Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stupid Examples

When one tries to defend torture as a legitimate tactic, it typically takes the form of the "ticking time bomb" example (see every season of '24').  That is, there is a major (often nuclear) device hidden in a city, and you have in custody someone who knows it whereabouts.  They refuse to talk.  In this case, with potentially millions of lives at stake, aren't we justified in torturing this individual to get the information on where the bomb is located?

The problem with this example is that is pre-supposes three very critical things, none of which are applicable to any real life situation.
1) The individual in custody knows the location   We have police procedures and ultimately we have trials specifically to review the available evidence and make determinations of guilt and innocence. We get this wrong sometimes. It is impossible for us to be 100% sure we have the proper individual in custody, no matter how much evidence we pile up.  Particularly when we do not require (as the Bush administration insisted) on any semblance of due process for the person in custody.  In the real world, we might end up torturing the wrong person.
2) Torture is an effective means of eliciting the truth.  All the evidence shows that tortured individuals will make up any story you'd like in order to make the pain stop. All the literature on torture suggests that it actually *reduces* the veracity of the victims statements.  So even assuming we are torturing the right person, the possibility of actually getting the location of the bomb is far less than 100%.  Think about this, if on September 10th, 2001, we had Khalid Sheik-Mohammed in custody, what would you expect by torturing him? This man helped plan a suicide attack. Do you think he wouldn't lie? Do you think he wouldn't give false information?  Do you honestly think that beating him in the face will convince him to tell the truth?  Wouldn't the torture just convince him of the injustice of the U.S. and give him incentive to lie even more?  Torture is useless in extracting gainful information.
3) The potential damage is big enough to warrant torture.  That is, we suppose that "millions" of people would die, so torturing one person is worthwhile.  What if it was 100,000?  10,000? 1,000? 100?  At what point do we allow torture?  To save one other person?  Two other people?  Are we authorized to torture some more painfully the more people are at risk?  Can I slap someone around to save 5 people, but I can electrocute their testicles to save 1000?  The assumption is that we can make firm determinations of what torture is, when it is authorized, and when to apply it.  We cannot.

There is no situation in which torture is legally warranted.  None. Zero.  If you want to pick one thing that defines "civilization", it is not language, or forks, or art.  Cavemen had language, tools, and cave paintings.  What sets us apart is having set aside physical intimidation and abuse as methods of presuasion.  Torture violates the very nature of civilization.  It is barbaric, in the most perjorative sense of the word.

BUT, you say, wouldn't you torture someone to save Abigail and Madeline?  Let's leave aside the issues in 1) and 2) above, and assume that I have exactly the right person tied to a chair, and I'm garuanteed that if I snip off his fingertips with a metal shears I will get the information to save my little girls.  Would I cut off his fingers?  Would I torture this man to save my girls?

Absolutely.  But that does not make what I did legal, moral, ethical, or right.  After torturing this man and saving my family, I should go to jail.  And I'd go happily.

The *right* question to ask regarding torture is this: do you feel that the chance of obtaining useful information to save an unspecified number of people is worth spending time in jail?   Are you willing to pay the price of torturing people?

Let me amend my post from a couple of days ago to this.  I think that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, John Yoo, and all the other officials that knew about and authorized torture should be put on trial.  They should be required to - publically and openly - explain what they did and why they did it.  They should be forced to acknowledge and take ownership of their actions.  At that point, a jury of their peers might decide that what they did was justified and warranted, in the sense that it saved lives.

But they must be forced to admit they are torturers.  And if they really believe in what they did, they should be *proud* to admit that they tortured people.

You'll notice, though, that at no point did anyone in the administration have the guts to get up and speak directly to the country.  All the torture authorization happened in memos and meetings that they could pretend didn't happen.  They're cowards, flailing out at people that look different in an attempt to protect themselves. They are nothing more than cavemen, using their physical advantage to beat, rape, and kill weaker individuals.

If they want to be proud of that, let them stand up and confront the pictures and accounts of what they did.  But they won't. They'll hide behind executive privledge and let a few poor Marines go to jail.

I repeat, cowards. All of them.

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