The effort to normalize torture proceeds on two fronts. The first comes up with scenarios where torture seems justified—the ticking bomb case that we know and love. As we know, real torture never meets the criteria that even seemingly reasonable ticking-bomb hypos demand. The scenario depends on the prospective torturer knowing everything relevant about the circumstances except one thing (viz, the location of the bomb and the time it will explode), which the suspect knows, and we know they know. This never happens. Instead, torture is generally a much more protracted affair, carried on with much less information about what the suspect knows or even who the proper suspects are. Nevertheless, as we saw the other day, the ticking-bomb still exerts a considerable hold over people’s minds. Why?
I think it’s because it’s an effective slippery-slope. If you get me to agree to torturing someone when there’s a ticking bomb, then how hard is it to get me to agree to the following case: we’ve picked up ten guys for questioning but only one of them has the true information. We don’t know which one, so we have to torture the lot. Isn’t torture still justified? Think of the children who’ll be incinerated in that nuclear explosion. Preventing that is surely as close to an infinite payoff as we can manage. Now, it has to be true that the more suspected terrorists we pick up, the greater the certainty we have that at least one of them has the relevant vital information. And maybe the bomb won’t go off this afternoon, but they’re certainly building it. At least, they certainly want to build it. Pretty soon you have me agreeing to just rounding people up on the off chance that they know something unspecified—or know someone who might know something—about an unspecified plan to harm us all. And this is what the systematic practice of torture looks like in actual practice anyway.
The second front in the pro-torture offensive is the effort to blur the distinction between torture and “mere” pressure or extreme interrogation. In the car this morning I heard a discussion of this question on the news. When CT had a discussion about the philosophy of vagueness earlier this month some commenters derided the waste of analytic effort on such a fatuous topic. But here we have a real-world example right in this area. In the report, a military lawyer from West Point cautioned against drawing a bright line between torture and “mere” abuse—by making a list of banned practices, for instance—because that just challenges torturers to come up with something that’s not on the list. Any number of surviving victims of state-sponsored violence will tell you that torturers can be very inventive indeed. But despite the evidence that torture almost always devolves into a sordid and pointless routine, the temptation to put a brave face on the deliberately inflicted suffering of others remains irresistible to many. Here, for example, is Alan Dershowitz speaking in the news report:
When you torture somebody to death … everybody would acknowledge that’s torture. But placing a sterilized needle under somebody’s fingernails for fifteen minutes, causing excruciating pain but no permanent physical damage—is that torture?
Gee, I don’t know, Alan. Let’s find out! Why don’t you drop by this afternoon? I’ll bring the needles and the bunsen burner, you bring Alberto Gonzales. Or better yet—why not grab your daughter, if you have one, and we’ll get the empirical evidence from her. Dershowitz is clearly at the point where he’d be happy to sign a form authorizing the sort of violence against human beings that he wouldn’t dream of personally inflicting on his dog. I’m sure he has a copy of Eichmann in Jerusalem somewhere in his office. He should re-read it.
By the end of the report, we’re left with an interesting contrast: A Harvard law professor is advocating needles under the fingernails, while a West Point officer is arguing that you just can’t justify this stuff under any circumstances. Which do you think has the better understanding of the dangers of state-sponsored violence? Perhaps the most disturbing lesson from the current wave of rationalization is the ease with which people will begin to strip away first the legal rights and then the common humanity of others. Sometimes this is done with a macho attitude (“What’s the matter, can’t handle the reality of interrogation, ya wuss?”) and sometimes it’s done with an exquisite expression of regret for the suffering one is being forced to inflict (“These are desperate times and I do not undertake these actions lightly …”). Either way, you end up in the same place. As Solzhenitsyn says somewhere, the tragedy of human beings is that, while they remain alive, there is always something else you can do to them.
Update: Jim Henley makes a very similar argument about where the ticking bomb argument goes.