Monday, August 31, 2009

Talking about torture

Ryan Sager blogs about torture, and how to make the case against it.

It’s such an easy argument, isn’t it?:
We shouldn’t torture because torture is morally wrong; and, guys, why are we even arguing?… torture doesn’t work, so it’s really a non-issue.
How tempting an argument that last bit is — and how utterly destructive to the anti-torture cause.

The reason this tidbit is so destructive is quite simple: It puts the anti-torture side in the position of having to prove a negative. And, thus, every time new documents are released, you’ll have the exact same argument — and, if you’re an opponent of torture, you’ll lose that argument every time.

Interestingly enough, this seems to be one of the few arguments certain people are able to make, even when its weakness is pointed out to them.

After some thought, I've decided they want the arguments against torture to be weak. That way, they gain the benefit of having torture available somewhere, but their hands are clean, and purified by the fires of their own moral outrage.

Sager is not such a person. He honestly opposes torture.

He recognizes he's working against popular sentiment:

Liberals ... may think their sophisticated argument is better than the conservatives’ simple one. But guess which one the public is likely to believe.

Most Americans support torture. An even bigger majority of Americans oppose an investigation into Bush-era abuses.

You can not like it, but it’s where our country’s mind is on the issue. One in five Americans in the poll linked above believes waterboarding is torture and that we should torture suspected terrorists.

It might be noted that 60% of those questioned think waterboarding is torture, and 38% disagree (margin of error = 3% points). This brings up the question of just what we mean by "torture". I've seen one "professional interrogator" define "torture" as "any physical or mental coercion – any. This is a silly definition, which only serves, in my opinion, to further weaken his case.

I suspect some of the techniques laid out in the Al Qaeda manuals would be considered torture by a higher percentage of respondants. I'd like to know if there is any more reluctance to use more extreme techniques on terrorists.

Arguing that torture isn’t effective is a losing proposition. No matter how convinced you are that torture isn’t a good idea — even separate from the moral dimensions — you have to recognize that (obviously!) torture is going to work, at least sometimes. There will be clear cases where someone is tortured and then starts cooperating to avoid more torture. It’s simply ridiculous to pretend otherwise. And when those cases come to light, torture proponents will be there, waiting to say “I told you so.” And they will appear to be vindicated.

I do the "i told you so" routine on occasion, though I try to save it for those people who insist that TORTURE NEVER WORKS. I figure if spectators see them having to jump through hoops to buttress a claim that all the people who have reported those clear cases are either dupes or liars, they'll come to their own conclusions about the person's credibility.

So, how do you argue against torture without the “it doesn’t work” argument? Well, it’s not easy (which is why people adopted the “It Doesn’t Work” argument in the first place). You can argue from pure morality, but that’s not very persuasive to the great body of people who would pull out KSM’s fingernails personally. And Americans aren’t likely to be convinced that terrorists (and don’t tell them there’s a difference between accused and actual terrorists, they won’t hear you) deserve any rights whatsoever.

First of all, I for one do know there is a difference between accused and actual. I also know there's a difference between civil law and wartime conduct. For one thing, soldiers are allowed to shoot enemy soldiers, merely for being enemy soldiers in the field of battle. And I'm sure any number of people who object to torture also object to being shot.

Many of the rules of civilized society are set aside in war.

Enemy soldiers are subject to imprisonment for the duration of the war, even though being an enemy soldier is not a crime. It's not considered false imprisonment; it's simply removing a soldier from the battle, even though his status as an enemy combatant may not be known with 100% certainty.

Frankly, I think I'd rather have a system in place with command oversight over a system where individual soldiers act on their own initiative. I prefer that prisoners of war be kept in prison camps rather than wherever individual soldiers can find a place to stash them. Likewise, I prefer whatever coercive techniques are used be used with deliberation and oversight rather than at the whim of whatever soldier happens to be in the area.

Now, for the "right" arguments:

Find instances of innocent people being tortured...

It's said the perfect is the enemy of the good. If you hold out for a perfect system, whether it be for extracting information or supplying medical care to the poor, you will never implement any system, however good it may be.

I can find horror stories in anything that's being administered by human beings. Anything. I can find abuse cases in schools, therefore we should have no schools. I can find cases of mind-numbingly incompetent doctors, so we should have no medicine. I can find cases where police have abused their authority, so no police. I can find cases where people have choked to death on food or water, so none of either.

A real debate must attempt to balance costs and benefits. For example, for most people, the benefits of eating and drinking far outweigh the costs. Maybe the cost of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques outweighs the benefit, but prove it, don't merely hand-wave it into the argument.

Find instances of people brought around to cooperating by non-torture means

I admit to not being the most immersed-in-the-torture-debate person in the world. But I’m sure there are specific cases that could be brought up of people brought around to cooperating without resort to the waterboard. Again, those cases need to be beaten into the public consciousness.

This is an false dichotomy. If A works, B is unnecessary. Because I can walk to work, I don't need to drive (or bicycle). Because I can drive across the country, there's no need for airplanes. Because a helicopter can get me to the corner store, there's no need to walk.

Producing instances where non-torture means worked does not prove either: a) those means will work in every case, in the amount of time available; or b) torture will never be a better tool for the job.

A real debate must attempt to make that case.

Show how torture harms U.S. interests

There’s some evidence that torture correlates to more terror. More importantly, it harms the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it makes our allies less likely to cooperate and locals less likely to collaborate.

Again, cost vs. benefit. This may actually be the strongest argument, but both sides have to make their case, based on all the available data, not on isolated anecdotes. I sometimes ask, half seriously, "Where are the studies?" I figure there won't be any, because of the difficulty in getting a realistic scenario past a human use committee. But someone must be collecting the data.

I hope.

Appeal to the image Americans want to have of America

That's an approach, and indeed, it's also why, I believe, the CIA has restricted itself to non-damaging techniques, and those are used only rarely. But when all is said and done, if there's a choice between image and survival, a lot of people are going to choose survival. Maybe enhanced interrogation doesn't work, or maybe it costs more than it gains us. Maybe it's the intelligence community's version of quack medicine.

But when it's a matter of survival and limited options, a lot of people will try the quack medicine.

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