Friday, March 02, 2007


Liberal Arts Torture?

It was a little disturbing to read this:
Born in Chicago to restless parents (his father worked for a chain of hotels), Lagouranis guesses he attended 10 or 11 schools before graduating from high school in 1987 in New York City. After a year of college he took off, picking up construction and short-order cook jobs as he traveled the country. He kept coming back to Santa Fe, however, and in 1994 he enrolled in its St. John’s College, whose curriculum is based entirely on the Great Books, read in roughly chronological order. Lagouranis discovered he had a facility for languages: he enjoyed ancient Greek and found Hebrew easy. He tried to learn Arabic on his own, but without a class and a regular teacher he found it more difficult. [Emphasis added.]
He relates how he joined the Army, mastered Arabic and eventually became an interrogator -- and confessed torturer:

Asked how he explains himself, Lagouranis says, “It’s tough. I can say I was following orders, and that is partly true. I was wondering, ‘At what point do I put my foot down?’ and there were definitely times when I said I wasn’t going to cross this or that line.” Lagouranis refused, he says, to engage in sexual humiliation, electric shock, or mock execution (though he admits that he once failed to assure a blindfolded prisoner he was escorting past some soldiers at target practice that this was not a firing squad). He also says he never hit a prisoner, though he admits that hitting someone “might do less damage to him than hypothermia or stress positions or things like that. It just seemed like that was completely taboo. I didn’t really think that through—it seemed to me like that was where the line was legally and morally.

“But there are other answers, too. You are in a war zone and things get blurred. We wanted intelligence. It really became absolutely morally impossible for me to continue when I realized that most of the people we were dealing with were innocent. And that was tough. So it made it easier if I thought that I was actually dealing with a real-life bad guy. Another thing that made it easier was that I felt—and I think this is a flawed argument too—that it was all environmental things that were happening to this person. Like it was gravity that was making his knees hurt, it was the fact that it was cold outside that was making him uncomfortable, it wasn’t me, you know what I mean? As I said, those are flawed arguments, but it makes it easier to do it if you think of it that way.

“Then, also, you’re in an environment where everybody is telling you that this is OK, and it’s hard to be the only person saying, ‘This is wrong.’ And I really was, even as I was doing it, I was the only person saying, ‘We’ve got to put the brakes on. What’s going too far here?’

“You might think this is not a good defense either, but the things that I did weren’t really that horrible. I mean, I saw some really horrible torture. And I’m sure like every torturer would say this—‘Other people are doing worse things.’ I didn’t carry the things that I was doing as far as I could have. Like the guys that we were leaving out in the cold, I was always the one who went out and checked on them all the time. Most of the other people would just sit in the office and watch DVDs while these guys were out in the cold. I was bringing them in and warming them up. So I didn’t go as far as I might have.

“I don’t think people can imagine what it’s like. In Mosul we were wide open. There was [only] concertina wire separating us from the town and we were getting mortared all the time. You’d be laying in bed and mortars were going off all over the place. The infantry brings you somebody and they tell you that this is the guy who’s shooting mortars at you. Scaring him with a muzzled dog doesn’t seem like the worst thing in that situation. . . . I mean I was willing to try it. I didn’t know that it wasn’t going to work.”
I don't think Lagouranis and I have ever met, given that he was at SJC many years after me. Then again, I've met many students as the years have gone by as I've been involved informally and officially with alumni program. It shouldn't really be a surprise to run into someone who attended one's alma mater -- and more than a few Johnnies have joined the military over the years. But, it is still a jolt to read about it in this context. However, the sense of internal conflict he had about his actions seems very Johnny-esque.

Read the entire piece, as most of it is in Lagouranis' own voice.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for catching this.

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