Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Commiserating with terrorists

I’m going to repost some comments I left over at Justin Taylor’s blog:

steve hays October 30, 2011 at 12:17 pm

“However, if you were an innocent person who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo bay without trial, or a victim of torture such as waterboarding, or a victim of extraordinary rendition, or someone living in Fallujah after the US bombed it with white phosphorus – which will lead to suffering and illness for years to come – then you might respond to it a bit differently and with a degree of cynicism. Unfortunately all these things happened under his watch as well.”

Aside from the fact that your comments are irrelevant to Justin’s post, you’re also rehashing stock objections as if these had never been dealt with before.
steve hays October 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm

“Hi Steve, I never said the issues had never been discussed before. I know they have but I’m not sure why being discussed before means they should not be aired again. Are they just to be forgotten/ignored?”

Here’s a test of your sincerity. Do you even know the other side of the argument? Who have you read on the other side of the argument? What do they say?

steve hays October 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm
Well, Andrew, to take one of the examples you cited, what about Keith Burgess-Jackson’s criteria for evaluating “torture”:

Do you think he failed to adequately frame the issue? If so, how so?

Or what about Richard Posner’s position? If you think his position on “torture” is “unconvincing,” in what respect? “Simply giving your opinion” without a supporting argument, then using that to criticize Justin’s post, isn’t very reasonable.

BTW, Andrew, I don’t think Justin is vouching for Bush’s Christian faith. Rather, I think Justin is citing this as an illustration of a Christian principle.

steve hays October 31, 2011 at 12:24 pm
I’m pretty familiar with objections to Bush’s antiterrorism policies. That received saturation coverage at the time.

I don’t care about someone’s opinion. I only care about arguments.

So, to go back to your example of “torture” (which you don’t define), let’s consider a few issues:

i) Does a terrorist have a right to commit mass murder against Americans?

ii) Assuming that it’s immoral to murder Americans, does a terrorist have a moral right to withhold information (e.g. time, place, operatives) about a plot to murder Americans?

If it’s wrong to murder Americans, then it’s wrong to conspire to murder Americans. And it’s wrong to withhold information regarding the murderous conspiracy. Wrong to withhold information which would help authorities thwart the plot.

iii) Do the authorities have a duty to protect Americans against mass murder?

iv) Do the authorities have right (and duty) to obtain information about an impending terrorist attack from a captured terrorist?

Assuming they have a duty to protect Americans, then isn’t (iv) part of their duty?

v) If it’s a choice between hurting (i.e. coercing) the terrorist to obtain actionable intel, or allowing the terrorist to hurt (i.e. murder) innocent Americans, where does our duty lie? Should we protect the terrorist or protect the innocent targets of the plot?

steve hays October 31, 2011 at 2:34 pm

“Is that the best that you can do?”

Since up until now you’ve done nothing to defend your position, I don’t need to do much to do better than nothing.

“You presume that you know who the ‘terrorist’ is…”

I don’t. Rather, it’s sufficient for the authorities know who the terrorist is. Revealing that you put “terrorist” in scare quotes, as if there aren’t any real terrorists. As if that’s just a propaganda term.

Do you deny that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and Abu Zubaydah were known terrorists? Do you think that identification is seriously in doubt?

“…and what the ‘terrorist’ knows.”

Not at all. That’s the point of interrogation. To find out.

However, some captured terrorists are well-connected individuals (see above). So we can also make reasonable assumptions.

“You also presume that if you torture them then they will tell you the truth.”

That’s not a presumption of interrogation. It’s no different, in principle, than interrogating a murder suspect. Yes, he may lie to the homicide detectives. But if he gives them a false lead, and they follow up on the lead, they will find out that it’s a false lead. That he lied. They can then go back and question him again.

If, on the other hand, it’s true, then they will have ways of corroborating its veracity. In which case they will know something they didn’t otherwise know.

If a terrorist says something, there are ways to either verify or falsify his statement. But if he’s allowed to keep mum, you can never test it one way or the other. So your objection is illogical.

“Jack Bauer and 24 is not real life you know!”

Well, according to then-DCI Leon Panetta, interrogation did yield actionable intel:

He’s not a toady of the Bush administration or a neocon.

“Imagine you got in with the wrong crowd…”

That’s euphemistic. I guess Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abd Al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and Abu Zubaydah accidentally happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, fraternizing with the bad guys. Pure coincidence, really. Just bad luck!

“…and were wrongly suspected of being a terrorist (sometimes the CIA get their info wrong apparently) and you were flown to a foreign country, locked up for a few weeks and waterboarded a few times. This kind of thing has apparently happened but I’m presuming you would be ok with it because torture is ok and they thought you were a bad man. That’s fine, but I wouldn’t.”

i) A captured terrorist is always at liberty to volunteer what he knows. Coercion is only applied if he refuses to divulge what he knows.

ii) The other problem with your hypothetical is that it’s easy to come up with counter hypotheticals that also have consequences. Worse consequences. Like the ticking timebomb.

Risk assessment involves assessing the potential costs and benefits of different hypothetical scenarios.

“Here is an interesting article and with it I really am finished.”

And here are two critiques:


  1. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" Gerald Seymour.

  2. So atheism reduces to moral relativism. Is that what you're saying?