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.

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