Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I wish I could quit this discussion

But I can't. But I think I'm a little closer to waying my peace here.

Physical pain is only one kind of distressing mental state. While imprisonment can be successfully dealt with by many people, no one who is waterboarded can put up with it for any length of time--supposedly KSM set the record at 2 and a half minutes.

The fact that waterboarding seems to contravene international law (unless you get a international judge who's willing to legislate from the bench and allow it) suggests a strong presumption against using it. I can imagine particular instances in which one can make a utlitarian argument for using it given the kind of information one might get. If we had a waterboarding program, it would be helpful to be reassured that we would only do it to people whom we have good reason to believe are high enough in the counsels of al-Qaeda to know about ongoing terror threats. But then you have to worry about the Potato Chip Effect (you can't eat just one). A waterboarding program that hits only the right people would be better than one that waterboards people who don't fit the category. It doens't look as if our program has done that. You then have to look at the collateral damage caused by the harm to our reputation. Does anyone seriously deny that Abu Ghirab photographs weren't put on al Qaeda recruitment posters? The fact that it would be hypocritical of them to do so is beside the point. You have the fact we could be brought to trial for war crimes for doing this, by people who don't think the Geneva conventions are so "quaint" after all. You have the fact that this requires brutalizing and desensitizing the people who do the waterboarding. When you add everything up (and I haven't begun to add everything up here) it looks as if we are selling our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Even if there is a way to waterboard someone without torturing them (Mike's good question) would we end up with people who do it who get sadistic pleasure out of it. C. S. Lewis has Fairy Hardcastle say that you can't get anyone to do this job (which involved torturing people) who doesn't get some kick out of it.

What happens to our character when preventing an admittedly horrible attack like a repeat 9/11 is so important to us that we treat anybody, even a terror suspect, as a subhuman. As Christians we believe that our character is the only thing that lasts forever, everything else, including lives, come to an end. The Gonzales memo suggesting that the "post 9/11 paradigm" "renders quaint" some of the provisions of the Geneva conventions is a scary statement. It says that because "those people" are the way that are, we shouldn't have to follow the rules we agreed to FOR GOOD REASON (and yes, I am shouting!) I can hear the admistration saying, with Uncle Andrew and the White Witch, "Ours is a high and lonely destiny." When we were attacked, the world sympathized with us, but some probably thought "Welcome to the world, USA." There have been brutal and ruthless enemies before. 9/11 is nowhere near the top of the list of great crimes of the world's history. It's only American conceit that suggests otherwise.

Using the Ring of Power to do good, that will probably help in the short run, but it will destroy us in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Torture leads to a greater good.

C.S.Lewis covered the subject in his 'The Problem of Pain'

Victor Reppert said...

I don't suppose you actually read the Problem of Pain. If you had, you would have noticed the Lewis explicitly denies that the redemptive roles pain plays in human life do not justify torturing others.

CSL: To turn this (the redemptive role of suffering) into a general charter for afflicting humanity “because affliction is good for them” (as Marlowe’s Tamberlaine boasted himself as the scourge of God”) is not indeed to break the divine scheme but to volunteer for the post of Satan within that scheme. If you do his work, you must be prepared for his wages.

Anonymous said...

If torture did not lead to a greater good, then god would not allow it.

Mike Darus said...

I think we should reject all torture regardless of the circumstance. You and Sen McCain have covered the utilitarian argument: 1) It gets bad information 2) If further sullies the name of the USA 3) etc.

Legal argument: If waterboarding is always torture, we are bound by our own US criminal code not to engage in it. We also have some responsibility to follow international law.

Objective morality: If it is usually wrong, it is also wrong in severe circumstances. It is better for New York to be nuked than to engage in an immoral act to try to prevent it. This is the real high road. The question is whether we have the guts to travel it.

Iterestine tidbit: Today my son-in-law might get his first crack at interrogating someone in Afghanistan.

SlagleRock said...

As I've played the devil's advocate here, I've begun to lean with Victor on this. I suggested that it's a little weird to call waterboarding torture when the vast majority of people who experience it are volunteers. But the real test should be: how many people volunteer to undergo it twice? It's all well and good to be willing to experience an extreme experience to see what it's like, but that would go for experiences that are actually painful too. In fact, people have voluntarily undergone being tased, even though they knew it would cause significant pain (but no real damage). So I don't think my "volunteer" argument works.

I'm not at all convinced by the arguments that "torture doesn't work." I haven't studied the subject at any great length, but it seems to me that the torturer(s) could just go back after the info didn't check out and torture him again, as long as the victim was kept in custody. Maybe he'll give bad information again. But between the one being tortured and the one doing the torturing, I'd bet the former would break first.

Ultimately, I think I would give a really weak and ad hoc argument: if an interrogation technique is extremely successful, it's probably torture.

As for the practice of waterboarding against terrorists -- I see no reason to question the reports that they only waterboarded three men, for a total of about three minutes, and they decided (with White House approval) to prohibit waterboarding four years ago. So while we can debate the ethical issues involved, waterboarding has already been abandoned as an interrogation technique.

I'll stop now. It's not my blog, after all.