Taking the Wrong Approach
I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that both sides of the “Did We Torture?” debate are doing themselves a big disservice in how they approach their arguments. This perhaps isn’t surprising since I tend to think this is the case on most controversial hot-button topics.
The pro-waterboarding side’s real argument isn’t that waterboarding, etc., aren’t torture, which I think is a clearly losing argument that frankly disturbs the hell out of me. By making that argument, they implicitly concede that whether it is “effective” is meaningless.
Similarly, the focus of the anti-waterboarding, etc. arguments is also too much on the morality issue. I say this not because the argument is wrong, but because it’s so clearly right. By even arguing it, we give the belief that it may be something less than torture more credibility than it deserves, thereby marginally increasing the possibility that it will become acceptable in even situations where thousands of lives are not potentially at stake.
The trouble is that for the vast majority of people, the issue isn’t whether torture is moral or immoral, but whether the results it provides warrant the breach of morality. For some of us (and I include myself in that group), the morality breach is never or almost never worth it. But that’s just not going to be the case for the vast majority of people in just about any nation. Similarly, for some small number of people, there just is no morality issue at all.
But most people in a free society are far more concerned about their personal morality and decisionmaking than they are about their government’s morality. This is as it perhaps should be – what good is having a moral government if all of its citizens are robbing and looting, murdering and beating? And of course, a huge part of being a moral person is taking care of one’s family. This means that relatively few people have the time or the interest to concern themselves much with the morality of their government, at least as long as their government is dealing with them and the people they know in a relatively moral fashion.
This is not to say that people don’t care at all about the morality of their government’s actions – just that unless it affects them, it ranks somewhere below replacing the lightbulb in the attic. This is doubly the case when the recipients of said immoral government actions are closely linked to someone that most of us have personally envisioned doing things far worse to than the CIA ever dreamed. In this sense, then, and despite taking a fair amount of flack for it, the King of Hyperbole Robert Stacy McCain was (mostly) pretty well in-line with an awful lot of people in saying:
Who could possibly give a crap about the “rights” of terrorist scumbags like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed? Their “rights” would not have been infringed if they had gotten a 9mm slug through their skulls the day they were captured. Excuse me for not being surprised that, having mercifully allowed Abu and Khalid to continue breathing, the CIA doesn’t treat these vermin like guests for Sunday dinner.If I were president — and remember, this is merely a hypothetical — the CIA would have taken Abu and Khalid to the Texas State Fair, where they would have been strapped tightly to a telephone poll. Tickets would be sold at $20 each for one whack at ’em with an aluminum baseball bat.
As Stacy makes clear in the comments to his post, this isn’t a policy prescription, just a statement of fact about what would happen if either of these two guys came within sight of an average workaday American.
So while most Americans may well be easily convinced that waterboarding and the whole related program are clearly immoral and are definitely torture, the fact is not many Americans are going to have the time to give a hoot. What they will, however, give a hoot about is whether it makes them safer, thereby marginally increasing the likelihood that they’ll be able to continue feeding their families.
And the size of that margin matters, too. If torturing a handful of people is going to save a few thousand lives, the government’s immoral actions are well justified (to the average person) by the .00001% increase in the likelihood that they’ll be able to continue feeding their family until they retire or die of old age. On the other hand, this isn’t going to be the case if it’s only going to save one or two or a handful of live; and it’s definitely not going to be the case if it actually costs more lives than it saves.
That’s the debate that matters to most people, even if I may prefer otherwise. Not whether torture is moral or immoral, and not even whether it’s effective. But how effective or ineffective it is, which allows people to decide whether that effectiveness or ineffectiveness outweighs the amount to which they care about the government’s immoral actions on two Really Bad Dudes that the average person will never see, much less meet, much less respect. The morality and the effectiveness of torture are two separate issues, but it’s folly to expect the average American to agree that the morality outweighs the effectiveness.
Does that mean that I, personally, now think that the torture program was fine as long as it saved lives? Absolutely not – quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just to say that the debate that matters to most people (even if I’m not “most people”) is how many lives it saved so that they can determine whether that number of saved lives justifies the government’s immoral actions. And for what it’s worth, I tend to think that number to be vanishingly small, and even smaller when you factor in wasted resources from false leads and the possibility that the same intelligence could have been obtained through non-coercive means, not to mention the collateral fallout due to negative publicity, including increased radicalization. Ken at Popehat has a much better explanation as to why skepticism about claims of prevented attacks is particularly justified.
One final note: The fact that it is unrealistic to expect the average American to get too enraged by this is precisely why the OLC torture memos were such a travesty. The responsibility of those lawyers was to the law, not to popular opinion, not to morality, and definitely not to security. This is doubly true when the only people who care about the law are those whose sworn duty it is to do so.
If the OLC attorneys sincerely agreed with the CIA that those methods were necessary to save American lives, then their responsibility was to tell the CIA to request a change in the law, not to pretend that the law was something different entirely. The law, after all, represents our society’s best estimate of where to draw the line between pragmatism and morality. In this case, that law also represented where most of the human race has decided to draw that line since it was the implementation of an international treaty. In authorizing these acts, the OLC chose to ignore that line.
Finally – you should really also read Jason Kuznicki.