Thursday, October 25, 2007

Still More on Torture

This is a continuation of my ongoing dialogue with a conservative Catholic friend, whom I have dubbed "CC" for purposes of this discussion. In my first post on this matter, I outlined my basic anti-torture position. My second post was a reply to CC's emailed response. CC has taken the time to e-mail additional thoughts, and this post continues our dialogue. I am here quoting both some of my own prior statements and CC's response to them:

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.

Response: There you go again. The word "torture" is inherently ambiguous. I agree that the Romans inflicted pain on Jesus of Nazareth and killed him. Christ's suffering serves as inspiration to me inspires a "certain sympathy" for all persons who suffer pain at the hands of any government, including our own. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek, and so, as a Christian, I try to live up to these ideals. It is not easy, however, to love terrorists who, if they could, would kill every man, woman, and child in the United States. But, Jesus calls us to do so, so those of us who are Christians must strive to do so. On the other hand, Jesus did not call anyone to be suicidal, nor did he suggest that worldly notions of justice should be abolished with his dying on the cross.

I agree that there is some inherent ambiguity in the term "torture," but I also think that the tactics which appear to have been utilized by the United States government fall well outside of any possible grey area.

As for the religious implications, my only point is that it seems odd to me that Christian conservatives appear to have so enthusiastically embraced harsh interrogation techniques, when in fact their theology cuts in the opposite direction. As a non-believer, I feel no particular obligation to even try to love terrorists. I'd be all in favor of torturing terrorists were it not for two things. The first is the risk of error, of torturing people who are not, in fact, terrorists. This isn't just a fantasy, it appears to have actually happened to a man named Khalid El-Masri, who was kidnapped by the CIA, flown to Afghanistan, and tortured. Or at least he so alleges. (He recently lost in his attempt to sue the United States, but not on the merits of his claim.) On TV, they always get the right guy, but life isn't a TV show, and we are talking about fallible government agents, here.

The other reason is that I don't trust the government to have the power to torture people. I think that if the 20th century shows anything, that power will be expanded, abused, and applied against the innocent. It's not about them -- it's about us.

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.

Response: Again, if one eliminates all forms of ineffective coercive interrogation techniques, what is left? Anything? Your position seems to be this: certain effective coercive interrogation techniques are should be permitted -- so long as the coercion does not exceed your "mild discomfort" standard; but other effective coercion techniques should be prohibited because they involved "torture," which apparently is more excessive coercion than "mild discomfort."
To begin with, "mild discomfort" was probably a poor choice of words. As I have tried to explain, my use of that language was intended to convey the fact that I'm not one of those who believe that any distress or discomfort constitutes torture. Nor do I believe that people captured on the battlefield need to be given Miranda warnings or the like. In my first post of this conversation, I cited this article about a study which says there's no evidence harsh interrogation techniqes work and these reports which suggest the same. I propose we use the techniques that past interrogators claim actually worked: learn their culture and language and talk to them. It's not as satisfying as waterboarding, but it may be more effective in actually protecting our loved ones.

But let me be clear on this: even if torture worked, I would be against it, for all of the Libertarian reasons I've outlined. I think that letting agents of the state get used to having this power is a Bad Idea. And that the state is far more dangerous, in the long run, than terrorists could ever be.

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.

Response: I agree that the reasons cited above weigh against "torture." But your analysis assumes that there are no benefits to aggressive interrogation techniques, and continues to avoid defining exactly what is "torture."

Given the lack of evidence that there is any up-side that cannot be achieved through other means, I think it more than weighs against it -- I think it's dispositive. As for the definition issue: "the deliberate infliction of severe physical or psychological distress."

CC and I actually agree at this point that that nuclear terrorism is fairly unlikely:

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.

Response: I thought I sent a follow-up e-mail that acknowledged that the chances of terrorists obtaining a nuke is pretty small.
CC did indeed send such a follow-up, and I was in error to not acknowledge it.

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.

Response: I generally agree, but the difficulty with making a risk assessment here is that we are not privy to confidential information in the hands of the government.

We agree? What's the fun in that.

I do agree it would be nice to have information now in the hands of the government. But the problem with relying on "trust us, we know what we are doing" is that government officials always have an incentive to increase their own power and cover up mistakes. At the end of the day, I don't trust the government to have this power, and that applies regardless of which party or person happens to be in office.

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