Sunday, May 24, 2009

Torture: a Reconsideration

Sam Harris/In-Defense-of-Torture):

""""Most readers will undoubtedly feel at this point that torture is evil and that we are wise not to practice it. Even if we can’t quite muster a retort to the ticking bomb case, most of us take refuge in the fact that the paradigmatic case will almost never arise. It seems, however, that this position is impossible to square with our willingness to wage modern war in the first place.
In modern warfare, “collateral damage”—the maiming and killing innocent noncombatants—is unavoidable. And it will remain unavoidable for the foreseeable future. Collateral damage would be a problem even if our bombs were far “smarter” than they are now. It would also be a problem even if we resolved to fight only defensive wars. There is no escaping the fact that whenever we drop bombs, we drop them with the knowledge that some number of children will be blinded, disemboweled, paralyzed, orphaned, and killed by them.

The only way to rule out collateral damage would be to refuse to fight wars under any circumstances. As a foreign policy, this would leave us with something like the absolute pacifism of Gandhi. While pacifism in this form can constitute a direct confrontation with injustice (and requires considerable bravery), it is only applicable to a limited range of human conflicts. Where it is not applicable, it is seems flagrantly immoral. We would do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide, because this “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” We might wonder what a world full of pacifists would have done once it had grown “aroused”—commit suicide as well? There seems no question that if all the good people in the world adopted Gandhi’s ethics, the thugs would inherit the earth.

So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with known terrorists? I find it genuinely bizarre that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the perfectly foreseeable (and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not. What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men, women, and children? Rather, it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay. Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury on its victims; while the collaterally damaged are, almost by definition, crippled or killed. The ethical divide that seems to be opening up here suggests that those who are willing to drop bombs might want to abduct the nearest and dearest of suspected terrorists—their wives, mothers, and daughters—and torture them as well, assuming anything profitable to our side might come of it. Admittedly, this would be a ghastly result to have reached by logical argument, and we will want to find some way of escaping it. But there seems no question that accidentally torturing an innocent man is better than accidentally blowing him and his children to bits.

In this context, we should note that many variables influence our feelings about an act of physical violence. The philosopher Jonathan Glover points out that “in modern war, what is most shocking is a poor guide to what is most harmful.” To learn that one’s grandfather flew a bombing mission over Dresden in the Second World War is one thing; to hear that he killed five little girls and their mother with a shovel is another. We can be sure that he would have killed many more women and girls by dropping bombs from pristine heights, and they are likely to have died equally horrible deaths, but his culpability would not appear the same. There is much to be said about the disparity here, but the relevance to the ethics of torture should be obvious. If you think that the equivalence between torture and collateral damage does not hold, because torture is up close and personal while stray bombs aren’t, you stand convicted of a failure of imagination on at least two counts: first, a moment’s reflection on the horrors that must have been visited upon innocent Afghanis and Iraqis by our bombs will reveal that they are on par with those of any dungeon. If our intuition about the wrongness of torture is born of an aversion to how people generally behave while being tortured, we should note that this particular infelicity could be circumvented pharmacologically, because paralytic drugs make it unnecessary for screaming ever to be heard or writhing seen. We could easily devise methods of torture that would render a torturer as blind to the plight of his victims as a bomber pilot is at thirty thousand feet. Consequently, our natural aversion to the sights and sounds of the dungeon provide no foothold for those who would argue against the use of torture.

To demonstrate just how abstract the torments of the tortured can be made to seem, we need only imagine an ideal “torture pill”—a drug that would deliver both the instruments of torture and the instrument of their concealment. The action of the pill would be to produce transitory paralysis and transitory misery of a kind that no human being would willingly submit to a second time. Imagine how we torturers would feel if, after giving this pill to captive terrorists, each lay down for what appeared to be an hour’s nap only to arise and immediately confess everything he knows about the workings of his organization. Might we not be tempted to call it a “truth pill” in the end? No, there is no ethical difference to be found in how the suffering of the tortured or the collaterally damaged appears.""""""
Harris raises a legitimate point about proximity, and the argument for some limited uses of torture in extreme situations should be considered. Collateral damage due to torture is no different than collateral damage due to bombs, invasions, battles, so forth, and Justice would most likely be better served by torturing a few POWs in situations where that torture could prevent the deaths of thousands of innocents by bombs, invasions, battles, etc.--that is, assuming that torture “works”, and that the testimony produced is reliable (an issue which Harris doesn’t really address in much depth).

Harris’ essay was a topic for a few months, but his secular pragmatism did not produce much of an effect on the fratboy moralists and the PC soccer mommies who make up the ranks of the big DNCocrat sites like KOS, Salon, DU, CT, so forth, and who routinely overlook the fact that most leading Demos, like DiDI Feinstein, signed off on the same enhanced interrogation techniques the GOP yokels agreed to. They’re still invoking their righteous indignation over torture, 24/7 and still forgetting that their Demo heroes all waved the flags along with the GOP until about 2005, when it appeared the herd no longer backed the IWE.

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