Monday, October 22, 2007

More Thoughts on Torture

In my last post on this topic, I argued that the government ought not be given the power to torture people because, if the 20th century has shown us nothing, it is that giving the state the power to torture people is just a really bad idea.

In that post, I discussed a dinner conversation with an old friend, whom I will refer to as "CC" for "Conservative Catholic, regarding this issue, and I used that conversation as a springboard to my discussion. Well, CC has since e-mailed me to clarify his position, and he has suggested that I misquoted him. Of course I misquoted him! I was too busy swilling down a really nice wine to take notes.

In any case, his position is probably more nuanced than I gave it credit for being--- more nuanced than mine, for that matter -- and in his e-mail he raised some interesting points. Here's what he said:

I am generally against "torture," but, frankly, the label "torture" fails to capture the issue. The challenge the government faces is to obtain most effectively critical intelligence information as rapidly as possible. I recall that you endorse the notion that the government may inflict "mild discomfort" but not "torture" in order to accomplish this goal. There are not, however, bright lines between what some may call "mild discomfort" and "torture." Let's take an example: sleep deprivation. Women of infants are sleep deprived typically because they are taking care of their children. Are they tortured? Mildly discomforted?

The reference to "mild discomfort" is, I think, the result of CC's misunderstanding of my position, or perhaps my own lack of clarity. The point which I was making to him when I used those words is that I don't consider some of the things I've read about to be "torture" as that word is used in English. For example, I don't think it's "torture" to smear somebody with menstrual blood, or to make them watch you pee on the Koran, or for a female interrogator to strip off her shirt and parade around in a bra. Some folks on the left claim this kind of thing is tortue, and I think they're nuts. There are people who if you put detainees up in the Ritz will insist that only the Four Seasons would be good enough. I'm not one of them.

I can even agree with CC that it can be difficult to draw bright lines -- there are indeed grey areas. But techniques like waterboarding, forcing people to stand in "stress positions" for hours, sensory deprivation and waterboarding aren't in any gray area -- they're torture. Sure, to some extent women caring for children are slightly sleep deprived. But those women are allowed to take naps between feedings, and to get some sleep some of the time. Likewise, some people work standing for hours on end. But they aren't forced to work standing in a "stress position" designed to produce agony. Here's a hint: most of these techniques were pioneered by totalitarian regimes. Maybe that tells us something.

As CC sees it, there are actually two issues:

The "torture" issue presents two real sub-issues: (a) whether "torture" is an effective means of obtaining intelligence; and (b) whether "torture" violates some human right against cruel or inhumane treatment. As to (a), I offer no opinion. I agree that the governments hould not use any interrogation or intelligence-gathering technique that is not effective, but, then, only sadistic people would suggest otherwise.

Even sadistic people won't say otherwise overtly, but that doesn't rule out sadism as a potential motive. I certainly can't prove this, but to a great extent I think that the Cheney/Addington/Yoo/Tenet position on torture is indeed motivated by sadism. Oh, not sexual sadism of the whips-and-chains variety, but a desire to hurt people, or a callous indifference to their suffering. The desire to inflict suffering is strong enough that it predisposes the advocates of harsh measures to believe that those measures are necessary and effective. This may explain the popularity of TV shows like 24, as well as the ubiquitous ticking time bomb scenario. And this is why I will never, ever vote for Rudy: at the end of the day I think he wants to hurt people.

The human rights question is more difficult and depends upon a variety of factors: the gravity and imminence of the harm; the information sought; the type of interrogation technique being considered; and a reasonable likelihood for success. There may be other considerations. But I do not believe there is a bright line, especially in times of war when, as now, the national security is threatened. This may come down to a largely utilitarian calculation of choosing among a variety of bad options.

Well, as a religious believer it seems to me that you probably ought to apply a categorical command against torture. You do, after all, believe that Christ (whom you consider to be a manifestation of God, right?) was tortured by the Romans. This ought to lead you to a certain sympathy for the victims of torture, regardless of whether it works.

That said, I agree that torture ought to be subjected to a largely utilitarian calculation. However, I think that the resolution of those calculations is actually pretty easy. Torture is an information-gathering technique which may or may not even work, and if it does work produces information which may or may not be particularly reliable. Its benefits are dubious and relatively short-term.

The immediate cost is a loss of credibility of the United States, a massively-reduced level of soft-power and ability to exercise moral leadership. It means we have a far more difficult time complaining if our own people or our allies' people are mistreated by an enemy. I'm not a huge fan of the Bush/Clinton notion of war as social work, but if the idea is to remake Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal democracies, might not our own conduct have a certain teaching function? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" isn't exactly the lesson we were trying to impart. In addition, while you may not think that the pain inflicted on terrorists or their sympathizers ought to count, the torture inflicted upon innocent people tortured by mistake certainly ought to count. And then there is the psychological cost borne by the torturers who have to live with what they've done in subsequent years.

And you have the huge potential down-side of people who work for your security services getting used to the idea that they are allowed to torture people. While terrorism is indeed a danger, a state with security services acclimated to the idea of torturing people is a far greater danger in the long term. If you say that "terrorists" can be tortured, it's a pretty easy step to define one's political opponents as being terrorists.

My friend CC, however, doesn't see it that way. He seems to think that I underestimate the danger associated with Islamic terrorists:

The notion that the "terrorists" are weak is generally accurate in the conventional military sense, but there is the possibility, at least reported, of suitcase nukes obtained via the black market, suicide bombers, and the like that could result in large numbers of casualties. The real danger with Islamic terrorism is that (1) the terrorists seek to kill as many Americans as possible, including all men, women, and children (including my wife and children and you and [the Main Squeeze]; and (2) the terrorists are willing to carry out their murderous schemes by suicidal means. This presents almost unimaginable possibilities for mass murder and must, unfortunately, affect the analysis of the types of interrogation techniques that are possible, at least with respect to those that are effective.

First, the danger of terrorists getting a nuke, "suitcase" or otherwise, is pretty small, for the reasons articulated by Gregory Cochran in his 2 Blowhards interview. And if we are worried about that, the best way to prevent it is not to go around torturing terrorists; it's to work with the Russians and the Chinese to keep the supply of nuclear weapons bottled up tight.

That leaves "conventional" suicide terrorism. And he's right that terrorists can indeed kill a lot of people if they are so inclined. In fact, we can imagine all sorts of low-tech things that terrorists could do that are almost impossible to stop -- drive around medium-sized cities lobbing Molotov cocktails out the window of their vehicle, for example. But the number of people who are actually willing to do that seems to be fairly small. The chances of CC's kids, or my Main Squeeze being killed by conventional criminals is a lot greater than the chances they'll be killed by terrorists. The off-chance that a terror plot that would kill a lot of people will be foiled by torture isn't worth the very real costs associated with institutionalizing the practice.

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