Wednesday, December 14, 2005

When Can You Torture?

What type of hypothetical situation warrants torture? What type of situation must one encounter before the asphyxiation begins, and the organ failure ensues?

Is there a bomb? Is it a very large bomb? Is it ready to go off, and is said bomb placed in New York City or Los Angeles?

Is there a detainee who knows everything about the plan, but just isn't talking? Is time running short and there are hundreds of thousands of lives at stake? Will the knowledge that this person holds result in a mushroom cloud unless she or he talks?

All of these postulates are put forward as an excuse to allow torture. In a way it relies on a utilitarian approach to assessing the situation: Will the threat and application of pain to one person bring about safety and security for a large number of people? With one bad thing, many can be happy - that is the premise.

Charles Krauthammer
has made the following case:

...there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

It is a wonderful scenario. There can be no doubt that one must choose to torture, and not waste a moment applying the car battery to the detainee's chest. Torture first, then ask polite questions later.

This hypothetical is ludicrous.

The premise presumes that the person being held is indeed the bomber. What if they are not? What if the bomber's name is Jason Smith, and the authorities picked up Jayson Smith? An hour torturing the wrong actor in the scenario and the authorities are still no closer to locating the device, and in addition they have inflicted harm and pain on the person who during his torment may just name some random place in an effort to stop the torture being given.

So getting the right suspect in the first place is critical to the hypothesis. Has the U.S. ever gotten this point wrong in the past? Yes, we have botched it in the past. There is no reason to believe that from here to infinity, the U.S. will only get the right people to torture in the future.

Of course the hypothetical must disallow such conjectures. It's purpose is to commit the person answering the question to say, "yes, I'd torture the person if it would save millions of people." An alternative such as evacuating the city as quickly as possible isn't a solution, and it cannot be offered on purpose. It would be a reasonable alternative as opposed to depending on torture to produce some evidence that will lead to the defusion of the bomb.

Krauthammer conveniently leaves out that torture produces little if any intelligence that can be used. Most humans who have suffered through torture (a certain Senator in the United States Senate comes to mind) will devulge the information that they think the interrogators want to hear. And in the case of the above hypothetical, wouldn't we naturally presume that the actual terrorist detainee would plant any number of false places in the heads of those doing the torture to prevent them from finding the pending nuclear explosion? Uptown -- the Lower East Side -- Wall Street -- the Brooklyn Bridge.

There are so many holes to poke in the argument, it is a wonder that it was brought up in a serious manner. By the logic of the argument that saving many at the expense of one is admirable, we should be able to apply the fallacy to other instances. Move away from a nuclear bomb, and make it C4 explosive. It is in a bag and is placed somewhere on the subway in NYC. It will do a lot of damage and quite possibly kill two dozen people unfortunate to be near it when it detonates. Can torture be applied to the bomb planter? What about an armed bank heist that might result in the death of one or two innocent civilians?

If it is the quantity of life lost, and not the actual act of torturing a suspect that is the concern, then there must be a limit that one can agree on. It is just difficult to establish if that limit is one life, 20 lives, possibly one thousand. A million lives seems to be the accepted amount, but 500,000 lives should be high up the list as well.

It would be more telling (and actually boost the case for those that advocate torture) if there was some definitive case for the ticking time bomb scenario. None have occurred that are noted in any of these arguments. We only learn of the hypothetical. There may be a reason for this: torture has never worked out so neatly as to stop something from happening, much less garner information that is at all usable. Of the plots that have been thwarted, torture had nothing to do with it. Richard Reid just wan't bright enough to detonate his shoes (thanfully). The millenium bomber just was too gosh darn nervous to keep his story straight at the border. Without evidence that getting physical with a suspect grants the interrogator a treasure trove of information, one really goes out on a spindly limb with torture.

It is quite probable that any interrogation technique will not yield any information that can be used. However, it is a certainty that the one technique that we would not wish to be used on any Americans is that of torture. What's not good for us should be just as unacceptable for others.

Mr. Krauthammer argues that the hypothetical is reason enough to establish his conclusion that there must always be room for an exception to torture a person. Fine. Don't complain then when an American pilot or soldier is shown being tortured on camera. You have to have a certain type of stomach to bear witness to such things when you advocate for torture, don't you?

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