stating the obvious
“And then, where is the use of torture? It is a slippery trial and uncertain (says Ulpian) to convince by torture. For many says (says St Augustine again) he that is yet but questioned, whether he be guilty or no, before that be known, is, without all question, miserably tortured. And whereas, many time, the passion of the Judge, and the covetousness of the Judge, and the ambition of the Judge, are calamities heavy enough upon a man that is accused. If the Judge knew that he were innocent, he should suffer nothing. If he knew he were guilty, he should not suffer torture. But because the Judge is ignorant and knows nothing, therefore the prisoner must be racked and tortured and mangled.” ~ John Donne
The obvious thing is this: what separates us from the terrorists and from our medieval ancestors is that we uphold the basic principles of law and order which are founded on even more basic concepts of human dignity and justice. (In Britain torture was outlawed in 1628)
So the whole debate – every last piece of the debate, even arguments that seek nuance that I generally agree with – to me, is an exercise in futility (and so, of course, is this post). Every apology for torture is a denial of the separation between us and them, and between the modern and ancient West. Every attempt to re-define what constitutes torture is an attempt to re-define what makes us American. Every denial of wrong-doing is an admission that the very forces we seek to defeat have in fact sullied with fear our higher ideals, have achieved a terrible victory at a terrible cost.
That’s the point of terror, after all – not to merely kill, but to transform the world through fear.
Beyond that, it seems very foolish – very short-sighted – for torture apologists to continue this charade. It may seem necessary now, to many of them, to rewrite history or clean the slate or whatever – but in the end can this really be anything more than political suicide? Maybe for the architects – the Cheney’s and the Yoo’s – it makes sense. They face a real (if unlikely) chance at prosecution. When the media finally starts using the word “torture” instead of “harsh interrogation tactics” and all of this comes spilling out – the pictures, the video recordings, etc. – is this the side you want to be on? Standing over there in the spotlight with Cheney and Bush and Bybee and Yoo?
History is merciless.
Mark is also frustrated with the debate, but with both sides of it. I often write from a position of morality, insisting that torture is simply morally wrong, and that this is enough. Mark writes
[T]he 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….
…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.
Good point. But what if the moral argument is coupled – as it often is – with the argument that torture has been defined, and the process by which we might re-define it cannot be attempted by the executive alone, and certainly not retroactively? Mark’s argument makes a lot of sense – a lot of people, the apathetic masses, aren’t going to put too much into this debate (especially since 24 has taught us to better understand the ticking bomb theory) – but I think that’s just the point. People who do care need to be the voice of accountability. Moral arguments may be weak on their own, but there are plenty of legal arguments here as well. In the end, it’s just nearly impossible to justify these policies, on moral, legal, or practical grounds. I have yet to see anything even remotely convincing on any of these fronts – and the ticking time bomb theory is mostly just a fiction.
For me there’s really very little else to say on the subject. The rules on torture have been laid out long ago. We helped write them and we agreed to abide by them. The president, no matter how imperial he’d like to be, is still bound to our nation’s laws. There are lines a free society simply cannot cross, even in order to protect its security, and if it does choose to cross them well then it ought to do so with the full force of the law at its back, in public. If it has to be done under the cold cloak of secrecy, then perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it at all.
The rest is peripheral – efficacy, security, saving face, reevaluating after the fact, the whole “just keep walking” meme – all of it. It’s all nonsense.
Shep Smith says it best: We’re America, and we don’t torture.
Of course, when he says it he means we shouldn’t torture, because the sad fact is that we’re America, and we do.