24 April 2009

More Torturous Arguments

When I walked in this morning it was the loudest and angriest I'd ever heard it in the editorial department without Mr. Right being around. Two of our staff do a point-counterpoint style column every Friday, and today's subject was whether Americans who torture suspected terrorists should be prosecuted. The writers were carrying on their argument in the room. The man is a relatively mild conservative who defended the torturers on pragmatic grounds. The end justified the means, in his view, and he would not want future Americans deterred from taking similarly necessary measures, as he saw them, by the threat of prosecution by a subsequent unfriendly regime. The woman took the standard liberal argument: torture is something the U.S. or any civilized state should not do, and prosecutions may be necessary to send that message.

That's always seemed to be the essential point in dispute. Defenders of the Bush administration or "aggressive interrogation" in general presumably reject the premise that there is something un-American about doing whatever seems necessary to save American lives. The reasoning seems to be that the rules of self-preservation are different from the rules of everyday citizenship. The government of the United States is no more democratic, or no more republican, or no more liberal, because Americans must torture ruthless enemies during a desperate struggle. This is not a completely implausible argument.

The problem with most people who make the argument, however, is that they don't apply it consistently. They talk of an America menaced by "evil" regimes and "dictators" around the world. How do they know these regimes are evil? As a rule, they know nothing about the internal complexities of Iranian politics, for instance. What they do claim to know is how Iran treats dissidents, or how China treats them, or how Hugo Chavez seems to treat some of them. These practices define these states or leaders as "evil" for many Americans, but aren't those countries' actions also a form of national self-defense? Many governments feel threatened by counter-revolution and feel entitled to take "aggressive" measures to preserve revolutionary regimes. Those governments often go so far as to claim that "counterrevolutionaries" are actually agents of foreign governments -- usually ours. It can be argued that in treating such subversives "aggressively" they are acting in the same way, essentially, as Americans want their country to deal with alleged terrorists. Why, then, should they be judged as "evil" regimes, leaving aside how they treat neighboring countries, solely based on the way they defend themselves against enemies? There's probably a good answer to my question, but I wonder whether most American apologists for torture are clever enough to figure it out -- and I'm not about to help them. They'll have to use torture to get it out of me.


Anonymous said...

I have some questions regarding torture:
How do you know the person you are torturing actually has the information? Where do you draw the line and finally assume the victim has no credible information, if after "aggressive interrogation" he has still said nothing - or at least nothing of value? Do you continue until the victim is dead? Should we be allowed to use the same methods to gain valuable information from drug lords or organized crime members? If not, why not? Should our government only be bothered protecting it's citizens against foreign threats and not internal threats?

Samuel Wilson said...

I've always said the rationale for torture is vulnerable to the reductio ad absurdam. If you want to torture someone because he knows where a ticking bomb is located, that's one thing, but how do you know there isn't one someplace? How many people would you need to torture before you felt certain that there wasn't one? As for torture in the criminal justice system, I think the police coined the term "third degree," but there's a blue wall of silence blocking you from seeing exactly what that means in any given city.

Anonymous said...

Insofar as the ticking bomb scenario, if we are at war with terrorists, we must assume they are also at war with us. In a war, people on both sides die. The best way to ensure the safety of your people is to find an alternative to war. If the alternative to war with terrorists is to forbid all Americans and their businesses from entering the Muslim "holy land", so be it. Of course, that also means we would have to forbid all muslims and their businesses from entering the United States, which would call for a re-interpretation of the first amendment. Which I believe is necessary anyway.