A Justification for Anything

My demonstrated ambivalence about near-torture of terrorists (perhaps even crossing that line) may be immoral, in itself, but there are many layers to the matter, and given the unlikelihood that an individual’s opinion will make much difference, the deep consideration that the question requires has been perpetually postponed. Clearly, an interrogation technique needn’t be unambiguous torture before it risks objectification of the subject. Clearly, too, the reasoning required to arrive at a stamp of moral and legal legitimacy for acts that push the boundaries sets dangerous precedent. Such is the case with this, from National Review editor Rich Lowry:

The interrogations really should be viewed as a continuation of the war by different means. When the detainees were compliant, they weren’t subjected to harsh techniques–they were no longer in the fight. But if they had knowledge of ongoing plots that they were keeping from us, they were, in effect, still combatants. And coercion was appropriate. Their cell was just the battlefield in a different form.

If that’s the framework, and we can kill on the battlefield, what wouldn’t be allowed against prisoners of war? And although we certainly shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our enemy is not a state actor, making definition difficult, if that war is not declared and defined in detailed terms, what’s to stop the “battlefield” from expanding to include any suburban home in the United States?
Arguably, it’s among the benefits of a mixed culture that the just reservations of one group will not always be adequate to restrain those whose beliefs allow venturing into morally murkier waters, and given the stakes, it isn’t unreasonable to be relieved that we’ve learned what we’ve learned, however we arrived at the information. But torture will always appear vindicated, to some extent, if it contributed to avoiding substantial loss of human life. The problem is that we cannot know beforehand what information the prisoner possesses.

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Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

We will continue having trouble with this question until we decide, as a nation, whether we are “at war”, or the victim of “criminals”.
If you found someone in Grand Central with “his finger on the button” of a nuclear device, would you shoot him or attempt to arrest him?
Another set of assumed facts. Your daughter has been kidnapped, the ransom note gives her 12 hours to live, the police have a co-consprator in custody who they reasonably believe has knowledge of your daughter’s where abouts. Would you forbid torture?
Our “rules of war” have developed inside “Western Civilization”. We are not dealing with “Western Civilians”.
I could go on, but I think everyone understands our situation.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

I’m not so sure that the question is whether we’re at war. If we were clearly at war, and with the defined enemy that such a state of being requires, then the rules would be unambiguous: no torture or even anything close.
The problem is that we’re at war with an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, so the question is how much we ought to abide by our own or sink to their level.
The shoot or arrest scenario isn’t really applicable. Indeed, it’d be difficult to come up with a more straightforward application of just war theory even by stringent pacifistic Catholic standards.
As to the second scenario, one hesitates to predict personal behavior under such strain, but even in your contrived circumstances, further judgment is required. The parent has no clear evidence that the threat will be carried out or that the criminal won’t have reacted to the disappearance of the co-conspirator and run to a new hideout. With what’s given, I’d say the answer is pretty clearly “no” to torture.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

Justin, I hope I can disagree without being disagreeable.
Your responses here bring to mind Michael Dukakis throwing his presidential chances. Having campaigned on no death penalty, he was asked if he would favor a death penalty for someone who had raped and murdered his wife and daughter. He said he would not. I guess America didn’t agree, his stature as a contender just faded from there.
I guess I believe that sometimes you just “have to do the wrong thing”.
Having heard a number of stories from relatives who fought in the “big one”, I can see two distinctions with what happened then and what happened at Gitmo. One, the people involved were removed from the field of operations. Two, it was institutionalized, meaning that it was planned and premeditated.
Still, I cannot get too upset about the goings on at Gitmo. It was unpleasant, but it was not the “death of 1000 cuts”.
Except for the waterboarding, most of it sounds like the “rat year” at a military college. Anyone who has been “sweated” at VMI will know what I mean.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Not disagreeable at all.
I guess it’s a good thing I’m not running for president. Look, if I’m to take my religion seriously, I have to take note of popes forgiving and meeting with their would-be assassins.
I’m not saying I’m upset about anything that’s been done, even waterboarding. I’m certainly not inclined to second guess people with direct responsibility for the lives of their countrymen. But we have to be careful about logical constructions that justify torture as moral and legal, because (apart for moral questions) the application will expand, as can be seen even in your example of torturing a criminal involved in a kidnapping case.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

I share your concerns about the spread of torture were it to become too acceptable. I think I have mentioned in prior posts that I don’t want to see the police torturing car thieves (I know of incidents that make me consider this a real possibility).
So, while I consider most of the “torture” rather mild stuff, chiefly aimed at breaking the will of the prisoners by humiliation, I fear it being institutionalized. We all know this goes on in law enforcement, the military and if memoirs are to be believed the “cold warriors” of the “cold war”. Still, we have always maintained the fiction that it didn’t occur and is abhorrent.
I suppose we should take some comfort in the idea that the military had to “go to the top” to get permission, and that permission was thought necessary. While “torture” of this sort may be permissible in extreme circumstances, we must guard against the watering down of “extreme circumstances”. Many of the people attracted to law enforcement will seize any opportunity, witness the number of sick, weak and elderly who have been “tazered” since we gave law enforcement that toy.
I suspect that much of the concern about giving the Gitmo prisoners a trial is not so much about protecting their “civil rights” as the creation of an orderly forum where they can tell their stories. Perhaps that is the way it must be in a “raucous democracy”.

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

The Nazis called it Verschärfte Vernehmung (well, except they at least initially thought waterboarding and hypothermia too harsh), so you folks are in good company on this one.
As to VMI and those who believe the myth that torture of prisoners is akin to your frat-boy hijinks, how many Keydets have been killed so far?

Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global “war on terror.” According to the U.S. military’s own classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides; Human Rights First has identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention. In close to half the deaths Human Rights First surveyed, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced. Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.

How many murders are justified to fight your “war?” Ironically, the same thinking that convinces nutjobs from other countries to fly planes into buildings.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
11 years ago

As to VMI and those who believe the myth that torture of prisoners is akin to your frat-boy hijinks, how many Keydets have been killed so far?
Killed, I have never heard a figure disclosed. A number hospitalized, a good number quit.
Since August 2002, nearly 100 detainees have died while in the hands of U.S. officials in the global “war on terror.”
In 7 years, given poor health care in their early years, 100 does not seem a large number. Without knowing the size of the pool, the number is meaningless.
According to the U.S. military’s own classifications, 34 of these cases are suspected or confirmed homicides;
“Homicides” by whom? It leaves open the possibility that they are killing each other.
Human Rights First has identified another 11 in which the facts suggest death as a result of physical abuse or harsh conditions of detention.
That is only a supposition. A supposition arrived at by people likely to be looking for “advocacy statistics”.
In close to half the deaths Human Rights First surveyed, the cause of death remains officially undetermined or unannounced.
That leaves it entirely open to “natural causes”, which should be assumed without contrary evidence.
Overall, eight people in U.S. custody were tortured to death.
That number is a long way from a 100.

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

Don’t forget this conclusion:
“Agencies have failed to disclose critical information, including the cause or circumstance of death, in close to half the cases examined;”
Nothing to see here; more along neo-cons, eh?

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