Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jim Manzi opposes waterboarding

But he also recognizes it's a complicated problem.

Any decent society needs to defend itself from armed aggression without becoming a society not worth defending. This is never simple to accomplish.
I assume that only a true ideologue would dispute that there is at least some possibility of obtaining at least some militarily-useful information if we applied this technique to many captured combatants. The fact that it keeps being reinvented or rediscovered in various wars, and used repeatedly over time in these conflicts by troops that want to win, is excellent circumstantial evidence that it provides at least some tactical benefits. It is very hard to assess rationally how much incremental tactical benefit it has provided, and by extension, could realistically be expected to provide in the future, since it is generally conducted in secret, is part of a broader intelligence and action program and many of its successes would presumably be calamities that were avoided.
The simplified case that waterboarding is categorically evil goes something like this.
“Applying extreme coercion to a human being when he is entirely in your power is inherently evil. This is why, like most universally-recognized evils, torture is done in dark, hidden places. Those who skillfully do interrogations on our behalf – doing difficult work in the worst conditions – have refused to waterboard. You sit in safety, unwilling to actually pour water down the throat of a human while he gags, struggles and thrashes in agony strapped to a table 36 inches from you; instead you write words that egg on the worst among us. If you can not see that torture is wrong, you live in a different moral universe than I. You’re a monster.”
The simplified case that waterboarding is not inherently evil goes something like this.
“We live in a violent world. While there must be limits to what we do to defend ourselves, simply describing the unpleasantness of waterboarding doesn’t cut it. We must do lots of terrible things to other human beings during war in order to prevent yet-worse things from happening. Inducing fear in a manner carefully calculated not to produce physical harm is not torture, and is very, very much less severe than most things done in war. Your supposedly refined moral sentiments are vanities; failure to consider bad versus worse consequences of our actions is the real abdication of moral reasoning in an environment of extreme violence. You live in a bubble that must be protected by methods that you find distasteful, without confronting the fact that if we were to follow your scruples, evil men would rule and do far worse things. You’re a child.”
This deep moral disagreement of course creates the practical political problem of how to reconcile these conflicting views.
Here are the modern conflicts in which, to my knowledge, waterboarding is believed to have been used as a widespread technique to gain intelligence from captured combatants over a sustained period and area of operations by non-U.S. powers:
Do you notice a pattern? These are either dictatorial regimes, or actions of basically democratic governments in arenas of imperial border occupation. For a democracy, waterboarding is a corruption of empire.
This also doesn’t mean that I think waterboarding is always wrong. What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

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