Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Torture Temptation

What I find most remarkable about America's debate regarding torture -- beyond the fact that such a debate could even be necessary in America -- is the continual recourse of both proponents and opponents to the question of whether torture works. I can't think of any other illegal behavior -- not murder, not rape, not kidnapping, not assault -- that receives this kind of rhetorical makeover. When a murder has been committed, you don't hear people agonizing over whether killing can never, ever be justified. When someone has been raped, people don't ignore the crime in favor of a discussion of whether a rapist's satisfaction could possibly be proven to outweigh a victim's trauma and horror. If a child is kidnapped, the airwaves aren't polluted with discussion of whether kidnapping might actually be an effective way of acquiring ransom money. And so on.

Torture, apparently, is different. Let's talk about why.

Unlike other crimes, torture has a constituency, in the form of the architects who created America's torture regime. These are the people who feed the public discourse with a steady supply of, "Can you really say that torture never, ever works?" And, "What would you do if your child were kidnapped and the kidnapper refused to reveal the child's location?" And, "How can you compare enhanced interrogation techniquing one terrorist to the 3000 people killed on 9/11?" Etc. The architects, and their media allies, know that as long as the talking heads of television and gatherers by office water coolers, literal and electronic, are discussing the morality and practicality of torture, they won't be talking about the illegality of torture.

But this supply-side explanation is only part of what makes torture different. The supply would have nowhere to go in the absence of demand. And the demand is what we most need to guard against. Purveyors of torture excuses will come and go, but our psyches will never change.

I believe some deep place in the human psyche is attracted to torture. A fundamental aspect of human nature is an abhorrence of powerlessness and a concomitant will to power. And what greater confirmation of power, and banishment of powerlessness, is there than utter control over another human being -- body, mind, and soul?

We also abhor helplessness. It's horrifying to consider that over time we will never be able to entirely prevent terrorist attacks. We prefer to believe 9/11 happened because we failed to do something we could have done, that there's some extreme we can still resort to that will make us safe again, that if we do that thing from now on, we can gain greater mastery over the possibilities that frighten us. Because, for the reasons set forth in the paragraph above, torture is already seductive, we seize on it like a talisman custom-made for our fearful psyches.

So it bears reminding that the reason torture is universally illegal in the civilized world is a consensus that torture is not only evil, but also insidious, and that therefore we must guard against the temptation to torture by enacting and enforcing strict laws against it. These laws provide not just a bulwark against a recrudescence of torture, but act also as a signpost, wisely erected by generations before us, warning us to stand fast against the dark sirens of our worst impulses.

Leave aside the irony that it's self-styled "conservatives" who are so eager to ignore the accreted wisdom of generations past. That the consensus against torture is the work of generations -- the product of generations of mistakes and of continual, improbable appeals not just to morality, but to wisdom, too, to the better angels of our nature -- makes the more debilitating the right's progress in once again coloring torture as something respectable, even desirable.

It is nothing of the sort. Torture is an abomination. It is without exception illegal. Those who have authorized it and those who have carried it out have committed crimes. In the face of clear laws and clear evidence of violation of those laws, a rhetorical resort to theory or morality or practicality isn't just an attempt to obscure the commission of crimes. It's also an implicit debasement of the value of the law itself. Most of all, it's a profoundly unconservative attempt to reingest an evil seed civilization has over time and in the face of dark, conflicting impulses, managed largely to expel.

Cross-posted at Humanity Against Crimes. More here:

The Torture Mentality, Part 1

The Torture Mentality, Part 2

The Torture Mentality, Part 3

The Torture Mentality, Part 4


Patrick said...

I think a major difference is that torture has been extensively used in allegedly legal circumstances (yeah, yeah), and now people are trying to make up their own mind about it. It may be illegal, but perhaps it's wrong to make it illegal? Why do we think torture is bad? I think you can see people grasping for an ethical understanding of torture without a background in ethics and philosophy, so utilitarian arguments have great appeal.

If Guantanamo prisoners had been raped en masse, then I would guess the same talk would be going on with rape.

Anonymous said...

So perhaps we should be looking at whether or not we should be changing our definition of torture? Perhaps we should simply be making certain actions legal and thus avoid this altogether?

Without getting into a discussion on the validity and usefulness of international laws and court systems there do exist international standards and agreements on the correct way to treat human beings. These are agreements that the US has been a signatory to and these actions are clear violations of that.

Furthermore, to make this kind of action 'legal' would then give broad approval for it's use here in the US. The next time someone is in a federal holding cell or suspected of a crime, why not just waterboard them till they confess?

I agree that torture is not only patently 'evil' but it's insidious nature is what we are trying to remain vigilant against. Right now the US uses torture in a vacuum outside of the country. How long before it makes it's way back across the water?

The recent release of Lakhdar Boumediene, a Red Crescent worker who was picked up in Bosnia i think, is just so infuriating that it almost made me speechless to first hear about. A man who had dedicated a portion of his life to aid work was imprisoned by a foreign government and then the US for over 7 years. 7. years. without trial or evidence against him. Imprisoned and tortured. Anybody who can shrug that off and say it's bound to happen to some innocent people is missing the point. It goes against everything this country says it stands for. You can't sacrifice these things in order to preserve them. If it happens once to an innocent person, it's already happened too much. There can't be a middle ground on torture.

Barry, I may have missed it, but I am curious to know where you stand on the decision not to release the rest of the photographs showing detainee abuse.

Patrick said...

Understand that I am completely on Barry's side here, as on my blog I have written extensively about this issue and condemned the practices.

But let me ask you this: Why is torture wrong? Why did we make it illegal? Is it really bad to torture a bad guy? Why?

I think that's what at the Heart of the Matter here. Because when I was asked this recently, I had to think about it for a while, to formulate my ethical ground rules, and it wasn't easy. It would have been far easier to say: "because it doesn't work." – and then we're in utilitarian argument, where other people might (falsely) claim: "yes, it does."

I mean, the most I've heard on this topic with regards to ethics was: "We don't do that, it's inhumane." Why don't we do inhumane things? Is it because we fear we could be next?

Justin D. Jacobson said...

It's obvious to me that the implication of "It works" is that "It works at saving lives." If an illegal act saves lives, it at least opens the question as to whether or not the act should be justified. Contrary to your post, murder can be justified, and such justifications are codified in our legal system. The most notable of these--and indeed the most relevant to the topic at hand--is defense of self and defense of others. If you are coming at me with a knife, I am allowed to shoot you.

BUT! (I just wanted to emphasize the "but" as much as possible.)

In the torture "debate", this argument and associated implication aren't being used to justify an illegal act. That would require investigation of the crime and, ultimately, presentation of evidence and a determination by a judge or jury as to whether or not the justification defense passes muster. Moreover, in many cases, the justification serves only to reduce the charge or lessen the penalty.

In short, I think the "It works" argument seeks to gain the benefit of the self-defense argument without having to fully address it. I also think that's why it tends to resonate with the masses. We get self-defense on an instinctive level.

Oblivious to oblivion said...

I haven’t read your blog in awhile – the things you say – well, to be blunt – piss me off. I got rid of all your books, even the two you signed for me, and gave them to Goodwill – though I probably should have burned them. But I am bothered by just the thought of burning books, and so I just gave them away. It pains me to no end that I have put money into the pocket of a self-righteous, sanctimonious, smug intellectual elitist such as yourself.

That being said, it surprises me that you are still harping upon the same things you were harping upon year ago. Over a year ago. Just the same old broken record with no real additions, no significant insights, no tangible evidence to support your talking head rhetoric, and worse – no viable solutions. I think you say what you say simply because you like to hear yourself say it. And if you could build yourself a bigger, better soapbox, you would. And you never listen to anyone with a different point of view or opinion. You dismiss them with an arrogant wave of the hand, “who are YOU to question ME?”

Your chief problem is that you are ignorant. Yes you have your law degree, yes you’ve traveled the world, and yes you spent some time working for the CIA – but you’re still ignorant. I surmise that it is difficult for you to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know, and since you have no means of getting at the real truth, the real heart of the matter, you make things up. You grab comments and explanations from other talking heads, such as yourself, who are just as ignorant and self serving.

a) You do not know what is actually happening in GITMO, you can only guess.
b) You don’t have access to the intelligence that the President gets. Period.
c) You have NEVER had your rights infringed upon by our government.
d) None of your friends or family has ever had THEIR rights infringed upon by our government.

This is what I suggest.

1) Stop beating the dead horse of torture. There is nothing you can say that will change the minds of individuals such as myself, just as there is nothing we can say to change your mind. It is a lost cause.
2) Start addressing real pressing matters such as:
a. N. Korea missiles aimed at Hawaii.
b. The elections in Iran.
c. The war in Afghanistan.
d. The home grown jihadists who shoot and kill soldiers at recruiting stations.
e. The growing number of hate groups throughout the nation.
f. Muslim converts in our prison system.
g. Radical, fundamentalist Mosques in our cities preaching hate and anti-Americanism

there are so many better things for yiou to talk about. haven't you beaten this dead horse enough?

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled back over this series of posts and i can appreciate where a lot of people are coming from. Yes a look at why we consider certain acts 'inhuman' is important. But then we could use that analysis for any number of things. At some point it seems to move us further away from an answer than closer to one.

you could spend hours debating what exactly it is to be inhuman, but ultimately I think what it comes down to for me in this argument, away from personal preference, is what it says about this country. If this nation is to live up to the ideals and values that it holds up then there is simply no room for torture. It is incompatible with everything this nation was founded on. You know, if those things are important.

In response to the last post i read: A dead horse? truly? If this were a dead issue I wouldn't be looking at multiple articles about it a week. The idea that this is an irrelevant issue is just close minded. It may be a dead issue for you, but that certainly doesn't seem to be the case for a number of people.

So please, go on flogging this 'dead horse' of an issue. In my estimation the treatment of prisoners and the decision to torture are the biggest cock-up that will haunt the prosecution of this war for decades to come and will far outweigh the lack of WMD's found. The decision to torture has altered the way America was perceived around the world and became a rallying cry for jihadists who were able to triumphantly declare 'look, I told you so'.

Ten years from now, when this is still being discussed, maybe then we can ask if it's a dead horse or not. My money is on not.

apathyunited said...

Let's be serious now, we must i repeat must stamp out all seditious behavior before something really bad happens, for example change. Torture is acceptable if it is against an agent who is against the group, morality after all is just a function of the group mentality. If the group feels that it is under threat then they are (by rights of the human moral process) allowed and sometimes even encouraged by our moral intuitions to engage in what otherwise appears to be an abhorrent act(s). Think what most religions say about killing. What seems to be a paradox or contradiction in the way killing is treated is just a misunderstanding of the nature of morality. Many people think that morality is the reason that stops people from doing bad things the irony is (not real irony just the apperance of) that it is the reason that most abhorrent things happen. So what's the lesson?? Always go with the group and you will be a moral person. This is why human nature seems to have an ambivalent relationship with individuality and new ideas; while they can be useful to the group they have to be accepted by the group as useful and not as a threat.