Sunday, October 7, 2007

Torture? Not us...

President Bush says we don’t torture people. Nobody believes him. Well, I suppose some people do. But they have adopted a definition of torture (no organ failure, no torture) so restrictive as to be meaningless. And handing prisoners over to other countries that practice torture without restraint makes the whole denial thing a joke.
So what’s the problem with torture, anyway? This is the security of our country we’re talking about, isn’t it? Doesn’t the end justify the means here? We’re talking about harsh treatment of a few murderous fanatics in order to prevent a mass slaughter of innocents. What wouldn’t be justified?
I’m willing to take a hard look at the question. I don’t want another September 11th any more than you do. And those who say that torture never works are simply wrong. The French army used torture quite effectively to break up the FLN networks responsible for the bombing campaign in Algiers in 1957. Was it justified there? Can it ever be justified?
There are some hard issues here. Let’s think first about the ends and means thing. The best discussion of ends and means I know of is in a footnote to Chapter 9 of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper raises three questions to ask about any claim that a good end justifies a bad means: (1) Will the means in fact lead to the end? (2) Can we realistically assess which is the lesser of two evils? (3) Will the means itself create new ongoing problems?
Our response to the first question is a matter of intellectual humility. Millennia of experience with unintended consequences ought to make us skeptical of easy claims here. The seemingly clear cases like the French campaign in Algiers are very limited in scope: Massu’s paratroops crushed that particular network, but the larger war was lost anyway, and along with it the prestige of the French army. How many lives were saved? Impossible to answer. Some, almost certainly, in the short run. But how many French lives were lost subsequently to increased Algerian bitterness and opposition? The calculus gets pretty tough. Torture does not win friends, even if it can accomplish immediate tactical goals.
As for the second question, the non-fatal suffering, however intense, of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives set against the lives of large numbers of Americans in a hypothetical rerun of 9/11 is fairly easy, as assessments go. But it gets harder if we think about an ongoing policy of torture or physical pressure or whatever you choose to call it over a period of years. This leads to the third question. What are the long-term effects? Moral authority is a real asset in a world where the great majority of governments are distinguished by ruthless cynicism. It is an intangible asset, which may appear insignificant when set against the very real danger of mass murder. But in the long run the attitudes of people around the world, their desire to do business with us and listen to our entreaties and respect our interests and safeguard the travelers we send out around the world, is materially affected by our moral standing. And the longer we maintain a policy that allows torture, especially if we continue to be dishonest about it, the more that standing suffers.
The only possible justification for torture is on a strictly utilitarian calculus in which the act of torture would prevent a significantly greater evil in a direct and unambiguous way. But utilitarian arguments, overruling what Robert Nozick called “side constraints”, are valid only in emergency situations. The ticking-bomb scenario favored by torture’s apologists might qualify, but those scenarios are mercifully rare. In a true ticking-bomb scenario, all bets are off, and I would hope that any U.S. personnel in a position to defuse the bomb would do what is necessary. But that’s a far cry from institutionalizing torture in the long-term fight against Islamic fascism. We shouldn’t go there. It creates more problems than it solves. It de-legitimizes our power and manufactures enemies. It throws the moral authority we like to claim out the window. President Bush should take the steps necessary to insure that when he says we don’t torture people, he’s telling the truth.
Sam Reaves

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