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Cooperation and Coercion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Friday, 06 January 2012 15:05

Cooperation or Coercion

Over the last few days a number of different strands of thought have been coming together in my wee noggin. It is strange how disparate things can all illuminate the same truths. The truths being about how we work together, how God works with us, how communities interact, even how nations see each other, and how politics work. So, small stuff really.

The different strands that have come together have been: listening to Carolyn talking about a technique of teaching called "Cooperative Learning" that she is very supportive of from her psychology background; finishing reading a book by an ex-FBI agent about interrogation methods for terrorism suspects; thinking about how churches can work together better; and pondering particularly American politics and culture in the light of the start of the process leading towards the next US Presidential elections. [There's more...]

Cooperation, Coercion and the CIA

Ali Soufan's account of his involvement in the process of interrogation and hunting down the terrorists behind the actions of Al-Qaeda is fascinating. I know some folks who adamantly hold onto the view that there are certain situations (the "ticking time bomb" situations) when all means are appropriate to obtain information from a person, and if that involves torture, then so be it. It is the commonplace assumption in endless movies and TV series (I'm looking at you, Jack Bauer!) that when you really have to get that information quickly then you resort to violence to get it.

In The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda Soufan describes his role as a fully-trained and well-experienced interrogator with the FBI dealing with very difficult cases like the aftermath of the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, the Jordan Millennium bomb plots, and, of course, 9/11. This book really should be required reading for anyone with an interest in interrogation, indeed, in the afterword Soufan describes how his example has now become a key part in the training of future interrogators. As an Arab speaker, as an agent who has studied Al-Qaeda for years and thus has a vast knowledge about the organisation and people involved, and as a fellow Muslim, Soufan was able to use this background knowledge and experience to shape how he approached terrorists in custody to maximum effect.

Soufan's approach, shared across the FBI, was to work towards getting those in custody to cooperate with them. This approach was necessary in order to gather evidence that would stand up in court when individuals came to trial, but it turns out that they found it actually works far more effectively than trying to gain information by coercive methods.

What is the difference? Cooperation, at its heart, is about working with people or inviting people to work with you towards a goal. With cooperation, the other party makes a decision themselves to become involved in sharing of themselves.

Coercion is about forcing someone to obey you. And thus at heart is about power, fear and terror. Coercion is getting someone's obedience against that person's will and desire. Coercion builds greater distrust and abhorrence, even while it may appear that the person being coerced is obeying.

What Soufan's book makes clear beyond any shadow of a doubt (and despite the CIA redacting large sections of the book) is that coercion as a means of seeking information from terror suspects is a complete failure. Seeking cooperation, on the other hand, is remarkably successful and astonishingly quick, even with some of the most hardened and upper echelon terror suspects with which the FBI were involved. I won't go into all the details of how this worked, but Soufan and his colleagues basically showed respect to the people they interrogated, learning as much about them as they could, listening very closely, and through that knowledge being able to draw ever more information from them, and ultimately often placing the suspects in a position where they tripped over themselves and ended up spilling the beans. The suspects they interrogated were thrown by this approach because they were all expecting to be beaten and tortured violently.

The tragedy that Soufan describes, particularly following 9/11 is that, despite the successes of the interrogaters using cooperative techniques, the Bush Administration, perhaps not unsurprisingly given their fact-averse policy-making in other areas, decided to institute coercive means of interrogation, aka torture, using inexperienced contractors through the CIA. Soufan's book only confirmed what I have read in numerous other accounts, yet coming from inside the system and within the interrogation cells itself, and with the subsequent reports bearing up much of what was said, gives huge support to what he says. The introduction of coercion brought the intelligence gathering to a grinding halt. No useful information was gathered. Any information that was drawn from the use of these techniques was highly suspicious, and in the years that followed has been shown to have been wrong: those tortured have admitted they said whatever they thought their interrogators wanted to hear. The CIA and military interrogators, meanwhile, did not have the background information and experience to know whether what they were being told was true, possible or otherwise.

Soufan, as an FBI-employee was not able to speak out in public about any of this, though he and his colleagues spoke out often and loud to object to what was happening within the government. Only following his leaving the FBI has he spoken about how galling it was to have the information he and others extracted from suspects under cooperative and respectful interrogation techniques displayed as evidence by the Bush Administration of why torture was working and necessary.

In Soufan's own words:

For the next six years, until documents regarding this period were declassified, I had to remain silent as lie after lie was told about Abu Zabaydah and the success of the techniques [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, aka torture]. One public defender of the techniques was a CIA official names John Kiriakou, who stated on national television that Abu Zabaydah was uncooperative until he was waterboarded for thirty-five seconds. Kiriakou said he witnessed this himself. "It was like flipping a switch," Kiriakou said; after that, Abu Zabaydah spilled everything. Later Kiriakou admitted that he had given false information, and we learned that Abu Zabaydah had been waterboarded eighty-three times - and that no new valuable information was gained from him. (The Black Banners, p. 433)

What is heart-breaking about this is that the introduction of coercive techniques has made the lawful trial of these suspects almost impossible as the application of coercive methods of interrogation are in themselves criminal, despite the sophistry of some of Bush's lawyers. The ineffectiveness of these methods had the further impact of setting back the people that were trying to thwart further acts of terror. Soufan saw this first hand when key suspects that he knew he would be able to extract information from using cooperative methods were taken away, sometimes to other countries where they would be tortured. In one instance this meant that a bombing of an oil tanker took place exactly as Soufan had warned would take place from information that he had garnered from one suspect, but he had not been able to follow this up as the CIA had taken over interrogations and no longer gave him access. Soufan wrote:

There is no way to describe the feeling of knowing you could have stopped a terrorist attack if only your government had supported you. It was that terrible feeling again. (The Black Banners, p. 502)

The 'terrible feeling again' being because Soufan, and many others, felt that there was a good chance the 9/11 atrocities could have been stopped, the information was all there, but vital mistakes and errors meant that those with authority failed to piece it together, and in particular the CIA refused to share crucial information with the FBI. The FBI had been aware that something bigger was being planned during the course of their interrogations of suspects from the USS Cole bombing and had asked the CIA to put certain people on watch lists and to share information gained from their surveillance with them. The CIA did keep an eye on these folks but refused to hand the information over to the FBI. Some of the people the FBI had flagged up were the terrorists that ended up on the planes that were hijacked on 9/11.

So, a very real example, with life and death implications, of the alternatives of cooperation and coercion.

Cooperative Learning

Carolyn has been sharing a lot with me as she continues her studies about "Cooperative Learning". During her first placement she was able to try out what she has learned and found it thrilling to see how beneficial this style of teaching could be in classrooms of mixed abilities and attention spans.

I really should get Carolyn to explain this bit, but if I have it right, Cooperative Learning is about getting students to work in groups together, it is about encouraging them to work cooperatively rather than individually.

No doubt if you think back to your own school days you may remember teachers that would apply the coercive teaching model of throwing the heavy blackboard duster across the room at you, or even mocking you in front of the rest of the class. Not saying that ever happened to me, ahem, but perhaps you remember that happening to someone!

Cooperative Learning is very different, but I dare say it takes more effort on the part of the teachers who use it, and the goals may be evident more clearly over a longer term than in the shorter term. Unlike the immediate satisfaction for a teacher when they put down a child in the classroom. In a sense, in cooperative learning you are trying to encourage the children to be able to self-discipline within their groups, and also to self-support amongst their group. In the cooperative style of teaching, the teacher becomes someone who faciltiates the children as they learn, rather than being the person with all the knowledge which is then handed down from teacher to child.

Something not too disimilar to this has been happening in churches in the last 50 years. In the past, and still in some churches today, I admit, the minister was the one person with "the truth" that was handed down from the pulpit to the congregation to learn and repeat. Today the minister is much more often the person who encourages the congregation to learn for themselves, to ask questions, to gather together in groups to discuss. The minister has a particular insight due to their training, and this gets added to the mix, but the point is that everyone is working together cooperatively as they learn and grow in knowledge and faith.

Within a classroom this can have real benefits for the pupils. For pupils who struggle, and who then often feel left out of any full-class discussions, the work in small groups and the support of their fellow group members can bring them out of themselves to participate. It also allows those who are more able the opportunities to support their fellow pupils for the common good of their group. When the group does well, then everyone in the group shares in that success. Cooperative learning thrives on mutual respect within the group, rather than fear of each other.

Delusions and Reality

I began reading a book by Barbara Rossing, a New Testament scholar at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, a couple of days ago. It is called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelations. I found very apt a quotation within one of the forewords from the journalist Bill Moyers, "One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal." This was from 2004 or so, but applies ever more to the situation with American politics, particularly on the right within the Republican Party.

It is like a guilty habit that I know I really shouldn't be doing, but I just cannot help myself... I've been following the freak-show that is the process of nominating the Republican candidate who will stand against Obama at the next election. It is astonishing, but we have seen the Republican party become almost a caricature of itself, and now the candidates become ever more extreme, and, frankly, utterly disconnected from reality. Even the so-called middle of the road candidate, Mitt Romney, is making claims that are so utterly delusional that I just cannot understand how anyone can take him or any of his colleagues seriously.

The bigotry is writ large upon their sleeves and the war-mongering particularly towards Iran at a time when spending is already vastly over-budget, when the US has only just extricated itself from the diabolical mess that was the invasion of Iraq (which was based on faulty intelligence from, yes, you've got it, coercive torture of Al-Qaeda suspects to try to prove a non-existent link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq), and when these same Republicans are blanketly refusing to raise taxes (ahem, well, unless you are poor, of course, then you can expect to see your take-home pay go down or stay the same, while the rich see theirs vastly increase), to pay for it. It is utterly fascinating and compelling in the same way that a good disaster movie catches you on the edge of the seat - surely it can't get any worse? And then it does.

What ties this to my previous thoughts is that Washington DC is at the moment in its worst ever, I suspect, period of division and rancour. There is no willingness for cooperation, and even the most sensible legislation is laid waste through the tidal forces of coercion from either side of the aisle. In general, I would still argue, the Democratic party is more willing and likely to act in a cooperative manner, but the current Republican party actually sees cooperation as anathema - it is fraternising with the enemy, it is surrender, it is capitulation to the evil forces of the world. That is the kind of language they have been using. It is mind-blowing.

Obama was talking yesterday about a reality-based programme for the US military, and inherent to that is keeping doors open for dialogue and discussion, cooperation and respect even with countries with whom we may have issues, in order to better relationships that may prove fruitful in the future. Needless to say, he is being lambasted from the right for capitulating to the enemy.

And it concerns me, as I think it should concern us all, when people who may become world-leaders see cooperation as evil, and coercion as the norm. This appears to be a guiding principle for the Republicans at the moment. One can only pray that this delusional stance will change in the future.

What about God?

Rossing's book, mentioned above, touches on much of US politics and religion as she thinks through the repercussions on the US nation and psyche of a particularly virulent theological idea: the rapture. I'll leave a discussion of this creative but utterly un-Biblical idea to another time! This post is already long enough. But, for the purposes of this post, it is worth noting that this theological heresy has become so dominant in American culture that it clearly now shapes many who make policy decisions for the country, with repercussions for the globe.

The rapture is a theology of the end times which may have begun close to home in Port Glasgow through the vision of a young teenager, Margaret MacDonald, in the early nineteenth century. Her vision was that when Jesus returned it would be a two stage return. This vision was taken by John Nelson Darby, the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, and turned into a full description of what will happen when Jesus returns, based around a misreading of Daniel 9:25-27, that was subsequently preached and honed to great effect in the USA. The resultant theology says that Jesus will return to Earth and draw up to himself all true believers, leaving behind on earth all else for a period of seven years, the tribulation, before Jesus returns again for the ultimate and violent showdown with evil. The Rapture is the moment when people vanish from earth to join Jesus. The years of tribulation are depicted as a time of ghastly violence and bloodshed as those who turn to God struggle against those who don't, Kalashnikovs in hand, and holy hand-grenades at the ready.

Signs of the coming of these end times are continually sought in world affairs, and variously the formation of the UN, the Soviet Empire, the European Union, Islamic Terrorism, and so on have been highlighted as indicators that the Rapture is just around the corner.

The theology is based on fear and terror. One is terrorised and traumatised into accepting Jesus for fear of being 'left behind'. The impact this can have on young children can be devastating, though there can be no denying that it is an effective means to scare people into doing what you want them to do. Coercion as evangelism.

While I have been watching some of the debates amongst the Republican candidates for the US presidency, the impact of this theology was clear. It leads to a selfishness of 'as long as I and mine are okay, then fine', or 'as long as everyone thinks exactly as I do, then they will be going with me', but it allows no space for other views. Anything different is evil, to be fought against at all cost. It also leads to horrific short-termism because the Rapture is just around the corner and then Earth will be going to hell in a handbasket anyway. Why bother about looking after the environment, or seeking the long haul work of building better relationships with countries with whom we currently see little in common, or striving to create societies that better serve each other, especially the poor? Why bother with cooperation, when coercion by violence is another option? In fact, let's encourage Israel to attack Iran in order to actually speed along the process!

The thing is that this is not the message that Jesus came with, nor is it the message that the Bible shares with us about God's intentions. God loves the world, God loves us, and God seeks to bring reconciliation. The assumption behind what Darby and his subsequent followers preach is that God hates what he has created, and the quicker we can depart from here the better. But that is not what Jesus taught. Far from it, he taught that God loved the world so much that he came into the world as we have just celebrated this Christmas.

Jesus didn't coerce, but he did seek cooperation. He drew people to himself, he sought out their participation in his project of sharing the grace and love of God, even when that came with a sharp barb as that grace confronted the systems and power-brokers of the day who did wield their coercive power over and against others.

In our own situation here in Blantyre, as we are urged to work together more and to start looking at a parish grouping of churches sharing in certain work together, as we already do with much of our youth work, it is vitally important that a spirit of cooperation is what drives us onwards, and that coercion is left at the door.

It is ever clearer to me, from all the different strands, that this is God's desire, that this is the way the world is supposed to work, that by cooperation societies and communities will grow in wisdom and strength, and that any form of coercion is nought but a backward step particularly unbefitting those who profess to follow Christ, even while many who do so profess still mistakenly make that claim.

The gospel is a message of hope, not one of fear. Relish that, enjoy it: it is God's gift to us. And then seek your part in the great cooperative that is the Commonwealth of God.

If you have made it this far, I apologise for the length of these ramblings. This is what happens when you haven't blogged in a while!

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