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« Paul Johnson Beheaded | Main | Update: Media Believed Al Qaeda-Saddam Connection... When Clinton Told Them So »
June 18, 2004

The Moral Case for Torture

I understand the great dangers of torture -- that we might begin to inflict this horrific treatment routinely. I understand that there is a moral imperative -- or, as I would term it, a moral near-imperative -- against the practice.

I understand that, in fighting monsters, one should guard against becoming a monster oneself.

But let me ask this:

Suppose torturing -- inflicting pain which will be recovered from; i.e., not maiming -- six known Al Qaeda terrorists reveals a plan to shoot a single man on the street in Annan.

One man. I'm not talking about a "ticking time bomb." I'm talking about saving only one man's life. One man.

Can anyone say that the immorality of inflicting pain on six dedicated killers is actually worse than immorality of letting a man die whom you might have saved?

Put it like this: Suppose we don't abuse those men, but we know that abusing them could have saved that one man's life.

Who, with a straight face, can go to that man's widow and children and patiently explain that it was more important to treat inhuman monsters humanely than to save that man's life?

Would the widow or children agree with this moral calculus?

Would you agree with the calculus, when forced to confront the negative consequences of the ethic against absue of killers?

Utilitarian calculations are often brutal. So brutal we almost completely avoid discussing them at all, except when forced to-- such as in car-design-negligence trials.

But the fact is we employ a vicious, brutal, and ultimately moral utilitarian calculus every day of our lives. We know that lighter cars, with lighter bumpers and lighter chasses, will result in a certain additional number of vehicular-collision deaths than heavier cars. But we have decided, collectively (if not individually), that the benefits of lighter cars -- to wit, better gas mileage -- actually outweigh the number of people who we know with mathematical certaintity will perish because of our decisions.

We accept this primarily because we don't bother thinking about it. But even when we are forced to confront it, we collectively say: We will accept that fact. We don't know who these additional dead people will be, but we accept the risk that we ourselves may count among their numbers, and we say that the deaths, and the risk of our own personal death, are justified.

We know that lifting the speed limit by 10 mph will result, with mathematical certainty, in a certain additional number of people -- mothers, fathers, daughers, and sons -- dying on the road every year. But we've made the cruel calculus that our convenience in getting from one place to another ten minutes faster justifies these deaths.

I don't disagree with this judgment. But no one can claim that we have made the preservation of human life absolutely sacrosanct in these decisions. Deaths are an important factor, but we have decided that the negative of additional deaths can often be outweighed by even trivial considerations. Such as one's right to drive 65 or 70 on a highway.

If saving human lives is not itself sacrosanct -- if other considerations can compete even with saving human lives -- can we argue that inflicting pain on cutthroats and bombers and death-cult murderers is, on the other hand, sacrosanct and inviolable?

Is that the position of Glenn Reynolds? I'm asking in all seriousness. Is it his belief that we can essentially sacrifice human life to achieve some useful but not morally compelling goal (saving gas, speeding a trip), but that the ethic that we must not, under any circumstances, inflict pain on known killers and cutthroats is absolute and cannot be similarly outweighed by competing considerations?

Utilitarian calculations are, as applied to matters of life and death, brutal and ugly. Everyone flinches from examining these issues in such a mathematical way; we all recoil from the understanding that human life can be less important than achieving some lesser goal. We all claim that it's an absolute imperative that we preserve human life no matter what the competing considerations, but we all know that's a lie. It's just a lie that sounds good.

If those who oppose torture wish to argue that the ethic against torture outweighs the competing consideration of preserving human life, that is their right. They can claim that just like we willingly sacrifice human lives in the interests of gas-economy and the vague notion of "saving the environment," surely we can also sacrifice human lives to safeguard the moral imperative of not deliberately inflciting pain on another human being.

That is not necessarily a bad argument. I wouldn't call anyone making that argument morally unserious.

But I think it's time we actually did hear that argument. If it's more important that we not inflict pain than we save human lives, let us hear that case made. Let us stop simply asserting that we must never torture without explaining why.

I think that saving a human life -- even one human life -- is more compelling a consideration than safeguarding the comfort and human dignity of cutthroats and murderers. I think that's a decent argument as well.

Perhaps I'm wrong. If I'm wrong, I'd like to know why. I'd like to hear it stated forthrightly from the opponents of torture why it's more important that we not torture Al Qaeda murderers than we see one additional man make it home to his wife and children without being shot in the back of the head, or exploded as he walks on the street, or abducted and then beheaded on videotape.

So far we've been having this argument largely by implication only. Neither those who support torture of terrorists, nor those who oppose it, have been willing to honestly engage on the issue. Those who oppose it simply dismiss torture as being inhuman, without confronting the fact that's it's also quite inhuman to let a man die simply to safeguard an important moral priniciple. Those who support it have been cagey and evasive about stating their reasons why.

Well, there are my reasons. Where are the reasons against?

Crushing Rejoinder Which Isn't So Crushing at All Update: The way the anti-torture ethicists answer this question is by avoiding it, that is, they simply deny that torture can result in saving a human life.

It never works, they say. Never. Never ever ever never ever never.

This is the common childish way to avoid a difficult hypothetical: by simply denying the premise of the hypothetical. Asked to choose between the moral imperatives of not inflicting pain and saving a human life, people often childishly answer that they choose both: They choose to both never inflict pain and save human lives, because torture doesn't work anyway.

With all due respect, someone who's actually used torture to save human lives disagrees [link coming].

But a narrower claim can be made. Those who argue that the ethic to never torture is more imperative than the ethic to save a human life will say, quite plausibly, that torture didn't seem to work in the case of Paul Johnson. After all, they will say, the Saudis probably tortured Al Qaeda suspects, but to no good result.

But we actually don't know that. We don't know how determined the Saudis were to track Paul Johnson's abductors down; we don't know if they ever came across anyone with any association with the abductors. I think we should torture when it can save a single life, but not when it can't save a human life. And if the Saudis never captured anyone with any association with these abductors, then torturing them could do no earthly good, as they simply didn't know anything.

And yes: Of course, it will often be difficult to tell the difference between those who have information that could save a human life and those who could not.

That said, when you do capture someone who you know knows something about the operations and personnel of an organization intent on murdering innocents, and you know that organization will, to a mathematical certainty, take innocent human lives unless you persuade those you've captured to reveal information about the organization, how can you say that these murderers are more deserving of comfort than an innocent civilian is more deserving of his very life?

When we know someone is a member of Al Qaeda, what is the argument against torturing him, whether you know he's involved in a specific plot or not? You know the reason he's joined Al Qaeda: To kill innocent people. Is it necessary that we know precisely which innocent person he plans to kill before we start twisting his arms and beating the shit out of him?

He didn't join Al Qaeda for the free fucking health-club membership, after all. He didn't join Al Qaeda to work on his lats or take advantage of the lap swim.

He joined to kill people.

He will have information helpful in stopping the other members of his cell from killing people.

Is his comfort more valuable than their lives?

Addendum: This Guy Says Torture Works: Re-printing a previous post....

The Atlantic Monthly headlined an article thus in January 2002:

A Nasty Business

Gathering "good intelligence" against terrorists is an inherently brutish enterprise, involving methods a civics class might not condone. Should we care?

The writer is torn by self-doubt and his precious conscience, but he recounts this story:

I cannot use his real name, so I will call him Thomas. However, I had been told before our meeting, by the mutual friend—a former Sri Lankan intelligence officer who had also long fought the LTTE—who introduced us (and was present at our meeting), that Thomas had another name, one better known to his friends and enemies alike: Terminator. My friend explained how Thomas had acquired his sobriquet; it actually owed less to Arnold Schwarzenegger than to the merciless way in which he discharged his duties as an intelligence officer. This became clear to me during our conversation.

"By going through the process of laws," Thomas patiently explained, as a parent or a teacher might speak to a bright yet uncomprehending child, "you cannot fight terrorism."

Terrorism, he believed, could be fought only by thoroughly "terrorizing" the terrorists—that is, inflicting on them the same pain that they inflict on the innocent.

Thomas had little confidence that I understood what he was saying. I was an academic, he said, with no actual experience of the life-and-death choices and the immense responsibility borne by those charged with protecting society from attack.

Accordingly, he would give me an example of the split-second decisions he was called on to make. At the time, Colombo was on "code red" emergency status, because of intelligence that the LTTE was planning to embark on a campaign of bombing public gathering places and other civilian targets. Thomas's unit had apprehended three terrorists who, it suspected, had recently planted somewhere in the city a bomb that was then ticking away, the minutes counting down to catastrophe.

The three men were brought before Thomas. He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists—highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation—remained silent. Thomas asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved.

So Thomas took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved.

On other occasions, Thomas said, similarly recalcitrant terrorists were brought before him. It was not surprising, he said, that they initially refused to talk; they were schooled to withstand harsh questioning and coercive pressure. No matter: a few drops of gasoline flicked into a plastic bag that is then placed over a terrorist's head and cinched tight around his neck with a web belt very quickly prompts a full explanation of the details of any planned attack.

I don't see this as a difficult choice. I understand that we are doing bad. But I also understand we are doing bad in order to do good. That happens sometimes.

Thomas, you'll note, didn't just torture a terrorist; he actually "murdered" one in cold blood. (I don't know if we can really call this "murder," but I've no doubt as to what the statutes would say about it.)

Did he do wrong?

Should he have just allowed the bomb to detonate?

Would that have been the more moral choice? By what calculus?

Update: Brock writes:

Just to clarify Instapundit, I don't think he was saying "Never torture." His statement was closer to "Never have _a rule_ for when torture can be used." Rules can be abused; technicalities can be stretched, and the slippery slope starts there.

I think his point was "You can never torture, unless you can later prove (based on all the evidence) it was the right thing to do."

Okay, I've heard that take before. That we allow torture, but we don't allow it. Wink wink. On the QT. Keeps things from getting out of hand.

But here's the thing: That's out the window right now, because the liberals in this country are not content to leave it on the QT. For reasons of pure political positioning, they want to expose it and declare it illegal.

So we don't have that choice. Conservatives kept quiet about Clinton's extraordinary rendtions -- delivery of terrorists to Arab countries for torturing -- and thus the keep-it-quiet-and-formally-illegal option was open when we had a Democratic President.

But the liberals are not willing to keep it quiet now, are they? Apparently their delicate consciences will only countenance torture when it's a liberal Democrat doing the torturing.

Since the liberals are exposing this and demanding that the practice be ended, I don't see any other option at this point but to publicly defend the practice.

Quite frankly, I think it's even a winning political issue. If the liberals want to rule out torturing terrorists under any circumstances, let John Kerry affirmatively promise that. But of course he doesn't-- he just criticizes Bush without saying what he'd do in that situation.

By remaining silent, we're letting John Kerry punish Bush politically for doing the right thing without himself pay a political price for compromising US security.


Some argue that even terrorists have rights. Well, I say that no man has any rights except those which he can defend. By social contract, we grant rights to each other, and agree to defend those rights for each other. When a terrorists commits himself to his endeavor, he is outside the contract and I have no responsibility to protect his rights. When I torture him for information (practical torture you might say; not Baathist "for Saddam's glory" torture), I am defending my own rights and the rights of all members of civilization (even the French).

Well said.

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posted by Ace at 02:22 PM

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