Against Torture

I don’t often write about affairs of state in this space. This is not due to a lack of interest. It is due more to the fear that I hold many of my political views rather too strongly to communicate them effectively. However, there are issues that I think it would be immoral not to oppose publicly. Torture is one of those things.

Mr Krulak and Hoar have written good piece about the practical downsides of torture over at the Washington Post (go read it, I’ll wait). Their basic argument is that torture enhances the ability of terrorist groups to recruit new members, which is the opposite of what is needed at this time.

If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy. This way lies defeat, and we are well down the road to it.

I think they are correct that, even on a strictly functional level, torture is huge net loss for us. However, even if torture where an effective weapon against terrorist organizations I would still be against it.

Arguments in favor of torture generally hing on the assumption that when the terrorist lose we win. Unfortunately, this assumption is completely false. The world is not a zero sum game. Every combination of winners and losers is possible.

By allowing torture we lose, regardless of it’s impact on terrorists. We lose the respect of the rest of the world. We lose our right not to be torture. We lose the very essence of ourselves.

As Gregory Djerejian points this out in his commentary on Mr Krulak and Hoar’s piece

history doesn’t advance in linear fashion defined by consistent progress, but perhaps moves more cyclically, with advances in human civilization constantly threatened by reverses.

Hopefully, we can regain what we have lost in the last few years. It would be shameful if my generation were the one to allow the start of a long slide backwards.

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4 comments on “Against Torture

  1. -

    Peter, I haven’t fully worked this all out, but I’ve have your same thoughts.

    I have also had thoughts against this. (But I’m still undecided.)

    For instance, possibly torture is appropriate when your enemy honors no historic rules of engagement. If I’m not mistaken, the Geneva Convention does not apply to an enemy unless he is part of a uniformed army of a state.

    The people we’re talking about have chosen to be un-uniformed and do not represent any state. They also intentionally target unprotected civilians specifically for the negative personal and psychological impact it will have on those that hold high regard for civilized values.

    I think a policy worth considering is such: If one chooses to exist with others on this planet in a position where he’s an independent, unmarked person who intentionally targets non-combatants for personal/political ends, he does so at his own risk. He does so in that he forfeits any state obligation to recognize what would ordinarily be considered his intrinsic/God-granted human rights. In other words, he has chosen to take a role in life that is so heinous and threatening to civilization itself, that he can no longer rely upon an appeal to standards of civilization for personal safety. He has chosen to become an instrument whose existence may threaten not only a state (or states), but civilization/mankind itself. In which case, it may be that the most civilization-preserving/honoring thing a state can do in such a situation is put aside this individual’s personal claim to any human rights in order to honor and protect the human rights of his intended victims.

    The thing necessary to preventing this from becoming a “slippery slope” is fidelity to an accurate moral compass. (And our argument is based upon the assumption that such a moral compass indeed exists – otherwise, why object to torture at all?) So maybe what we need is a sort of extension to the Geneva Convention to make it explicitly known what actions make one a de-facto “enemy of civilization,” and thereby disqualified from all obligatory protections of civilization. Then one has no reason to cry “foul” when, in the defensive interests of those that do adhere to civilized norms, a state does not treat him in a civilized fashion.

    Do you think this line of argumentation has any merit?

  2. - Post author

    Arguments such as the one you outline have no appeal to me. I am not against torture because our country has signed a treaty not to torture people. I am against torture because I believe it is wrong under any circumstance. Period.

    The Geneva Convention and similar documents are a good thing. They formally encode the assumption that torture is wrong and give the forces of good in the world a legal basis with which to defend our human and civil rights. But such documents do not make torture wrong they merely express our belief that torture is wrong.

    I must say that I find the very idea that someone could lose their “human rights” by any action of their own completely abhorrent. Two wrongs do not make a right, as they say. The fact that an individual acts immorally does not free us, as society, to act immorally against them.

    As a practical matter I find this argument rather scary. I doubt there is any situation in which a “ticking time bomb” of one sort or another could not be conjured up to defend torture. If torture becomes acceptable in “extreme cases” who, exactly, decides what extreme cases are and how are such determinations overseen and policed? I can cannot see any way such activities could be managed so as to assure that innocent people where not abused (save perhaps a trial by a jury of their peers and that is not tenable due to the supposed urgency of these situations).

    I have no doubt that there are hard situations that have to be dealt with but if we are to survive we must avoid sinking to the level of those who attack us. Don’t forget that democratic societies that collapse into empires tend to take thousands of years to return. State sponsored torture is, to my mind, one piece of authoritarian power that I would rather my government never have.

  3. -

    Unfortunately since the time of the geneva convention, things have changed.
    Now it is not official armies with officers deciding what to do and not to do.

    The easy stance on avoiding torture flat out can mean that the moral burden will be beared by the terrorist’s victims.

    Would you have the ball to explain to a widow or an orphan that his parents/relative have been killed because you did not want to use torture based on moral concerns on a suspect ?

    Although I agree that torture and denial of justice poses serious concerns and might not always be the optimal way to operate(because that’s what at stake) I don’t see why we should be bound by a convention signed in the 50’s in a different world.
    A world in which, by the way, islamic fundamentalists would have a significantly shorter life expectancy.

  4. -

    If torture becomes acceptable in “extreme
    cases” who, exactly, decides what extreme
    cases are and how are such determinations
    overseen and policed?

    We could also raise the question, who is to say that torture itself is wrong? The butchers we are dealing with don’t think it is.

    You can’t have these sorts of discussions without appealing to a transcendent moral law that rightly governs even when parties choose not to acknowledge it. You rightly make that point when you say that documents like The Geneva Convention do not make torture wrong, they merely express our belief that torture is wrong. I would go a step further and say that, it is not that we BELIEVE them to be true that make them compelling and authoritative, it is that they ARE true. For instance, you won’t let an American administration off the hook because the people in it believe the wrong thing regarding torture.

    I anticipated your question, which is why I stated that the thing necessary to prevent this from becoming a “slippery slope” is fidelity to an accurate moral compass. Judgment is required, as it is in all moral decisions.

    I think my grounds for ceasing to recognize human rights is pretty reasonable — one most people would agree with — in the same way your assertion that torture is morally wrong is reasonable. And I believe it is proper to make a distinction between innocent agents and those bent on deliberate, diabolical acts.

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