Friday, February 19, 2010

Thiessen, Torture, and Conscience

Dafydd ap Hugh at Big Lizards refers to a fairly popular logical fallacy which he calls "Argument by tendentious redefinition."  In this argument, you redefine terms to enhance the case you wish to make, and weaken your opponent's.  If you're lucky, your opponent will accept your redefinition and, at best, begin on the defensive when he tries to make his case.

Was it appropriate for a Catholic TV network to provide a platform for a torture advocate?

Tendentious redefinition.  A person who advocates harsh interrogation techniques is redefined as a "torture advocate".  Buried in this is the assumption that the techniques advocated actually qualify as torture -- a position on which reasonable people of good will can (and do) disagree.
People were angrily declaiming, How is it possible that the U.S. could permit such a heinous practice? To which I responded, basically, with the following explanation: It is a negative consequence of something that is actually very positive about our country. More than any other country, we believe that there is no limit to what we can achieve, no problem that can't be solved, no obstacle that can't be overcome. This is the attitude that has made us great, but it also exposes us to the risk that we can come to believe that there are no real moral limits that conflict with our desires. When we find that an unborn child is inconvenient, for example, we redefine it as not having 'personhood,' and kill it — problem solved! Similarly, now, when he have a real (or just suspected) jihadist in our custody, we say, he should be understood not chiefly as a rights-bearing person with human dignity that should be respected, but rather as a box containing secrets that we can rip apart at will — and now our country is safe! We figure out what we want to do, then we set talented lawyers the task of defining our new limits in accord with our desires. Harry Blackmun spent many months researching the law, consulting medical professionals and concerned citizens, before writing the legal memo "drawing the lines" on abortion — a memo we now call Roe v. Wade.  The legal justifications for torture, and the widespread public support for it, materialized in a similar way.
Now, there were perhaps, in that room, some people who were not offended by what I said; there may even have been some who were in agreement. But the only audible and visible response was negative — eye-rolling, dark mutterings, and dirty looks, as if to say:  Here we are, trying to have a serious moral discussion about torture, and this right-wing nut has to bring abortion into it. I'm not so naïve as to have thought there would be no pro-choicers there — but I think I know now what it feels like to have someone read you out of a moral community, even when you're acting in good faith.
And so Potemra, who does not see himself as a right-wing anti-abortion nutcase, and has experienced firsthand the effect such re-labeling has on an argument, is perfectly willing to slap the label "torture advocate" on his own opponent.  Perhaps he does not consciously intend it as a way to score debating points, but he, of all people, should be aware of that as an effect of his redefinition.
I'm left wondering what your catechism says about bearing false witness. Your seeming generosity of spirit doesn't alter the fact that, from the very first sentence, your post is a smear. And a careless one, at that. "Not having followed his work in detail"? How do you not bother to look at someone's work before labeling that work the advocacy of torture, which you proceed to decry as a "great evil"? If you're going to indict someone for a great evil, oughtn't you at least have your facts straight about what he's saying and what he's not saying?
Marc has not advocated torture. He has defended the practices that were used by the CIA in its interrogation program. If you had actually "followed his work in detail," you would know that his book discusses, at considerable length, why the practices employed by the CIA were not torture. There is, for example, a chapter in Courting Disaster called "Tough, Not Torture", which explains what torture actually is and why the CIA tactics, including waterboarding, did not approach the legal line.
.... and the angry declaimers at the parish are demagoguing. You convict first and have the trial later — or not at all.  "How to stop U.S.-sponsored torture"? "Resort to [torture] in the past decade is a black spot on America's record"? Do you ever ask, "Should we first examine whether what the U.S. did amounted to torture" before we start calling people torturers? That's what Marc did, and after an exacting analysis he concluded it was not torture, and that is why he is defending it. For that, he gets called a "torture advocate"?
It is certainly a principled position to say, "I don't think we should ever engage in forcible coercion." I doubt it is ground that you'd be able to defend in a coherent way — we inflict many things on people that are a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding (e.g., killing, harsh physical restraints, lengthy prison sentences) that present little or no moral hand-wringing if the provocation for inflicting them is severe enough. But at least calling it "forcible coercion" would be an argument rooted in fact. Your argument, instead, is in the nature of "Are you still beating your wife?" The accused is presumed guilty and then the accuser gets to feel good about himself by magnanimously listing all the reasons why the wife had it coming.
Torture is the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering. The physical kind must be excruciating and the mental kind must cause profound and lasting psychological harm. The law has always taken care to distinguish torture from lesser forms of abuse because it is the most heinous of acts. It is important not to trivialize it by applying the explosive label torture to acts that don't warrant it. Moreover, there has always been a demanding standard of criminal intent: the accused must specifically intend to torture his victim. The police officer who shoots a murder suspect in a gun fight may inflict severe pain, and know full well when he fires his weapon that severe pain is a certain result, but he doesn't commit torture — indeed, he doesn't commit a crime of any kind.
I do not "disregard the Catholic Catechism" as Mike suggests. Indeed, I devote an entire chapter in Courting Disaster to the morality of enhanced interrogation and why what the CIA did is fully consistent with Catholic just war tradition.
...the Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts (emphasis added):
Legitimate defense can not only be a right, but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.
In traditional war, when you capture an enemy soldier, once he is disarmed and taken off the battlefield he has been "rendered unable to cause harm." But that is not true of senior terrorist leaders like KSM. They retain the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. A captured terrorist leader remains an unjust aggressor who actively threatens society — targeting innocent civilians in violation of the laws of war — even when he is in custody.  

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