Update: Commenter Ian Coull nails the issue:
‘We’ go to war to preserve ‘our’ way of life. Soldiers go to war willing to die in order that some larger entity survives. Thus we find thousands of lives willingly sacrificied in order to preserve ‘civilization’ as we know it. The hypothetical question launching this thread translates into: Does ‘our way of life’ better survive the deaths of thousands of innocents, or ‘the adoption of a new social order which includes torture as a legitimate tool of our government’. I would argue the former less damaging.
…I just hate it when people write my ideas so much better than I do…
Patterico is a friend, and a smart guy, and someone who would make me cringe in fear if he were ever to prosecute me. And a wonderful husband and dad, I’m sure. I’m saying this in no small part because he took on a challenging hypothetical about torture, and I don’t think he’s a bad guy for asking the question.His hypothetical is this:
Letâ€™s assume the following hypothetical facts are true. U.S. officials have KSM in custody. They know he planned 9/11 and therefore have a solid basis to believe he has other deadly plots in the works. They try various noncoercive techniques to learn the details of those plots. Nothing works.
They then waterboard him for two and one half minutes.
During this session KSM feels panicky and unable to breathe. Even though he can breathe, he has the sensation that he is drowning. So he gives up information – reliable information – that stops a plot involving people flying planes into buildings.
My simple question is this: based on these hypothetical facts, was the waterboarding session worth it?
He’s been getting slammed a lot for asking. He shouldn’t be, we ought to be asking the question – and the answer ought to inform us about who we are and what this country is about.
But here, I’ll disagree with Patterico, who says:
Sebastian starts by giving a clear answer to my hypo: yes. I think that is the only reasonable answer. I don’t mean to insult the people here who have answered no. I just happen to think that a “no” answer to my carefully phrased hypo reveals such an incredibly ideological mindset that I can’t relate to it. Itâ€™s 2 1/2 minutes of a mild form of torture with no lasting physical effects, performed on an undoubtedly evil terrorist and mass murderer, to obtain information certain to obtain thousands of lives. When someone says that such mild torture would be morally unjustified, that answer to me lacks common sense. And when itâ€™s coupled with a smug self-righteous attitude, – well, I find it insufferable.
In my own case, I keep believing the answer has to be no, it wasn’t worth it.
I’ll skip the problem that you have to torture a lot of people to find the one who has the key information. And that you can’t possibly – in advance – know that the person you are about to torture has the combination to the ticking bomb.
Because if life was TV, and you could just torture the one person who did have the combination, and be sure that torture would make them give it up, some – but not all – the objections might be put aside. But not all of them.
Let me take his hypothetical a step further, and suggest that it shouldn’t be too hard to build a helmet that could be put on someone’s head, not damaging the skin, that would – when turned on – induce incredible levels of fear – or pain – inductively, acting directly in the brain. And, having switched it off, leave the person wearing the helmet unscathed except from whatever physiological reactions they had to the perception of pain or fear.
So there would be essentially no risk of “real injury” involved.
Would using something like that be appropriate in such a case?
I’ll say a firm “no” (with one weasel path out), and take a rambling, first-draft blog post kind of walk through why I say that.
First, and foremost, because – as I’ve noted – using something like this moves us into the realm of being a fear-based society; one that rules on might and terror. The corrosive impact of that stance is what drives this, and on some level it’s the violation of the integrity of the person by depriving them of all their power over themselves, and by – I’m not finding the right description, but somehow erasing the integrity of their ‘self’. Prison doesn’t do that; even Joe Arpaio – who keeps his prisoners in tents, offers them no recreation and dresses them in pink – does not violate their integrity in the ways that I’m describing – they still make choices, have some responsibility as to their behavior.
Bluntly, I’d rater shoot someone than torture them harmlessly. I believe it’s more moral; I’m violating their ‘person-ness’ less through an act of outright violence than through one that seeks to break their ownership of themselves in the ways that torture does.
And on a basic level, you can’t have a free society in which people don’t have that sense of personal integrity – that sense that they ‘own’ their own behavior and person. Once you violate that and make it clear that someone – the state – owns you, the nature of the political relationship is irrevocably changed.
There’s a logical lacuna in my argument, which is the only weasel path that I can see – which is that KSM isn’t part of our society (polity) and as such, who cares what we do to him?
I’ll reply that a Chinese Wall (as we used to say in banking) between what we do to foreign terrorists and our own citizens is certainly going to get breached when we confront equally serious domestic ones. And we have the pesky problem of defining who, exactly is a terrorist, and who is a political opponent.
So we’re back to the idea that the foundation of our society isn’t loyalty freely given, but fear of transgressing, and fear not of social ostracism, but of the torturer and the bullet in the back of the head.
There are societies built like that.
We’re fighting them.
Becoming one of them – even with harmless ‘fake’ torture – seems like a really bad idea. And, to be blunt, we can survive violent terrorism better than we (as the society we are today) can survive doing that and becoming one of ‘those’ societies.
Having said that, let me loop around and seemingly contradict myself – in order to make this position a little clearer, I think.
I’ll start with some personal history.
As a kid, I used to race cars – on the street. It was stupid, and dangerous, and I’m damn luck I didn’t kill someone else (forget killing myself). We raced sports cars (I had a Mini Cooper S) on Mulholland, between Laurel Canyon and Coldwater Canyon here in Los Angeles, late at night.
The police did a variety of things to stop us, and the more bitter members of the racing community hated the police, and acted out whenever they could.
One night, two of us were stopped at the side of the road, kicking tires and hanging out, when a police car pulled up, and two officer stopped and interrogated us, taking out ID and noting the details of our cars. We were separated, each taking to one officer – I was chatting amiably with mine, who was trying to lecture me on the idiocy of what I was doing, when the other officer suddenly spun the other racer around, put him on the hood of his car, thumped his head onto the hood a few times, and handcuffed him.
My officer watched me somewhat warily, and I shrugged and showed him my open hands. he told me to stand still and walked over to talk to his colleague.
They chatted with the other racer for a bit, and then uncuffed him and drove away. I walked over and asked what had happened; his nose was bleeding, and he had a welt over his eye. He was bitterly complaining about the brutality of the officer.
“I called him a fucking pig asshole…”
I laughed, which wasn’t what my friend wanted to hear.
“What did you expect him to do, dude?” I asked. I’d been taught by my African-American ‘uncles’ that it was best to be polite to someone who could shoot you and then worry mostly about the paperwork.
To this day – in the face of what would be uncontrovertibly torture by contemporary standards if done my a Marine in Baghdad – I can’t get really worked up about this.
My friend and I were idiots for being who we were. He was a bigger idiot for thinking he could act like an ass. My cop friends talk about this, wistfully, as ‘street justice’ and point out that today they often only have the choice of arresting someone or walking away – and that they wish there were some intermediate actions like this that they could mete out.
I’m fully aware of the risks of allowing this.
Sometimes a bloody nose is a useful teaching aid. And sometimes it’s torture.
But…in reality, the police officer didn’t remove my fellow racer’s ‘person-ness’, his agency – he reacted to it, and set boundaries around it for certain. The deliberation of “if you don’t do X, we will do Y and there is nothing you can do about it” was missing. The cop treated my friend as a person – while in Patterico’s example, KSM is simply a piece of talking meat.
And to an extent, that – more than anything is the point I’m trying to make. Not treating KSM with kid gloves isn’t torture. Reacting to abuse or bad behavior from him – even sometimes violence – isn’t torture.
Calmly sitting him down and saying you’ll put him into excruciating pain unless he talks to you is. Because you are denying him his ownership of himself, in some moral way.
A society that readily accepts torture reduces those who live in it to meat. It dehumanizes them. It dehumanizes those who do it. And it makes the societies in which those nonhumans live something other than the kind of human society we want to live in.
I’ll make another pass at this over the weekend, and try and clarify things, as well as bringing in the notion of historical contingency…but this ought to trigger some interesting discussion.