Monday, October 31, 2011

How to play ostrich

Since this is a new comment on an old post (2007), I’m going to discuss it here.

By aweberg on "The Truth about Torture" on 10/31/11

Charles Krauthammer’s argument would be a sound one if everyone accepted all of his premises. However, when he defines terrorist, he describes one as “an unlawful combatant [who] lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, [who] hides among civilians, and [who] deliberately targets innocents.” However using this definition, almost any criminal, from a simple shop lifter to the most elaborate bank robber, would be considered a terrorist. Any thief is unlawful, and therefore combating the law. A thief hides among civilians since they don’t normally sport uniforms, and they target the innocent and the defenseless since that is the easiest target group. Therefore, according to Krauthammer’s definition of terrorist, almost all thieves are probably terrorists.

Krauthammer isn’t defining a “terrorist.” Rather, he’s defining an “illegal combatant” who happens to be a terrorist. Defining what makes somebody an “illegal combatant,” not a “terrorist.” Of course, the same individual can wear both hats, but if you asked Krauthammer to define a “terrorist,” he might well give a different definition. Perhaps he’s even done so at one time another.

To that extent, the rest of aweberg’s objection is predicated on a false premise.

The question now, is at what point is someone considered a high enough level of a terrorist to be subjected to torture? Morally, this is a question that no human being should be given the power to answer. By answering this question, humans are in effect playing God.

i) First off, I don’t think we should begin by framing the issue in terms of “torture.” For one thing, definitions of “torture” are normally tendentious legal definitions custom-tailored to outlaw “torture” by “human rights” groups.  So it’s typically a loaded definition that’s very loose, and takes the immorality of “torture” for granted.

ii) Rather, we should begin with what interrogation techniques are effective. There’s a wide variety of methods. Some are milder, some are harsher. Likewise, their effectiveness is person-variabls.

In principle, we should use the mildest technique that’s effective. If we need the information in a hurry (e.g. the ticking timebomb scenario), we might use something harsher if that’s quicker.

iii) This also assumes that the interrogee is sufficiently evil or dangerous that he’s forfeited the normal immunities that we’d confer on the garden-variety crook.

Krauthammer attempts to answer this question by using the hypothetical situation of a terrorist that has information that could save lives if it was released. Krauthammer argues that the terrorist should be tortured in order to obtain the information and save the lives. However, such a situation is rare in reality.

i) How is the rarity of the situation relevant to the permissibility of the practice? Having a police sharpshooter cap a sniper is rare in reality, but there are situations where that’s appropriate.

ii) Moreover, this isn’t just hypothetical:

Often, the government only has no idea of whether or not a person’s information can help, or if they have any information at all.

i) Of course, that’s the purpose of interrogation. If we knew in advance of questioning what the interrogee knows, the exercise would be pointless.

ii) The interrogee is always at liberty to volunteer what he knows. The issue of coercion only arises if he’s uncooperative.

iii) Some interrogees are higher up the food chain than others. That can be known.

Similarly to the first premise, the question becomes, at what point does level of confidence in the impact of the alleged terrorist’s information make it moral to torture? This question is morally too much for human beings to answer, and would once again be an example of playing God. Ultimately, if the decision to do something is based on premises that are immoral, then that action is immoral. The decision to torture is based upon immoral premises of playing God. Therefore, torture is an immoral action in every situation.

That cuts both ways. That has to be weighed against the risk of not knowing what he knows.

When in doubt, who should we put at risk–the terrorist or the public? If it comes down to a choice between a terrorist who threatens the public safety, and interrogators who threaten the safety of the terrorist, that shouldn’t be a hard call to make. It’s wrong to play God. It’s also wrong to play ostrich. 

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