Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some common sense on torture

There's been a lot of talk about torture recently, (or perhaps "enhanced interogation," if you work for Fox News). As usual, the debate is stuck in a dichotomy that I believe is false. Liberal and libertarian opponents of torture claim it is: 1) always morally wrong, and 2) ineffective. Supporters of "coercive interrogation," e.g. waterboarding, maintain it saves American lives and is a useful intelligence tool. They also, regrettably, often talk as if it were no big deal. I agree with neither one of these positions in toto. The truth lies somewhere between these two positions.

I rarely believe in absolutes; someone who says "You should never (have an abortion, start a war, etc..) is not thinking clearly or profoundly. There are almost no absolutes in real life. There are things we should make the exception, not the rule: preemptive war, late-term abortion, racial discrimination, for example. These events should not become commonplace. But I would not say unequivocally they should never happen. Very few people today, even on the far left, would have condemned FDR if he had launched a preemptive strike on Japan in 1941–if he knew in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack. (I know some say he did know, but we'll leave that theory alone for now). I find late-term abortion morally reprehensible, but I would allow it if needed to save the mother's life.

As for torture, I agree with an excellent article by my favorite author on religion, Sam Harris. He makes a great point here: (at his website)

If you think it is ever justifiable to drop bombs in an attempt to kill a man like Osama bin Laden (and thereby risk killing and maiming innocent men, women, and children), you should think it may sometimes be justifiable to “water-board” a man like Osama bin Laden (and risk abusing someone who just happens to look like Osama bin Laden). It seems to me that however one compares the practices of “water-boarding” high-level terrorists and dropping bombs, dropping bombs always comes out looking worse in ethical terms. And yet, many of us tacitly accept the practice of modern warfare, while considering it taboo to even speak about the possibility of practicing torture.

Harris is exactly right when he compares waterboarding and bombing. Many innocent people are killed when we drop bombs; that seems far more morally wrong than waterboarding a suspected terrorist, where there is no danger of "collateral damage." (I hate that term, but it seems to have become a part of the lexicon).

Harris recommends an article by Mark Bowden of the Atlantic Monthly "The Dark Art of Interrogation". Bowden suggests officially banning torture, but allowing for exceptions when an interrogator is faced with a dangerous terrorist that won't talk otherwise. The interrogator will know no one will prosecute him if he has broken the law to stop an attack. On the other hand, if he goes trigger-happy, Abu Ghraib-like, he will go to jail for a long time. This has been the de facto policy of Israel since 1999, when the Supreme Court abolished torture.

Anyone who has a better idea should let me know. Better yet, let the President know.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Where is God, Jesus, and the rest

This post is primarily for my Christian friends, who sincerely believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the divine power of God. Recently, a earthquake hit Italy and not only killed hundreds, it destroyed many old churches. Why do I mention churches being destroyed, when human life is so much more important? Well, I'm just curious why Jesus in heaven would allow damage to holy buildings. OK, the tsunami in Indonesia killed far more, but those were primarily Muslims and perhaps not under Jesus' protection. But this is different. Sacred buildings were destroyed—how could a God who is loving (allegedly) allow this to happen?

I have a heretical thought, in the wake of the disaster: perhaps there just isn't any God and Christianity (and all other religions) are false. As Sam Harris pointed out, if there is a designer he created smallpox, which killed hundreds of millions of people. Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate in physics, puts it well in his book Dreams of a Final Theory: The God of birds and trees is also the God of cancer and birth defects. I personally see no evidence for a benevolent God; the one I prayed to as a young Jew not so long ago. For religious readers, I have one last question: if there is a God, why has he allowed 99% of the species he created to die?

False dilemma on health care

Conservatives are warning Americans that if we reform our health care system, trouble lies ahead. We will be rationing care and facing long lines for surgery like in Britain or Canada. But this is just not true. Our alternatives do not lie solely between keeping a bad system and moving to a different, but also terrible, system. Ezra Klein puts it well in this column: there is a third way that many countries have adapted, to great success. In countries like France and Germany, as people like Paul Krugman have pointed out, there are no waiting lines. (They also don't have any uninsured people, but that's another point I won't go into right now.)

So when a Republican friend says national health insurance will lead to rationing, don't listen to him or her. Explain what a false dilemma is—and pass them my blog post. I'm not one of those MSM Democratic toadies, so they can trust me.