innocent.


suzanne said...

I'm fairly sure, Marty,
if the convicted innocent were your child
oer your self
you wouldn;t feel this way

Anonymous said...

Some Questions: Can one commit a ruthless act against someone else without thinking that that person is inferior? In the defense of one's self and those you are charged with defending what is the moral and ethical limit of what one may do to defend? I look at this and ask would we have done the same against non Islamic foes? I think the answer is yes. Steve Perry had a good post over on his blog regarding self defense:

The notion of self-defense is that, unlike the missionary about to be boiled in the cannibal's pot who says, "Bless you, my child, you are but a product of your environment," you have the right to jump out of the kettle and haul ass, and anybody trying to stick a fork in you as you do deserves anything he gets to cause him to cease and desist.

I cant know how much of a threat Osama Bin Laden and those who think like him actually are. I dont know how effective enhanced interrogation techniques are. I can hope that those charged with protecting me do those things that are necessary.

Marty S said...

Dan: You have just agreed with me completely. The purpose of justice is to protect the innocent. Period.
Now lets follow the logic. If this means never convicting an innocent man of a crime then the only way to do this is to never charge and try anyone because any other system of justice will eventually make a mistake an convict an innocent man. After all "To err is human." If you really believe this then you are welcome to look for a country with no criminal statues and therefore no crime.I'm not aware of any though.
As soon as you say we need some criminal laws and some criminal justice system you have accepted a system which will inevitably some times convict an innocent man does a better job of "protecting. period." then no criminal justice system at all. Once you accept that convicting one or more innocent men protects better than never convicting anybody you are in my position of where do we draw the line and more importantly how do we draw the line. Certainly neither of us wants to go to the opposite extreme of if you're charged you're guilty.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Marty, sure. Any justice system will convict the innocent on occasion. Inevitable, no argument, and yet we need a justice system and need jails.

This is why I'm against capital punishment; you can't make it right when you find out you were wrong. It's not capital punishment in the abstract; I'm fine with executing those guilty of genuine capital crimes, the child killers, torturers who murder their victims, multiple murderers, premeditated murder. The problem is that the justice system sometimes doesn't get it right, and after getting it wrong you can't make even partial amends.

Where we differ, and I hope to be very clear on this point, is in accepting the conviction of the innocent as a feature of the system ... rather than as a flaw. Stating that x% is an acceptable percentage of innocent convicted, and we should stop trying now, is abhorrent: 0% is an acceptable percentage, and the fact that we're doomed to fail doesn't excuse us from the moral obligation to try.

Doctors don't stop trying to heal people just because they're going to die someday anyway. This is the exact equivalent of accepting a non-zero value for "number of innocent I'm willing to jail." A doctor who with his bare face hanging out said that some days he just didn't give it his all because, after all, life is fatal to begin with, would be universally condemned. But for some reason it's acceptable to employ that same principle as public policy in the justice system.

Anonymous said...

"Does torture have ANY effective uses, and do these EVER justify its use? This presupposes you've already made the decision to become monsters."

No, asking such questions presupposes that one's CONSIDERED actions commonly castigated as monstrous. Regrettably, the unwritten job description of high governance usually requires such consideration. The necessity of preserving The State and the general well-being demands that policy makers, to quote the late Physicist Herman Khan on thermonuclear war, "Think about the Unthinkable". Despite its glamor, perks and power, politics is a dirty profession akin to that of hazmat cleaner, butcher, or mortician. Someone's got to bloody their hands with the grisly work all deride, yet benefit from.

Ethiopian Infidel

Marty S said...

Dan: Look at it this way. Once you except that the justice system isn't going to be perfect, then you can try to improve it. In my last post remember I said the most important part was not determining how many innocent men we would convict, but how we would draw the line. All this would require looking at justice systems failures on both sides of the coin and would hopefully lead to reducing both those failures.

Steve Perry said...

Sometimes the ends justifies the means; depends on both. Sometimes, the needs of the one, as James T. Kirk said, outweigh the needs of the many.

It always depends on whose ox is being gored, doesn't it?

There are time when people are going do bad things, and in the end, deem them the lesser of two evils. The fantasy scenario that Dan mentions, the ticking bomb, and the need to know something in a hurry.

If my child was being held by a terrorist and I thought that the quickest way to find out where was to torture somebody who knew, I'd do it in a heartbeat. And I'd live with the knowledge that it was wrong but that I was gonna do it anyhow.

It's when folks try to dress it up in a nice clean suit and pretend that it's Sunday school that it gets really evil.

If your philosophy is that it is better for one innocent man to die so that two guilty men don't go free, then you have deemed it that "society's" good is better served thus. By electing that choice, you have made it clear that "society" is more important than people.

Maybe the bad guy goes out and kills somebody. Or maybe he gets hit by a truck leaving the court room. Who predicts the future with any accuracy?

The innocent guy is always dead, though, unless you believe in reincarnation, and even then, he's not the same.

Any society that believes it is okay to punish the innocent to protect itself deserves to fall. It might do it, but it ought to have the decency to own up to it being wrong.

There are ugly things out there. There are men who deal with them, and like Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men, we need those guys on the wall, and most of us can't handle that truth.

"Necessary evil" however, is not the same as "virtue," and conflating them is way down that slippery slope.

People who are quick to dismiss killing half a village as collateral damage scare me. Next time, it might be my village.

Or yours.

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that possessing the clarity, courage and strength to recognize and handle necessary evil as events and the common good dictate is indeed virtuous, and rare. Better, such ability is encapsulated by Machiavelli's more gritty and robust Virtu.

Ethiopian Infidel

Anonymous said...

I normally just lurk here, but some of Marty's comments i just cannot let pass.

Each trial is an individual case. Convicting an innocent man in a (for example) only guarantees two things: an innocent man will suffer unjustly for a crime he didn't commit...and that the true guilty party will remain unpunished, perhaps to rape again.

Th situation above has NO effect one way or the other in ensuring that as a result more actual rapists will be found guilty.

The situation you pose is completely imaginary. The statement about "better 7 (or whatever) guilty men go free than one innocent be punished" is stating a moral and ethical position, NOT some kind of real-word cause and effect...


Marty S said...

Robert: Moral and ethical statements are wonderful. But they have little to do with the real world. Take one of the great moral and ethical statements of all time "Thou shalt bot kill." I wish everyone would follow that moral principle. But now lets get real world. You are a police officer a bank robber is threatening hostages with a gun. You have a shot at the bank robber, but must go for a kill shot or you risk the hostages life. Do you say to yourself "Thou shalt not kill" and the hell with the hostages or do you take the kill shot. Pardon me for being immoral and unethical, but I would take the shot and feel perfectly fine about it.

Anonymous said...


Respectfully, I think you completely miss my point. Not to mention reversing the meaning of my final paragraph.

I'm specifically commenting on the innocent/guilty man and the justice system scenario *you've* set up and discussed throughout this thread.

I am talking about the real world. Please re-read my comment. Fine with me if you disgree, but please disgree with what I'm actually saying. Which does not include anyyhing about "thou shalt not kill" vs hostage situations.



Daniel Keys Moran said...

Quiet Men Of Fort HuntWiki entry on Hans Scharff, the greatest German interrogator of WWII.

Article on Sherwood Moran, the greatest American interrogator of WWII.

Six months before the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison broke into public view, a small and fairly obscure private association of United States Marine Corps members posted on its Web site a document on how to get enemy POWs to talk.

The document described a situation very similar to the one the United States faces in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan: a fanatical and implacable enemy, intense pressure to achieve quick results, a brutal war in which the old rules no longer seem to apply.

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, the report's author, noted that despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them.

Moran was writing in 1943, and he was describing his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. More than a half century later his report remains something of a cult classic for military interrogators. The Marine Corps Interrogator Translator Teams Association (MCITTA), a group of active-duty and retired Marine intelligence personnel, calls Moran's report one of the "timeless documents" in the field and says it has long been "a standard read" for insiders. (A book about the Luftwaffe interrogator Hans Joachim Scharff, whose charm, easygoing manner, and perfect English beguiled many a captured Allied airman into revealing critical information, is another frequently cited classic in the field.) An MCITTA member says the group decided to post Moran's report online in July of 2003, because "many others wanted to read it" and because the original document, in the Marine Corps archives, was in such poor shape that the photocopies in circulation were difficult to decipher. He denies that current events had anything to do with either the decision to post the document or the increased interest in it.

But it is hard to imagine a historical lesson that would constitute a more direct reproach to recent U.S. policies on prisoner interrogation. And there is no doubt that Moran's report owes more than a little of its recent celebrity to the widespread disdain among experienced military interrogators for what took place at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo when ill-trained personnel were ordered to "soften up" prisoners. Since the prison scandals broke, many old hands in the business have pointed out that abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.

"The torture of suspects [at Abu Ghraib] did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted," says James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the author of a forthcoming book on counterinsurgency warfare. "The abusers couldn't even use the old 'ends justify the means' argument, because in the end there was nothing to show but a tremendous propaganda defeat for the United States."

Corum, who recently retired as a lieutenant colonel after twenty-eight years in the Army and Reserves, mostly in military intelligence, says that Moran's philosophy has repeatedly been affirmed in subsequent wars large and small. "Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being" is how Corum sums up Moran's enduring lesson.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I'd just love it if someone out there could refer me to a well known expert on interrogation who thinks that torture isn't counterproductive.

Marty S said...

Robert: You are the one completely missing the point. We don't knowingly convict an innocent man. Being human we accidentally convict an innocent man because the evidence suggests he is guilty. If we change the rules to make it easier to convict we will convict both more guilty individuals and more innocent individuals. If we change the rules to make it harder to convict we will convict fewer innocent men and fewer guilty men. That's the facts of the real world The question we are then arguing is how do we decide what is the proper level of proof of guilt that we should require. There is plenty of evidence that a criminal will repeat his crime when able to, so we can be very sure that innocent members of our society will be the victim of crimes by guilty people who were not convicted, if we set the standard of proof too high. All I have said is that in deciding where to set the standard of proof we must consider the evil of these additional crimes along side of the evil of convicting an innocent man.

Steve Perry said...

As I am given to understand it, Scripture's original meaning was closer to "Thou shall not murder."

Different beast, innit?

mswest411 said...

Steven - Sorry to post this here but have no other way to contact you.....I ordered your LifeWrite course over two weeks ago and have yet to receive it. What is up?? Latanya West

Unknown said...

Marty, it seems to me that you're putting a heck of a lot of blind faith in the notion that torture won't cost us anything. That its only possible outcome is a smaller or larger amount of benefit from extracting true information; that we'll never actually lose by believing the false information we get, because we really wanted to be convinced of something (nonexistent WMDs, whatever), that our tortured captives were all too willing to oblige on. That the knowledge that we torture will not at all interfere with using the rapport building methods that professional interrogators report as being more successful, but at the same time will cow non-tortured captives into giving more information (of which we'll prove ever so good at extracting the truth from the lies). I see no evidence of this; all the evidence I see, and all the best accounts of people with direct professional knowledge, seem to me to point otherwise.

At the same time, you're setting the burden of proof heavily on the side of presuming that if higher ups are asking for it, torture must actually enhance our intelligence, and unless the negative can be proven, that torture never, ever produces a true and useful lead, all its costs can be ignored. And I don't see any basis for making such assumptions.

Audie said...

"Does anyone out there know a "crazy maker?"

I've known 2 for sure, a few more potentials I avoided quickly. My definition, or symptoms I look for in a crazy maker: They did it first and better than you and they're ambidextrous; yet everything bad happens to them, it's never their fault, and everyone they interact with is identified as 100% friend or 100% enemy (and that state can turn on a dime)

The only solution I know of is to stay as far as possible from them. Don't talk to them, don't talk about them, avoid your common friends. I made the mistake of trying to be socially cordial to one once, still got drawn into the vortex of madness.

Anonymous said...


Firstly, thank you for rereading my post and commenting on what I wrote.

I didn't miss your point; to the contrary, I got it. I just don't agree with it.

You seem to be saying that we don't dare tamper with our current justice system, with the intent of making it more just for innocent and guilty? Do you really believe that. One major inequity of our current system is that the weatlthier you are, the better the quality of "justice" you can afford.

And do you *really* believe that "we never knowingly convict am innocent man"?!? Really? It happens all the time.


Mike Ralls said...

Re: Crazymakers.

Stay away from them. Cut all contact. That's the course of action with the highest chance of success.

Anonymous said...

Torture, as an information-gathering tool, is only useful under a narrow range of circumstances:

1) The information you need is immediately testable. You need to be able to confirm it without stopping the torture for any significant length of time (or at all)
2) You have very little time. Any other method is preferrable to get the information in 1) unless you have very little time to get to it.

So, for instance, if you need the password to an encrypted file on someone's laptop (which you have) in the next couple hours, torture is the way to go.

This effectiveness, however, only serves to support the illegality of torture, rather than justifying it under extreme circumstances. Any situation where torture is effective for extracting information is one where any legal repercussions of doing it won't come until long after the information has proved its use.

In other words, you shouldn't be torturing for any reason you wouldn't be willing to go to prison for.

Imminent biological attack on major U.S. city? Daughter kidnapped and sold into sex slavery? What kind of coward wouldn't be willing to do ten or twenty years hard time to stop something like that?

Making torture illegal doesn't make it impossible; It just sets a very high standard for it's use. In my admittedly anonymous opinion, the only morally acceptable standard.

Marty S said...

Robert: You have missed my point,which is to create the best justice system possible. Here's where I am coming from in my approach to that aim. I am a industrial mathematician. I spent my career optimizing the performance of industrial systems. To me the justice system is just another system to be optimized. Before you can optimize any system you must determine your optimization criteria. My choice of criteria is to maximize the protection it affords to all members of our society. This is not the same as the criteria minimize the number of innocent men convicted. I choose this criteria, because, the criteria minimize the number of innocent men convicted, ignores the fact that the end result of that optimization is likely to result in more guilty men going free, which is likely to result in more innocent people being the victim of crime. So again ask you how many women have to be raped, how many children have to be molested before their suffering outweighs the suffering of an innocent man convicted of the same crime.

Anonymous said...

The question remains, does torture have ANY usefulness, under any circumstances. From my own knowledge of history, the answer appears to be YES. Voluminous testimony demonstrates its extremely low reliability for extracting useful information. That is, torture is effectively useless compare to more standard and sophisticated (not to mention humane)interrogation methods as employed by Scharf et al. However, circumstances may arise (i.e. the "Smoking Gun" scenario popularized by Dershowitz, Harris et al) where the price of total ignorance is so unacceptably disastrous that ANY scrap of info, however dubious or suspect, that might preserve untold number of innocents, is worth the "price" of inflicting torture. Maybe a straight confession under painful duress is a transparent lie, but a subtle grimace, the odd slip of the tongue, garbled names mumbled during the fleeting semi-consciousness before agony takes all, might, as the Talmud quoted in Schindler's List put it: "Save the World Entire".

Ethiopian Infidel

Anonymous said...

"...purpose of a justice system is minimize crime, i.e. reduce the number of victims of crime, in the society rather than to merely punish criminals then optimization of the system requires balancing how well it accomplishes its goal of protecting society against its possible failure by convicting the innocent." Doesn't sound like an unreasonable approach as long as you count false convictions as serious criminal acts when they're uncovered and throw the relevant cops, lawyers, judges, DAs in prison, sure. Count the crimes committed inside prisons, too, while you're at it.

poltergeist said...

Mr. Moran,

"I'd just love it if someone out there could refer me to a well known expert on interrogation who thinks that torture isn't counterproductive".

I have just the man for you. He meets your requirements. Much to his regret he is quite well known and he wasn't above a little hard-ball in his interrogation methods and he got results with them, too. All the time? Doubt it, but you can ask him for yourself. Maybe he'll tell you?

His name is Keith Hall. His interrogation cum vitae is both extensive and impressive. Among interrogators he'd be something of a valedictorian at Langley High. Sorry, his home address is not for publication, but you can likely get a note to him by writing a letter through and to:

Mark Bowden
c/o of Vanity Fair
Conde Nast Publications
4 Times Square Suite 17
New York, NY 10036

Anonymous said...


I do agree with your main point about improving the justice system. I'm not so sure how you'll mathematically go about optimizing justice in the justice system. How do you "mathematize" a human being in a prison-as-industrial-system? Isn't that what privatized prisons are all about -- maximizing the profit-making potential of individual humano-industrial units -- oops, I mean prisoners -- in the prison-industrial system?

And you can ask me a zillion times your question about "How many raped woemen & molested children does it take to outweigh one innocent man convicted unjustly, because I don't pretend to have an answer for that one. Don't think anyone does.

Well, you might. I'd like to see what kind of scary mathematical formula you might have for that situation.


Marty S said...

Robert: Both you and I don't know exactly what the equivalence number is, but the approach some one in my field would use goes something like this. I know I would choose to jail one innocent man to save 100 women from rape. I know I would jail one innocent man to save 50 women, 25, 10 or 5 below five I would begin to have to think about it. Lets say at three I would say okay we have gone to0 far. Think about it yourself if I asked you a series of questions starting at 100 and working my way down would you jail an innocent man to save this many women from rape would you answer yes at at least some of the higher numbers. So now do a large survey of people to determine a consensus level which would become the target. Now we would need to begin to gather data to determine where we are relative to the target. Where we most go wrong and work with experts in law and law enforcement to adjust system to meet or exceed the target.

Shady_Grady said...

Marty, on this issue at least would you describe yourself as a utilitarian?

Marty S said...

Shady Grady: Actually utilitarian would probably fit me pretty well on most issues. In finance there is something called utility theory. Its main axiom is that a dollar to one person does not represent the same worth as a dollar to the next person. When analyzing a financial opportunity for an individual you would assess the utility of money to that person with a set of questions similar to the one I suggested in my previous post for creating an equivalence between the suffering of victims of crime and innocent people who are convicted. One could argue that our progressive tax system actually taxes utility rather than dollars since a given amount of money is usually more precious to people who have less.
My general approach to any problem is to maximize utility. "The greatest good for the greatest number."

Shady_Grady said...

Ok. From a utilitarian point of view what is the moral course of action in the following thought experiment (admittedly very old).I think it was shown on MASH once...

A large family is hiding in their house from the criminals du jour (Nazis/Klan/Stormtroopers/etc) who have made it perfectly clear that they will painfully kill all of the family members should they find them. The bad guys are however pressed for time and will leave quickly if they can't find anyone. The family baby starts to cry. Should the parents smother the baby and thus prevent detection of the rest of the large family or allow the baby to cry and with a 100% certainty ensure the deaths of everyone else.

Steven Barnes said...

We're going to go back into the subject of torture tomorrow. Today, I want to thank everyone for being polite. Look out across the web, and see if you can find another place where opposite views on this incredibly touchy subject are discussed with minimal rancor. You guys rock.


Marty S said...

Shady Grady: On your hypothetical. First my answer is that there has already been a massive failure somewhere to get to this point.Probably by some who proclaimed "Peace in our time." and failed to take what he felt was morally undesirable action early enough to prevent the situation you postulate. With respect to the situation you propose, there is no one correct action. The greater good would depend upon the individuals involved and their particular reaction to the situation. Presumably the way you have set it up the child is going to die anyhow. So the question is do the other people feel it be worse to die or worse to live with the death of the child on their hands.
Now the other version of this question is if you knew that the criminals dujour (Nazis/Klan/Stormtroopers/etc) were planning to take families such as this one hostage and kill them and you had captured one of them would you be willing to torture him to prevent these criminals from killing the baby and the rest of the large family.

Shady_Grady said...

Marty, to me the utilitarian answer would almost certainly be to kill the baby and ensure the survival of the remainder of the family.

I think that the greater good theory has several weaknesses (as do other philosophies of what is "good") which is why utilitarian considerations don't always work for me.

The primary issue I have with utilitarianism is that it overlooks the rights/interests of the minority.

I don't think that torture can be tolerated in any sort of decent society.

Marty S said...

Shady Grady: Let's try the following scenario. There is a mine collapse. There are two pockets of breathable air where miners have survived. The equipment available in a meaningful time frame can only excavate and save the miners in one of these pockets. One pocket contains two miners the other contains a dozen miners. If the rescuers chose to rescue the dozen miners instead of the two miners would you castigate them for ignoring the rights of the minority and demand that they flip a coin to decide who is rescued. There are probably exceptions to any rule, but aiming for the greater good seems to me to be a pretty good rule in most cases.

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