Friday, January 07, 2005


On Terror and Torture

There seems to be a lot of discussion on these two topics these days, and on the connection between them.

I'm not referring to terrorists who use torture; that gets almost no press at all. But a lot of people are concerned about Western powers, particularly the United States, using torture when dealing with terrorists. This is as it should be -- torture is loathsome to all civilized human beings, and with troops in the field and interrogations taking place, it's certainly pertinent to discuss it.

On the other hand, many loathsome things can occasionally be necessary. (Is a surgeon ever happy when a limb must be amputated?) The true question, to my mind, is not whether torture is, or is not, A Bad Thing; we seem to be in agreement on that. Rather, we should be asking if torture is warranted, on an extremely unusual basis, under current circumstances.

Of course, that's exactly what Alberto Gonzales was driving at, in the now-infamous consultations with the Justice Department over torture.

Personally, my opinions on the matter of torture are complicated (and apparently, I'm not alone in this). I recognize that torture is occasionally necessary, or is perceived as necessary by people on the spot, in the interests of protecting innocent lives. (This is what the Israelis call the "ticking bomb" scenario: we have unspecific intelligence about a major terrorist attack being planned, we have someone in our hands who should be able to tell us a lot more about the attack, and he's not talking. With dozens or hundreds of innocent lives at stake, how far are we willing to go, with one decidedly not-innocent person, to stop that attack?) At the same time, torture should never be the standard policy of the United States; that's not who we are, and that's not who we want to be.

My feeling is that definitions of torture should be left deliberately non-specific. (Some people have gone to absurd lengths, defining almost anything as torture; I'd prefer the opposite tack.) Soldiers in the field should be made to understand that, no, torture is not condoned as a policy... but that, if it achieves definite results, specific instances can be ignored. (Cross the line, on the other hand, and expect the military legal system to land on you like a ton of bricks.)

Where should that line be? As a first approximation, I'd suggest that torture by American troops, when absolutely necessary, should cause no permanent damage. I have no problem with terrorists being led to believe that they're about to die, slowly and painfully, if it will get them to talk. (I would hope that we never follow through with that.)

Of course, if we make it a stated policy that we will threaten prisoners with death, but never actually execute them, then the policy makes no sense. Prisoners will know that they have nothing to fear. Steven den Beste had a lot to say on this subject. (He takes the point further, and argues that, in terms of what we tell the world we're willing and unwilling to do, nothing should be beyond the pale. Yes, we might consider beheading one of your sheiks, if you keep beheading our civilians. Yes, we might just nuke Teheran, or even Mecca, if you set off a nuke in one of our cities. That's called "deterrent", and goes to the heart of threatening to do things that you don't actually want to do.)

Would I want to suffer through "water-boarding", in which a person is made to believe that he will drown? Certainly not. But I don't see how this causes permanent damage, regardless of what Ted Kennedy says; ditto for sleep deprivation, bad food, loud music, and so forth. All of these things hurt, and for all of them, the hurt will go away.

Bottom line: under extreme circumstances, you sometimes have to do things that you wouldn't dream of doing every day. You must fight hard against the extreme circumstances setting a precedent -- but fear of a precedent should not prevent you from doing what must be done, when the crisis is upon you.

As you might expect, Instapundit (aka The Blogfather) has an excellent round-up on the subject.

Daniel in Brookline

UPDATE: A comment, left on a post about torture at the Belmont Club, seems to me worth preserving:
I'll give an analogy-- there's assisted suicide in the United States, but because it's illegal in almost every State, it's secret, limited, and reserved mostly for the most extreme cases where the doctor has to weigh many factors including that of losing his license and perhaps going to jail.

On the other hand, you have the Netherlands, where assisted suicide is completely legal, it has moved on to euthanasia, and the numbers keep going up and you have a coarsening of spirit where economic reasons are motivating suggestions that patients take the easy way out -- easy for their families and for the health-care system.

I see torture in a similar context. If it's legal, it will get used more and more, but just because it's illegal doesn't mean that it should go away. Sometimes laws shouldn't reach certain places and hypocrisy is the best of bad choices. The 'Rule of Reason,' which cops use to not ticket speeders who are going 56 mph in a 55 mph zone, should work with torture laws as well.
'Hypocrisy is sometimes the best of bad choices'. I'm going to have to remember that.



Greyhawk has a very interesting rundown on the facts of Abu Ghraib.

Of course, if we make it a stated policy that we will threaten prisoners with death, but never actually execute them, then the policy makes no sense.Not true. As you point out yourself! There are things that people fear besides death, i.e. pain of various sorts (noise, sleep deprivation, "feeling of drowning" etc.). Theoretically, I admit there are cases where torture might be warranted, my problem is giving government the power to decide. Bottom line: I agree that permanent damage should be prohibited absolutely.

Nuking cities and such is military action, not torture.

BTW Mazal Tov!

David Boxenhorn
In response to David:

Theoretically, I admit there are cases where torture might be warranted, my problem is giving government the power to decide.For better or for worse, Government has the power to decide. We can try to tie their hands; part of what I was trying to explain was that it would be a mistake to do so. But even trying would be like shoveling back the ocean.

It is up to us, rather, to ensure that our government is moral and ethical enough to make such decisions without consulting us... and to make sure that heads roll if their standards slip. (As a practical matter, they cannot consult us in real-time. Sometimes soldiers in the field must make a decision about torture, and what is or is not acceptable, without being able to consult even their own high command. Our government trusts our armed forces to behave morally and ethically, but lands like a ton of bricks on those who step over the line; I believe we should extend the same trust, and be as unforgiving when the government abuses our trust.)

This applies to Israel every bit as much as to the United States, incidentally.

Bottom line: I agree that permanent damage should be prohibited absolutely.As a general policy, yes. But in extremis? Saying that there are no circumstances under which I would condone permanent damage, to me, implies that I think my imagination is better than that of the terrorists -- that I believe I've thought of everything they can ever possibly think of, and that nothing they can do would justify such behavior from me. I'm by no means ready to say that.

Nuking cities and such is military action, not torture.I agree. My intention was to show that, in war as in torture, we may well have our internal limits which we do not intend to cross... but there should be no limits to what we say we might do.

BTW Mazal Tov!Many thanks!!!

- DiB
Thanks, Phil!

I did see that quiz (link here); I think I followed the link from Instapundit. My score was seven out of ten; I was wrong on questions 1, 2, and 8 (although the jury's still out, apparently, on 8). I have no idea if my score is "good" or "bad".

Thanks for writing!

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