The anti-torture absolutists take it as self-evident that torture (variously defined) is self-evidently evil. Context doesn't matter. Context cannot justify it. Further, they argue that torture is what defines our enemies in an existential way. We cannot become "like our enemies." And no matter what the circumstances, employing torture would make us like them.Jonah Goldberg at The Corner.
But nobody to my knowledge has demonstrated why torture holds this unique status.
For their argument to be true, torture must be worse than killing, indeed it must be worse than the killing of innocent people. Ask any educated person if war will result in killing innocent people and they will say yes. That’s the nature of war. If taking innocent lives was always and everywhere an unconscionable evil that could not ever be tolerated in American law, then war would have to be illegal. And yet, it is not illegal. We even speak openly about “collateral damage” and the need to “minimize” it, not eliminate it.
It seems to me that one could quite easily argue that killing many innocent people is worse than torturing one evil person, particularly if doing so will save many innocent lives. This may not be the case, but if so nobody has explained why it is so to my satisfaction.
Instead, torture has been made into a moral black box, a stand-in for “something existentially and self-evidently evil.” Thus, in effect, the torture issue has succeeded where all other efforts at moral equivalence have failed. During the Cold War, the left (and some segments of the Right) claimed moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union because we had many of the same tools. The Soviets had nukes, so did we. We put people in asylums, they put people in asylums. We went to war to defend our way of life, the Reds went to war to defend their way of life. And so on.
Morally serious people saw through this. We put crazy people in asylums and murderers in prison. They locked-up Solzenytsins and Sharanskys. We went to war to fight oppression and defend liberty, they fought to oppress liberty and defend oppression. These are, to put it mildly, significant differences. An ambulance driver and a hit-and-run killer both have driver's licenses, but a serious person doesn’t claim the two are therefore morally equivalent.
But torture seems to be the one thing that changes all that. Suddenly, no matter what the context, no matter what the reason, torture is a stand-alone context-killer. Whereas even many liberals accepted that in some cases dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations could be morally acceptable given the right circumstances, torture never, ever, can be. Again, I'm willing to be persuaded that this makes sense. But as of right now, I can't get my head around the idea that it might be morally acceptable to nuke untold thousands or millions, leaving many to endure vastly greater agony than involved in 2 to 3 minutes of waterboarding but it is absolutely morally unacceptable to humiliate and hurt a terrorist in order to gain information that might help us stop just such an attack on our own citizens.
Update: Further, via Jonah, from an email:
The real problem with the current debate is the defining of torture downwards. I don't know that there are many out there in prisoner handling positions that object to the continuing existence of prohibitions on actual torture. I do know, for a fact, that the defining of keeping people awake for 16 hours as torture, or the turning on of the air conditioner, is being received as a horrifying witch hunting exercise which cramps legitimate coercive interrogation techniques. This cramps the debate - on one side, Amnesty and others interpret Geneva literally, and wonder why we aren't giving scientific equipment and sporting goods (like baseball bats and hunting knives, perhaps?) to AQ detainees, and calling it torture; at the same time, they are floating an anti-torture bill which will ban what... the denial of baseball bats, hunting knives, and biological lab equipment to AQ detainees? The terms of the debate aren't even properly defined, such is the din. (An aside: The Geneva Conventions prohibit torture, and any form of "coercion." Customary and traditional interpretations of international law are binding, insofar as any vaguely written treaty with noble intentions can provide a useful legal standard. The customary and traditional interpretation of the "no coercion" clause is that it refers to actual torture, that you can say really really mean things to people and make them a bit physically uncomfortable, if that's what it takes to get useful tactical information from them. Our NATO allies all follow this doctrine; the Warsaw Pact followed a much looser version of it).(10:13AM)