Sunday, December 14, 2014

High-value terrorist

The release of the partisan Senate report on "torture" has some Christians attacking other Christians for endorsing "torture." In this post I'll discuss some of the ethical issues.

i) Some critics probably think it's reprehensible for other Christians to even seriously entertain the distinction between licit and illicit methods of "torture." The very fact that they consider that a legitimate issue is appalling. 

Well, the short answer is that we don't have the luxury of picking our enemies–they picked us. And the nature of your enemy constrains your options. If, say, the enemy uses human shields, then that limits your options. That forces you to do things you'd normally avoid.

ii) I'd like to begin by using the high-value terrorist as a frame of reference. Offhand, I don't know of any formal or official definition, so, for purposes of this post, I'll define it myself. By "high-value" terrorist, I mean a terrorist who's very knowledgeable about operatives, operations, pending plots, networks, &c. 

It's the high-value terrorist who's the natural candidate for interrogation. By contrast, the terrorist footsoldier is not a natural candidate for interrogation. 

iii) To my knowledge, in traditional rules of warfare, illegal combatants like pirates have no due process rights or Geneva Convention protections. They can be summarily executed. In my opinion, the terrorist flunkies shouldn't be interrogated or subjected to indefinite detention, or put on trial in military tribunals. Rather, they should be summarily executed. 

If there's no reason to think a given terrorist has useful information, then coercive interrogation would be gratuitous cruelty. 

iv) An exception would be treasonous American citizens like John Walker Lindh. Although he's a traitor, his American citizenship entitles him to full due process rights. 

Mind you, treason is grounds for loss of nationality. However, that, of itself, demands due process, viz. conviction for treason. 

v) If a high-value terrorist volunteers information, then coercive interrogation is unnecessary. It's only if he refuses to answer questions, or truthfully answer questions, that coercive interrogation becomes necessary.

vi) Restricting coercive interrogation to high-value terrorists has an added advantage. Some civil libertarians are rightly concerned about the risk of "torturing" an innocent suspect. 

However, high-value terrorists are known-terrorists. Their identity as terrorists is beyond serious doubt. They are prominent leaders of terrorist networks. 

Well-known to intelligence agencies, journalists, and often the general public. Like the leaders of Latin American drug cartels. 

vii) "Torture" is a very flexible term. According to one legal definition, "torture" means "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information."

That covers everything from mutilation to sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, &c.

Suppose, for instance, a high-value terrorist suffers from claustrophobia. An interrogator might exploit that fear. Put him in a confinement box until he says uncle. 

Or take an honor/shame culture with religious taboos, like contact with "impure" animals (e.g. dogs, pigs). Some people fear shame more than pain. For them, to suffer dishonor is a fate worse than death. 

In terms of Christian ethics, is it intrinsically wrong to subject a high-value terrorists to these forms of "suffering" to extract intel? 

We could discuss other methods. My point is that "torture" is a word with varied connotations. A lot depends on what examples that triggers when you hear the word "torture."  

viii) Let's briefly discuss the ethics of force-feeding. What if captive terrorists stage a hunger strike? That can be a stunt. But if they are serious, that's a form of suicide. What are the responsibilities of their captors in that situation? 

a) Some Christians think suicide is intrinsically wrong 

b) Some Christians think suicide is generally or normally wrong

c) Do we have an obligation to prevent someone from committing suicide?

d) Assuming we do, how far does that extend? If, say, an adult is suicidal, does that justify involuntary commitment is a psychiatric institution?

e) Put another way, is something is wrong, does that mean there's an obligation to prevent it? Is it morally permissible to permit certain forms of morally impermissible conduct? 

f) Speaking for myself, I'd say that, as a rule, if an adult goes on a hunger strike, he should not be force-fed. I'm not ultimately responsible for what he does with his own life.

g) In the case of high-value terrorists, since they are potential informants, it's important to keep them alive. So force-feeding might be justifiable in that situation.

As time goes on, the value of their intel diminishes. After we've learned whatever a high-value terrorist has to offer, they should face summary execution.    

ix) Finally, I'd like to examine "the end justifies the means." Christian critics of "torture" routinely bandy that phrase, as if you only have to say it to discredit it. But the phrase itself is quite ambiguous. Consider some permutations:

a) Any end justifies any means necessary

b) A worthy end justifies any means necessary

c) A worthy end justifies means not intrinsically wrong

For instance, it's normally wrong to kill somebody. But suppose paroled murderer takes hostages at an elementary school. Protecting the kids is the end. Shooting the hostage-taker is the means. 

That's a worthy end. And the means is morally permissive (or even obligatory) under those circumstances.

Some people (e.g. Ben Witherington) might disagree. My intention is not to argue the point, but illustrate the point. And if someone disagrees, that exposes how extreme their own position is. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for bringing a little clarity to a complex subject. I have long wondered, for instance, why summary executions were not taking place more frequently instead of relegation to Gitmo. It has long been the policy in modern warfare that combatants who did not wear a soldier's uniform were not covered under Geneva conventions and thus could be subject to summary execution. Virtually all terrorists fit the criteria for summary execution.

    Why bleeding hearts want to offer them all the protections of American jurisprudence is difficult to comprehend.