Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Much of the debate about torture to date has been "pious", that is, sanctimonious, uncritical, euphemistic in that it swept the hard questions under the rug. I'm glad that the debate is becoming more philosophical. Charles Krauthammer, in "The Truth About Torture," wrote a thoughtful defense of torture in extreme cases which makes anti-torture piety untenable. A philosophical case against torture is needed.

Andrew Sullivan has just published a pretty good one at the New Republic.

The infliction of physical pain on a person with no means of defending himself is designed to render that person completely subservient to his torturers. It is designed to extirpate his autonomy as a human being, to render his control as an individual beyond his own reach. That is why the term "break" is instructive. Something broken can be put back together, but it will never regain the status of being unbroken--of having integrity. When you break a human being, you turn him into something subhuman...

What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism... Torture uses a person's body to remove from his own control his conscience, his thoughts, his faith, his selfhood. The CIA's definition of "waterboarding"--recently leaked to ABC News--describes that process in plain English: "The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt." The ABC report then noted, "According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the waterboarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in. They said Al Qaeda's toughest prisoner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, won the admiration of interrogators when he was able to last between two and two and a half minutes before begging to confess."

Preach it, brother! But Sullivan weakens his case later by arguing this:

What our practical endorsement of torture has done is to remove that clear boundary between the Islamists and the West and make the two equivalent in the Muslim mind.

Absurd. First, Arabs are suckers for conspiracy theories and many of them would believe the worst about us regardless of our actual behavior. Second, Arabs are more used to torture and less shocked by it. Yes, I'm generalizing, based on a smattering of things I've read in newspaper articles and remarks I've heard and the intuition they've given rise to; but the burden of proof is on Sullivan here. I'll go further: Iraqis find our restraint foolish and quixotic. They may be wrong, but that's their prevailing view.

Or again:

No one should ever underestimate the profound impact that the conduct of American troops in World War II had on the citizens of the eventually defeated Axis powers. Germans saw the difference between being liberated by the Anglo-Americans and being liberated by the Red Army. If you saw an American or British uniform, you were safe.

But 1) Germans and Japanese did not engage in suicide-bombing, 2) in this war, too, Iraqis know very well that there is a huge behavioral difference between the behavior of American soldiers and that of al-Qaeda killers. And the practices that most alienate Iraqis-- night-time raids of Iraqi households, say-- are non-torturous. The ones who get tortured are terrorists whose hearts and minds are good and lost anyway.

When Andrew argues against torture on both ethical and pragmatic grounds, he's hedging his bets about the persuasiveness of the moral case, and thus weakening it. Andrew does not ask the reader to abolish torture even at the expense of his own personal security. Instead, Andrew argues that it will benefit the reader's personal security to abolish torture. But this is an empirical question, and no wise reader would be satisfied to take Andrew's word for it. So, if abolishing torture will us less safe, should we do it anyway? Andrew signals that he is unwilling to say "Yes," full stop.

Sullivan and Krauthammer also differ on the "migration" of torture: Sullivan thinks that if it is legalized in extreme cases, a slippery slope will make it applicable everywhere. But Sullivan seems, de facto, to suggest that a government official in the "ticking bomb" situation should simply violate the law. Now, if this argument is spoken in public as part of the debate, it affects the meaning of the law. It says, "we're abolishing torture, but we're not totally serious; in the 'ticking bomb' case, you may be right to use it, though you'll have to face the courts." Now, which would be more likely to migrate: practices that are legally sanctioned but only under strictly defined conditions (Krauthammer) or practices that are universally illegal but understood to be de facto acceptable in extreme cases? I would say the latter.

Sullivan's philosophical case against torture may succeed, but he gratuitously weakens it by adding a pragmatic one.


  • Here's the discussion on citizenship law I was talking about:

    By Anonymous Andrew, at 6:03 AM  

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