Another brief follow-up

>> Thursday, April 23, 2009

I wish I'd written this: Gary Kamiya in Salon does an able job of dismantling the "ticking bomb" rationale for torture that's been offered by Dick Cheney and others.

But in the real world, the "ticking bomb" situation never arises. It is never the case that we know we can automatically avert mass slaughter by torturing someone. Reality is not that neat. Guilt and knowledge are not established in advance. Those whom we torture may or may not be planning nefarious deeds. As the British political scientist Henry Shue pointed out in his classic 1978 essay "Torture," "Notice how unlike the circumstances of an actual choice about torture the philosopher's example [i.e. the "ticking bomb" scenario as framed by ethicists] is. The proposed victim of our torture is not someone we suspect of planting the device: he is the perpetrator. He is not some pitiful psychotic making one last play for attention: He did plant the device. The wiring is not backwards, the mechanism is not jammed: the device will destroy the city if not deactivated." Shue concludes that "The distance between the situations which must be concocted in order to have a plausible case of morally permissible torture and the situations which actually occur is, if anything, further reason why the existing prohibitions against torture should remain and should be strengthened by making torture an international crime."

One point that Mr. Kamiya makes, that has also been made by Philip Zelikow, is that whether or not torture works is actually irrelevant. Torture opponents--including myself--who have said, "torture doesn't work" have overstated their case, but that shouldn't be the point. I concede Mr. Kamiya's and Mr. Zelikow's point without fully withdrawing: they're right, of course, that torture can produce accurate information, and has in some cases; and I have overstated the case when I've said otherwise and am duly chastened. That having been conceded, it frequently doesn't produce reliable information, and one doesn't have to reach too far to find people confessing all sorts of absurd things under torture (the confessions of witches, as during the Salem Witch Trials, ought to suffice as an easy example). A better point, and one that I should stick with in the future, is that torture is unreliable insofar as one can't necessarily determine whether the victim has provided accurate or inaccurate information until it's possibly too late or until the information has been otherwise confirmed or repudiated by non-tortuous means. And there is a second point that needs to be made, specific to the CIA torture program approved by the Bush Department Of Justice: even accepting that torture can sometimes produce reliable results, the CIA program was modeled after SERE which in turn was largely modeled after torture programs devised by the North Koreans and North Vietnamese to intentionally force false confessions for propaganda and disinformation purposes; i.e. even if one is forced to concede that torture might provide truthful answers, the CIA program was inherently flawed by its designers failure to realize the forms of torture they adopted weren't intended to provide truthful answers in the first place.

The "when is it reliable?/how is it confirmed?" question underscores a point made by Mr. Zelikow: that of the relevant questions is "What is the unique value of torture as an interrogation method?" That is, if torture is not necessarily more reliable than FBI rapport-building techniques, why use it instead of techniques that aren't shocking to the conscience?

Mr. Kamiya quotes the following from Ariel Dorfman, and I think it says everything that needs to be said, close to perfectly:

The Chilean writer and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman wrote, "Torture is, of course, a crime committed against a body. It is also a crime committed against the imagination. Or rather, it presupposes, it requires, it craves the abrogation of our capacity to imagine others' suffering, dehumanizing them so much that their pain is not our pain." Torture shatters the lives of those subjected to it, Dorfman writes. It corrupts not only the torturer, but all of society. "Torture obliges us to be deaf and blind and mute."


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