"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Tortured Anti-Torture Argument

Now, like many or even most Americans, I have a soft spot for John McCain. A war hero, an ex-POW, and a willingness to cross his own party. Still, it's hard to tell when he's grandstanding or following principle.

On his leadership against torture, since he was a victim of it, we shall give him the benefit of the doubt, although not his allies on the other side of the aisle and even on his own.

Torture is wrong, and it doesn't work, anyway.

Sweet. Grabbing the moral high ground, and anyone who disagrees is a sadist interested only in inflicting needless suffering. Cheney and Rumsfeld are Himmler and Heydrich.

But torture does work. Let's get that straight. The case of US Army Col. Allen West is easily as important as the Valerie Plame nonsense, but has disappeared from the public discussion (if it was ever there) because it puts the lie to framing defenders of the "ticking bomb" scenario as immoral sadists.

Briefly, while serving in Iraq, Col. West uncovered a plot to ambush him and his men. He treated rather roughly a man who had knowledge of the plot, fired a few shots from his pistol in the man's close proximity while threatening to kill him, and got the information, saving both himself and his men.

As a coda, administrative action was taken against Col. West under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for what "amounted to torture." His career is over.

So, torture is not only already illegal, it also works. It can save lives. So much for the moral clarity that the current anti-torture argument claims. There's a real-world dilemma here.

But what of the "'wrongness' of torture" argument that remains? It claims a moral absolute, but is in conflict with the first natural right, to survive. Was Col. West obligated to die because of this moral absolute of "wrongness"? Let his men perish?

The "wrongness" argument requires suicide. Let its proponents own it: I would rather die than have someone tortured to save me. Or to save my friends, my lover, my parents, or my children.

Further, I forbid anyone else from saving their own lives or those of friends and family in this way.

Legislating morality, foisting yours upon others? Torture is wrong, why, exactly? Because you say so?

Strangely enough, like capital punishment, I'm personally opposed to torture for reasons that resonate from my religious beliefs. But if I'm to park all that at the door when we as a nation decide important things like this, then my reason admits that the arguments for both torture to save life (and for capital punishment) are the stronger.

And to throw both the moral and practical arguments into a blender, especially when neither can stand on its own, and use the resulting incomprehensible slime to pour on one's opponents as "supporters of torture?" No, that just won't do. John McCain gets a pass. The rest do not. This is the real world, where if like Pilate one washes his hands and walks away, innocents die.


Hunter Baker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hunter Baker said...

It's an issue that has to be revisited ad infinitum before certain people see what's at the bottom.

My definition of torture is different than what others seem to think. For me, torture is popping off fingers with a cigar cutter or burning flesh that will never look better than molten lava or breaking bones. Torture is not sleep deprivation or waterboarding. But that's something people differ on and we can't fix that.

But underneath the question of what is torture, we once again come to morality, what it is, and what backs it up.

James poses torture as some kind of unbreakable coda, but if you ask him if he believes in moral absolutes, he says no. If you say, isn't that inconsistent, he says you don't understand the compelling nature of relativism rightly understood. Right.

What happens when some of we foundational morality types give in and suggest it might be okay to treat a suspect quite roughly (I won't give in on the torture word at this point) is that we believe between a likely culpable person intending harm to innocent persons and actual innocent persons, we have to give the nod to the innocent people.

I don't understand why that is a disgusting decision. I really don't. I'll try to make it easier for the lefties. Instead of a Muslim terrorist, it's a hardcore Klan character. Instead of killing capitalists, the Klan member is going to blow up cute, oppressed African-American children. You have the idea that he knows something about a plan to burn up a black church after locking everybody in. Will you deprive him of sleep? Make him think he might drown? Fire a gun and act crazy like you might snap and blow his head off?

Have you just gone too far or have you, Bonhoeffer-like, said yes to the moral reality of the situation. If innocents deserve more consideration than those who would kill, plot to kill, lie extensively and systematically, and deal in serious oppression after getting what they want, then you may have just made the right call. That's not utilitarianism. That's more like justice.

The Liberal Anonymous said...

I'm really enjoying this. It has gotten to the point that the intelligentsia of the American Right is now writing frequently and seriously on the justification of torture. Torture! For crying out loud -- torture!

Frankly, it's as if you folks are deliberately trying to make me feel good about myself. When the other side is going to such lengths to justify and facilitate unchecked secret torture chambers . . . well, it just makes a man feel like he's one of the Good Guys.

P.S.: Hunter, if waterboarding isn't torture, what is it?

JC said...

They aren't defending all torture. They are saying that in a very few cases, aggressive interrogation might be justified.
They did give examples of things worse than waterboarding that could be classified as "torture." And the posts mentioned nothing about secret prisons.

The point of the posts above was not "torture is good," but that there may be cases where we have to choose between the lesser of two evils: aggressive interrogation or mass murder.

With respect, Anonymous, you really didn't address the question; you just blew it off. Tom gave a compelling argument that there is a legitimate question (given the case of the Col. in Iraq). Moreover, he stated that he is in fact opposed to torture. But he feels the question is more nuanced than "torture is wrong, and it doesn't work, anyway."

tbmbuzz said...

How about we just apply the same standards liberals use for abortion to "torture". That is, it should be safe, legal and rare.

Hunter Baker said...

Best line yet, Buzz, but abortion is worse because it doesn't offer any protection to innocent parties. So, you get the dismemberment, the chemical burning, the crushing clamps, and nobody ever asks whether you deserved it? And guess what, you didn't.

Matt Huisman said...

This is the real world, where if like Pilate one washes his hands and walks away, innocents die.

I've avoided this issue - and still have some reservations about the slippery slope - but after some reflection, I'm quite confident that there is a line somewhere that I can live with in war.

Thanks for the reminder - the Pilate reference was brilliant - that fortitude requires one not run away from the responsibilities posed by this issue.

When the other side is going to such lengths to justify and facilitate unchecked secret torture chambers . . .

Unchecked secret torture chambers may be a real problem, but that is an implementation issue, which is a distraction from the torture question.

...well, it just makes a man feel like he's one of the Good Guys.

If torture didn't work, the issue would be moot. The problem is that it does, and now you have a moral choice. I respect your choice to believe that torture is bad policy - but when you make that argument, you cannot do so without accepting that you are willing to pay the price.

Frankly, I don't see how anyone on either side of this debate can feel all that great about their position. But hey, take your moment of relativistic moral superiority and savor it. Why bother contemplating the consequences when we can live cheap and feel good?

KeithM, Indy said...

Tom Van Dyke - thanks for the appreciation of my "sophistry" in the other thread. It certainly wasn't meant as a serious justification for "torture." Just to show the whole in the particular argument being made.

As several people have said, the real world is an awfull lot more naunced then how some would paint it.

Seems to me the Human Rights Convention has a fatal flaw.


"For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."


If a judge orders heavy handed interrogation, (for lack of a better word,) then it seems it would not fall under the convention. As it is a lawful sanction, and the pain and suffering is inherent and incidental to it.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.

I'm for heavy handed interogation techniques that do not inflict bodily or neurological damage.

I'm for using psychological and pharmacological means to extract information.

I'm for prosecuting people who abuse prisoners by inflicting bodily or neurological damage, or death.

KeithM, Indy said...

I'm also for the innocent being able to have their day in court against those that have caused them injury in the course of such heavy handed interogation.

James Elliott said...

The question, ultimately, is not the supposed utility of torture, but rather, what does its sanctioning by government mean, ultimately, for the country? You have set up an example rather apart from anything that was discussed in the previous thread, but it rather interestingly demonstrates the point you desperately want it to refute. Col. West’s action, taken in a battle zone, is not as clear-cut as you would make it, nor does it resemble at all the hypothetical “ticking time bomb” scenario. He could have remained where he was and called for reinforcements, or air support. He could have retreated. The only reason he needed the Iraqi’s information was because he wanted to press on. I am not one to say whether he took the right action or not. But I do know that the after-effect, his court martial, is the correct course. By court-martialing the Colonel, his actions are marginalized. To excuse his actions would be to encourage them.

Torture, Tom, is an act of tyranny. It turns the body against the mind. Its sole purpose is to make the victim less than they were, to break them. To render them subhuman and bestial and thus pliable. Torture is antithetical to liberty, for it is the ultimate deprivation of liberty. To torture someone is to remove all faculty for human action, dignity, and choice. Torture takes power away from the victim and gives all of it to the torturer. Torture kills autonomy and leaves only abject subservience. You cannot spread liberty through torture. Torture kills all that is good and decent in man, renders both victim and perpetrator as though they were mere animals. Your country cannot permit torture and call itself the country of freedom.

This hypocrisy, evident in the blatant obfuscation and semantic games of the Administration and its torture apologists give the lie to America’s moral high-ground rhetoric. All the world, especially the Middle East, knows that when you torture someone, you enslave them to your will. Torture and slavery are inextricably linked. An advocate of torture is an advocate of slave-mongering. A country that permits torture without punishing it tacitly endorses the enslavement of others.

To torture is to revel in totalitarianism, no matter your motives. We cannot torture in the name of eradicating totalitarianism – this is a self-defeating construct. You concern yourself with life, without regard to what torture does to the soul of the perpetrator. Our national identity, as Americans, is tarnished when we condone even one act of torture. Should the victim be revealed to be innocent, it is a damnation upon our very national soul.

Furthermore, Tom, you are doing an excellent job of using lazy postmodern thinking. The ticking time bomb hypothesis is a matter of extrapolation, blowing the very real problem up to an abstract point useless for a real conversation. It’s essentially the same way lazy multiculturalists and the intelligent design proponents argue, and it is facetious.

The argument has never been about such abstract scenarios, but about the very real acts known to have occurred, acts that, as a rule of civilized society, are banned by U.S. law and international treaties and conventions. The problem becomes further complicated when it is revealed that the US military estimates that up to 90% of the people subjected to such techniques may be completely innocent. You divorce the actual from the theoretical to create straw men and abstract thoughts. Your argument above does nothing to dismantle the “torture is wrong” argument but pour your own hyperbolic slime on the whole messy problem.

We are not talking about “good cop, bad cop,” long interrogations, no bathroom breaks. We are talking about acts that cause lasting physiological and psychological damage, acts that leave the victim scarred with the knowledge that his very humanity can be stripped from him, acts that have been proven to leave the perpetrator craving more of that power. These are some of the very same acts that we put men like Hussein on trial for. To excuse them because they are done “for our side” turns the whole world against us and shreds the character and dignity we used to be known for. The question becomes, “Is the measure of security, real or imagined, that torture provides worth the cost to our self-admiration, our dignity, our ideals, and our honor?” The answer can only be a resounding “No.” Torture is unreliable, therefore ineffective at providing security. In this modern world, a terrorist cell can be taught to adapt and change plans with the loss of members within moments’ notice. Torture cannot keep us safe. And if it cannot keep us safe, why, then, it is of no use at all, even if we were to stand up and acknowledge the damage it does to our ideals.

After WWII, Germans and Japanese feared what the occupying Americans might do to them. They soon learned that they shouldn’t worry. “Americans do not do these things,” they would say. Even though the Japanese tortured American POWs, that treatment was never revisited upon the Japanese. Because America did not do Those Things. But now. Now, America does Those Things. It does them to innocent people.

Torture is an act of fear and vengeance. Torture is not about saving lives. It never is. Being anti-torture is not to be callous towards others lives. Standing against torture is to stand for every principle this nation is founded upon. Nowhere in our founding documents is the question of citizenship raised. American freedom in its pure, idealistic form, is a beacon of hope. Every act of torture burnishes that beacon, and the light dims.

Tom Van Dyke said...

KeithM: Seems to me the Human Rights Convention has a fatal flaw.


"...(the term torture) does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

Yes, Keith. I'd guess that clause is in there to exempt cultural niceties like chopping off the hands of thieves. I'm sure that all things considered, they'd rather be waterboarded.

There is a lot of reputed self-evidence about torture that is not in evidence.

James Elliott said...

I believe they're referring to imprisonment, Tom.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Is that so? Please, go on, James.

I truly appreciate your waiting until others had their say before getting on your soapbox. I don't think I disagree with a word.

Torture = bad.

I would add: Many other things = worse.

I laid out the repercussions of your (and perhaps even my) position in italics. Unless I misread you, those here gathered can freely assume you have acknowledged ownership of them. Please confirm.

James Elliott said...

I would object to the "I forbid" statement. As has been consistently demonstrated in mine and others' arguments, the only other countries that engage in torture are totalitarian, tyrranical regimes. Always have been, always will be. The free, democratic, decent world over, torture is forbidden because of the very damage it does. The act of torture has very real and pragmatic consequences, aside from the moral and political ones I have mentioned. An enemy who believes he will be tortured is more likely to fight to the death than capitulate. A person who believes he might be seized and tortured for no good reason is more likely to join our opponents. Torture puts the lie to the very ideals we are trying to instill in Iraq. Torture makes people and their governments mistrust us, isolating us from potential allies, such as the silent majority of the Muslim world that does not favor al-Qaida.

The United States is not just a collection of individuals living their lives. It is an idea, a living experiment, and that experiment is slowly being washed out by the totalitarianism of the ruling portion of the Republican Party in power. Every act of torture that is tacitly permitted, either by policy or by obfuscation in the name of pragmatics, endangers America the Idea and American lives. Torture does not make a country safer, but rather endangers it on physical, spiritual, political, economic, and ideological levels.

I don't forbid torture, Tom. Decency, intelligence, a desire for security, and the consensus of the civilized world forbids torture.

James Elliott said...

I don't see how you can say that the moral and practical arguments against torture don't stand on their own without your nose smashing through the screen of your computer.

Practical: Torture inconsistently provides unreliable intelligence. An inconsistent method of production is not efficient in protecting our country. Unreliable intelligence requires more resources to vet than intelligence acquired via more classic interrogation techniques, such as Marine Major Sherwood Moran's ever so-classic, "Know their language, know their culture, and be nice to them." (Major Moran was the most successful interrogator of foreign fanatics in US Military history.) It is also shown to place us in MORE danger, making former allies and fence-sitters into enemies, providing fuel for the fanatic fire, and decreasing rates of surrender. It's hard to see how a tactic that encourages more attacks on us makes us safer in the net run.

On the moral side, it damages the very ideals we hold dear and are trying to spread. It puts the lie to our belief in the primacy of liberty. It dehumanizes both victim and perpetrator. When you render someone subhuman, how can you expect to then hold them accountable for their actions?

Torture is poison, and there is no compelling argument. Don't give me that legislating morality bullhonkey. We do it all the time, have since the very dawn of civilization. You'd do it in a heartbeat to get rid of abortion. To condone torture is to encourage torture. To condone torture in even ONE instance is to lose all credibility to condemn another's act of violence against another. To condone torture is to lose any moral and political authority left to this nation.

KeithM, Indy said...

So France didn't commit torture in Algiers or Vietnam???

What about the Dutch during the Congo Wars???

It's all well and good to be against the idea of "torture" as a policy and method.

The definition of torture is where we most likely differ.

If I say I'm against torture, then you would assume I have the same understanding and definition as you do, and hold me accountable under that definition.

The dilema I have in stating definitively that I am against torture, is one of definition.

Many on the left claimed that all of the abuses at Abu Graib were acts of torture. I disagree with that characterization for much of what I saw.

So first, come up with a definition of torture, that doesn't include an "out" clause at the end that could allow the state to do nearly anything it wanted anyway. Come up with a real definition, what is and isn't torture.

Then maybe we could come to some consensus. Until then, it is semantics. You say I'm for torture, I say I'm for heavy handed interrogation.

James Elliott said...

I sort of thought the "acts that cause lasting physiological and psychological harm" neatly summed it up.

So France didn't commit torture in Algiers or Vietnam???

What about the Dutch during the Congo Wars???

Where did you come up with those straw men? I very carefully limited my discussion to U.S. actions.

By the way, you left out the British during Kenya's Mau Mau uprising.

And it was the Belgians, not the Dutch.

KeithM, Indy said...

You opened up the line of inquirey with your reasoning:

"the only other countries that engage in torture are totalitarian, tyrranical regimes."

KeithM, Indy said...

I sort of thought the "acts that cause lasting physiological and psychological harm" neatly summed it up.



Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah. The dehumanization (mostly for the torturer himself) is why I'm opposed. You never asked me why I intimated my opposition, James. You just gave a speech against a position that neither I nor any other commenter here holds.

But torture does work. There are numerous examples (including one from the Atlantic) to be found on the internet in between the self-righteous screeds you've been cribbing from.

Which makes it a moral dilemma, and there are repercussions for every position. Own the italics, James. This is getting to be like thumb-rasslin' in Crisco.

Matt Huisman said...

I don’t have a problem with a minimal level of ‘roughing up’, good cop/bad cop, scare tactics, etc. – but beyond that, I think James is right. I think that I’m going to jump in and be willing to own the italics. Who we are is important – and jeopardizing that fact and the communication of that fact to others is too high a price to pay in far too many situations. At the end of the day, we as individuals and as a nation were put in this position to be and become something special, and I don’t think that attaching electrodes to various appendages qualifies.

James won’t necessarily buy into this, but I don’t believe we were created to choose dehumanizing methods. At some point I think you have to acknowledge that there is only so much that men have in their control, and that faith takes over and accepts what may come. Those that choose otherwise still have my respect – we are speculating over circumstances that are probably too complex to fully appreciate – but I don’t see how a policy of real torture (not the Gitmo hash) makes us better.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think that I’m going to jump in and be willing to own the italics.

That's all I (for one) ask.

Perhaps I'm willing too, but neither am I prepared to condemn other viewpoints as invalid or mindless sadism. It is difficult to demand that someone else let their children die.

James Elliott said...

Alright, Keith, you want to open it up, let's open it up.

1) The examples you site were colonies held under repressive colonial regimes - not democratically elected governments. They had no say in who was governing them. That the colonial power regimes were in the employ of nominally democratic governments is immaterial to the totalitarian power structure that existed where the tortures occurred.

2) You can't do a drive by "Hardly..." without backing up (or at least explicating... scratch that having) such an opinion and expect me to accept that as a rebbutal. As far as I'm concerned, your "Hardly" merely indicates that you don't have an argument you can articulate.

James Elliott said...

Tom, I guess I'm a little confused by what you're trying to get at. I don't understand what you mean by "own the italics" because you're apparently asking me to accept something you wrote as my own opinion. I feel I have articulated my position plenty on my own terms. I feel no need to enter the debate on yours.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Quite a workable definition of sophistry.

connie deady said...

Wow, this is really wierd. Moral absolutists arguing a relativist position and relativists arguing a moral absolutist position. I have to believe that it is some sort of politics at work in a justification rather than honest introspection. (Sorry Tom). To accuse people of opposing torture for politican reasons is really offensive. To suggest that democrats lack or moral basis for opposing torture is pure BS. Do you think all Democrats are soulless, amoral creatures? One can be political and be right.

Torture is wrong, taking the life of another human is wrong. Those are to me pretty strong moral absolutes. They both involve respect for human life. Torture degrades that. Codifying support for degradation of human life can't be morally right.

However a person who violates those codes can stand before the justice system and their god and still be right. Torture can be justified, as can killing of another. But if you are going to do it, it has to be extraordinary and extreme and with great realization that you are violating our civil and moral codes.

If torture is justifiable, I have faith that our military and intelligence community has to wherewithal to violate the law and answer for it. It's rather like a serviceman disobeying an immoral order to massacre innocent civilians. You start with requiring a soldier to obey an order. Refusal to do so requires facing consequences.

If you make torture palatable, then we will do it and we will lose our moral high ground. You have to make it wrong. It is wrong. Why are we justified in doing what no other civilization does?

I just don't get it.

KeithM, Indy said...

Why are we justified in doing what no other civilization does?

But other "civilizations" do it

KeithM, Indy said...

I'm sure if you asked a vegan, if an interregator eating a steak dinner in front of them causes lasting psychological harm to them, they'd say yes...

Now, most people would not feel so, but who is to judge what causes someone lasting psychological harm?

So, do me the favor of explaining yourself a bit more.

connie deady said...

I'm sure if you asked a vegan, if an interregator eating a steak dinner in front of them causes lasting psychological harm to them, they'd say yes...

Now, most people would not feel so, but who is to judge what causes someone lasting psychological harm?

So, do me the favor of explaining yourself a bit more.

If this is directed to me, I have no clue what you are trying to say nor what you want to explain.

Sorry about the civilization. The brain said civilized nations and the fingers typed civilizations,