Steve Hays has implied that my discussions of torture are out of touch with the reality of war, and in particular interrogation techniques. I wonder if he will make the same charge against this guy, who's must be a bleeding heart liberal, a dove on all matters related to war, and who must have dreamed his "experience" as a POW in Vietnam.
Why does it follow that the fact that some of our military sign up for waterboard training make waterboarding not torture? Why? Why not just say that these guys sign up to learn how to deal with torture by dealing with some of it during training. The fact that they beg for it to stop very quickly once it happens is better evidence that it is torture.
i) Reppert seems to be conflating some of my arguments with Paul Manata’s.
ii) At the same time, Reppert ignores some of Manata’s other arguments.
iii) I’ll deal with the McCain article at the end of this post.
“In a traditional understanding of everlasting hellfire a person has a resurrection body which is never consumed by the flames of hell, but the flames inflict pain on that person without any actual organ damage. So, I guess, no one gets tortured in hell. I'm sure that'll be a relief to everyone who goes there.”
i) Once again, who does Reppert think he’s responding to? He is putatively responding to me. But where have I discussed hellfire in relation to waterboarding?
ii) How does Reppert think this comparison is a good argument against “torture”? If he thinks the damned are tortured in hell, and God is ultimately responsible for whatever happens in hell, then torture would not be intrinsically evil if God uses torture to exact retributive justice on the damned. Rather, that would be a just punishment. The damned would be receiving their just deserts.
iii) For the record, I believe in the general resurrection as well as the everlasting punishment of the lost. However, I regard the fiery imagery as figurative.
“We have to look at what we ordinarily mean when we use words. Inflicting suffering of any kind on a person so that they will do anything to make it stop is the very essence of torture. The rest is quibbling. My Clinton parallel works like this, in case you couldn't see the logic. Bill Clinton denied that he had had ‘sexual relations’ with Monica Lewinsky by using a technical, legal definition of sexual relations which could be used to exclude oral sex performed on him. But it was still very deceitful because most of his listeners weren't thinking in terms of the technical definition, they were thinking in more common-sense terms.”
Once more, who does he think he’s responding to? It’s true that I criticized his illustration. However, I myself do not affirm or deny that waterboarding is torture. Hence, even if his argument from analogy were sound, it’s irrelevant to my own stated position.
i) If you want to call waterboarding “torture,” especially in the context of counterterrorism and counterintelligence, then all you’ve done is to trivialize the concept of torture.
ii) As I’ve explained on many occasions, I reject the attempt to frame the issue in terms of “torture.” Rather, I frame the issue in terms of counterterrorism and counterintelligence.
A terrorist informant has information which we have a right to know. Since he won’t volunteer that information, we have a right to squeeze it out of him.
We shouldn’t employ *gratuitously* harsh methods to obtain the information. If we can coax the information out of him by kinder, gentler methods, fine. But if he will only divulge what he knows under duress, then we have a right to put him under duress.
Now, before I address the specifics of the McCain article, why is Reppert referring me to the McCain article? Is this an argument from authority?
If so, I don’t object, in principle, to an argument from authority. Expert testimony can be a valid form of evidence.
However, there are several problems with the McCain article in this regard:
i) McCain is not the only expert on “torture” or coercive interrogation. For example, I recently cited the expert testimony of a Navy SEAL:
You can find experts on both sides of this debate. Hence, the appeal to expert testimony will not suffice to adjudicate this debate.
When experts disagree, we then have to evaluate the quality of their argumentation. Which expert has the better of the argument?
ii) In most of McCain’s article, he is not speaking as an expert witness. Rather, in most of his article, he is speaking as a moralist. He disapproves of torture.
But McCain is not a professional ethicist. And he is not a moral authority. He brings no particular expertise or moral authority to the ethics of “torture” or coercive interrogation. So, as an argument from authority, that part of his article is fallacious.
Now, we should still give his contentions a respectful hearing. But, once again, we must evaluate the quality of his argumentation. The mere fact that he says it doesn’t make it true.
McCain has some insider knowledge on the *experience* of coercion or torture, but when it comes to the *moral valuation* of his experience, he doesn’t bring any special expertise to that aspect of the debate. When it comes to *moralizing* about “torture” or coercive interrogation, McCain’s *opinion* is no more authoritative than the opinion of any other layman.
Bertrand Russell had a lot of personal experience as a womanizer, but that doesn’t make him a moral authority on sexual ethics.
iii) At the risk of stating the obvious, I would also point out that value theory is inherently value-laden, so there is no such thing as a neutral ethicist. Unlike McCain, Peter Singer is a professional ethicist, but I wouldn’t accept his value-judgments simply because ethics and metaethics lie in his field of specialization.
iv) Apropos (iii), many soldiers are also political animals. They’re Democrats or Republicans or libertarians or independents, &c.
And you’d expect them to be political animals. After all, they are Federal employees. What is more, they are agents of American foreign policy.
As such, soldiers, CIA agents, and other suchlike are going to bring a personal ideological bias to counterterrorism—and their bias is person-variable.
For example, Tom McInerney is a four-star general who thinks that Rumsfeld was a terrific Secretary of Defense. Bernard Trainor is a four-star general who thinks that Rumsfeld was a terrible Secretary of Defense.
Two experts. Same Secretary of Defense. Same facts on the ground. Totally opposing performance evaluations.
Let’s move on to McCain:
“But I do, respectfully, take issue with the position that the demands of this war require us to accord a lower station to the moral imperatives that should govern our conduct in war and peace when they come in conflict with the unyielding inhumanity of our vicious enemy.”
Here, McCain is speaking, not as a former POW, but as a moralist. And he simply begs the question of whether coercive interrogation lowers the moral bar. He offers no supporting argument for his contention.
“Obviously, to defeat our enemies we need intelligence, but intelligence that is reliable. We should not torture or treat inhumanely terrorists we have captured. The abuse of prisoners harms, not helps, our war effort. In my experience, abuse of prisoners often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear-whether it is true or false-if he believes it will relieve his suffering. I was once physically coerced to provide my enemies with the names of the members of my flight squadron, information that had little if any value to my enemies as actionable intelligence. But I did not refuse, or repeat my insistence that I was required under the Geneva Conventions to provide my captors only with my name, rank and serial number. Instead, I gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse. It seems probable to me that the terrorists we interrogate under less than humane standards of treatment are also likely to resort to deceptive answers that are perhaps less provably false than that which I once offered.”
This is a jumbled paragraph, so we have a lot of sorting to do.
i) Is coercive interrogation synonymous with “torture,” “abuse” or “inhumane” treatment? These are question-begging adjectives for which he offers no supporting argument.
ii) Does he think a terrorist has a right provide his captors with only his name, rank, and serial number? But, of course, you only have to pose that question to expose the difference between a POW and an illegal combatant.
iii) If we were to capture bin Laden, does McCain think he has a right to remain silent? To keep mum about what he knows regarding future plots and cohorts?
iv) As to whether the information thus obtained is unreliable, McCain has spoken out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. Indeed, he’s admitted elsewhere that he did give the enemy reliable, classified information. And I’ve cited other examples in which coercive interrogation can, indeed, yield reliable information:
Consider George Tenet’s position:
"Let me ask the question this way: why were enhanced interrogation techniques necessary?" Pelley asks.
"'Cause these are people that will never, ever, ever tell you a thing. These are people who know who’s responsible for the next terrorist attack. These are hardened people that would kill you and me 30 seconds after they got out of wherever they were being held and wouldn’t blink an eyelash," Tenet says. "You can sit there after, you can sit there five years later, and have this debate with me, all I'm asking you to do, walk a mile in my shoes when I'm dealing with these realities."
Tenet says the interrogations uncovered networks and broke up plots in the U.S.
Now, if Reppert was citing McCain’s article as an argument from authority, then which authority should I believe? A former POW or a former DCI? Isn’t George Tenet an expert witness on the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation?
“Our commitment to basic humanitarian values affects-in part-the willingness of other nations to do the same.”
Here, McCain is speaking, not as a former POW, but as a moralist. He’s entitled to his opinion, but that’s all it is. Once again, he begs the question of whether coercive interrogation represents an affront to “humanitarian values.”
What about the humanitarian value of protecting innocents from a terrorist attack? How does that figure in the moral calculus?
“Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops who might someday be held captive.”
To equate coercive interrogation (i.e. waterboarding?) with “mistreatment” is tendentious. Where’s the argument?
“While some enemies, and Al Qaeda surely, will never be bound by the principle of reciprocity, we should have concern for those Americans captured by more traditional enemies, if not in this war then in the next. Until about 1970, North Vietnam ignored its obligations not to mistreat the Americans they held prisoner, claiming that we were engaged in an unlawful war against them and thus not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. But when their abuses became widely known and incited unfavorable international attention, they substantially decreased their mistreatment of us. Again, Al Qaeda will never be influenced by international sensibilities or open to moral suasion. If ever the term ‘sociopath’ applied to anyone, it applies to them. But I doubt they will be the last enemy America will fight, and we should not undermine today our defense of international prohibitions against torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners of war that we will need to rely on in the future.”
i) Once again, he’s no longer speaking as an expert witness, but merely offering his opinion on the pragmatic value of extending Geneva Convention protections to illegal combatants.
ii) The Geneva accords are predicated on reciprocity. McCain is undermining their very rationale. The Geneva accords distinguish between lawful and unlawful combatants in order to reward those who abide by the laws of warfare while penalizing those who flout the laws of warfare. If such protections are extended to unlawful combatants, then that removes any incentive to ever abide by the laws of warfare.
“Prisoner abuses exact a terrible toll on us in this war of ideas. They inevitably become public, and when they do they threaten our moral standing, and expose us to false but widely disseminated charges that democracies are no more inherently idealistic and moral than other regimes…The mistreatment of prisoners harms us more than our enemies.”
When he talks about “prisoner abuse,” what, exactly, is he referring to? This is a very broad brush. Is he alluding to Abu Ghraib? If so, this is what another expert witness has to say:
“Let me give you a dispassionate rebuttal. I have been a Human Intelligence professional for the Army for over 17 years now…My fellow professionals and I were painted with a broad brush as sadists and outlaws or worse. News to you - interrogators weren't the ones responsible for Abu Ghuraib. We just took the blame (and still do) because people started screaming and following emotions instead of talking about the facts.”
Continuing wit McCain:
“What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we allow, confuse or encourage our soldiers to forget that best sense of ourselves, that which is our greatest strength-that we are different and better than our enemies, that we fight for an idea, not a tribe, not a land, not a king, not a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion, but for an idea that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”
i) Once again, he’s substituting assertion for argument. Whether coercive interrogation is morally equivalent to what our enemies do is the very point at issue, and not something to be taken for granted.
ii) The Geneva Conventions are not about human rights, but the statutory rights of POWs.
“Those of us who feel that in this war, as in past wars, Americans should not compromise our values must answer those Americans who believe that a less rigorous application of those values is regrettably necessary to prevail over a uniquely abhorrent and dangerous enemy.”
Throughout this article, McCain assumes what he needs to prove—“it compromises our values.” He is speaking as a moralist, not an expert witness. And he never bothers to argue for his key contention. Rather, he treats that assumption as a given. Why is Reppert impressed by such a blatantly fallacious reasoning?
“Part of our disagreement is definitional. Some view more coercive interrogation tactics as something short of torture but worry that they might be subject to challenge under the ‘no cruel, inhumane or degrading’ standard. Others, including me, believe that both the prohibition on torture and the cruel, inhumane and degrading standard must remain intact. When we relax that standard, it is nearly unavoidable that some objectionable practices will be allowed as something less than torture because they do not risk life and limb or do not cause very serious physical pain.”
Now he’s shifting to the slippery slope argument. So coercive interrogation is not intrinsically wrong, but ought to be opposed because it might lead to something that’s intrinsically wrong. Is that the argument? By the same logic, we shouldn’t arm our soldiers with rifles since they might occasionally misuse their rifles.
“For instance, there has been considerable press attention to a tactic called ‘waterboarding,’ where a prisoner is restrained and blindfolded while an interrogator pours water on his face and into his mouth-causing the prisoner to believe he is being drowned. He isn't, of course; there is no intention to injure him physically. But if you gave people who have suffered abuse as prisoners a choice between a beating and a mock execution, many, including me, would choose a beating. The effects of most beatings heal. The memory of an execution will haunt someone for a very long time and damage his or her psyche in ways that may never heal. In my view, to make someone believe that you are killing him by drowning is no different than holding a pistol to his head and firing a blank. I believe that it is torture, very exquisite torture.”
i) The proper analogy would not be between a mock execution and a beating, but between a mock execution and a real execution.
ii) Is McCain seriously suggesting that if we had bin Laden and custody, and waterboarding was the only way to learn what he knows, that we should refrain from waterboarding because the experience would “damage his psyche” and “haunt” him for a very long time? Why should I care whether bin Laden ever “heals” from the psychological trauma of the experience?
iii) If holding a pistol to bin Laden’s head and firing a blank would be an effective way of leaning what he knows, I have no moral compunction about that procedure.
“Those who argue the necessity of some abuses raise an important dilemma as their most compelling rationale: the ticking-time-bomb scenario. What do we do if we capture a terrorist who we have sound reasons to believe possesses specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack?”
This is prejudicial since we are not arguing for the necessity of some “abuses.”
“In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don't believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis. It is far better to embrace a standard that might be violated in extraordinary circumstances than to lower our standards to accommodate a remote contingency, confusing personnel in the field and sending precisely the wrong message abroad about America's purposes and practices.”
i) The consequentialist objection cuts both ways. What are the consequences if we don’t obtain actionable intel to spare an American city?
ii) Does a terrorist enjoy a “human right” to withhold information about an impending terrorist attack?
iii) The message McCain is sending is that if we do capture a high-value terrorist, we won’t force him to divulge what he knows. I happen to think that’s precisely the wrong message to be sending our enemies.
iv) Nothing to be more confusing to our personnel than to warn them that they will face criminal sanctions if they advert another 9/11 by using extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Isn’t that a deterrent to counterintelligence? Why would any right-minded interrogator go above and beyond the call of duty with that legal threat hanging over his head?
iv) Notice McCain’s moral confusion. Is he suggesting that there are circumstances (i.e. the ticking timebomb) when we’re morally obligated to violate our moral obligations?
“The state of Israel, no stranger to terrorist attacks, has faced this dilemma, and in 1999 the Israeli Supreme Court declared cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment illegal. ‘A democratic, freedom-loving society,’ the court wrote, ‘does not accept that investigators use any means for the purpose of uncovering truth. The rules pertaining to investigators are important to a democratic state. They reflect its character’."
A court doesn’t determine right from wrong. It only determines legal from illegal. Judges are legal arbiters, not moral arbiters.
Neither Reppert nor McCain has presented a moral argument against “torture.” The most that Reppert has done is to take exception to “torture” on the grounds that he’s a Kantian deontologist. But there are two problems with that objection:
i) He’d need to make a case for Kantian deontologism.
ii) Even if, for the same of argument, we granted that Kantian deontologism is an adequate, freestanding theory of values, that, of itself, doesn’t begin to rule out the use of “torture”—whether real or imagined.
After all, bin Laden is a Koranic deontologist. He’s just performing his religious duties.
And it’s quite possible to universalize a principle like cruelty. A Mafia don or king-pin might prefer that sort of world. To be sure, a Mafia don wouldn’t like it if someone were to kneecap him in return, but that’s the cost of doing business. That’s a risk he’s prepared to take. He prefers a world in which that’s a possibility, because it’s outweighed by the value of ill-gotten gain. The chance of making a killing by killing others outweighs the chance of being killed by others.
As Manata has already pointed out in response to Reppert, the jihadis operate with the same philosophy. Throughout this debate there’s been a glaring discrepancy between the moral gravity of Reppert’s rhetoric, and intellectual frivolity of Reppert’s argument.