The Black Box of Torture

Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Once again I'm copying too much because I don't want to change the argument:
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.

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.
Jonah Goldberg at The Corner.

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).


Knucklehead said...

The current claptrap about "torture" strikes me as quite odd. First off there is no clear definition of what constitutes "torture". Is using a somewhat higher dosage of a drug that was (is?) used as an anesthetic "torture"? Is pissing somebody off by insulting or ridiculing their religion, of anything else about them, "torture"?

To my mind the rack is torture. Bamboo under the fingernails is torture. Drilling into live dental nerves is torture. The stuff I mentioned above qualifies, in my mind, as nothing more than purposeful harassment. It is no more "torture" than listening to idiots blather about torture. And employing such techniques does not "make us like them". Strapping on bomb vests and deliberately blowing apart innocent civilians would "make us like them". Hacking off heads with dull knives would "make us like them".

We are not like them. Defeating them will not make us like them. As far as I give a rat's patoot, let the torture continue.

Peter UK said...

Isn't the argument against torure also part and parcel of the, ban it in case it works strategy beloved of the left.
It was perfectly acceptable for the USSR to have nuclear weapons but not the West.
Cluster bombs and depleted uranium are effective, ban them!
Coercive interrogation,not involving physical pain,defined as "torture".There was even a campign to outlaw the .50 calbre machine gun on the grounds that it too destructive to people.
Doubtless there are more examples, but it all fall neatly into the "Ban it until we lose" category.

truepeers said...

The movement to outlaw torture is a subset of the larger movement to criminalize war. That we are still immered in such issues suggests that we are still in the historical era marked by an incomprehending reaction to the horrors of WWII.

WWII revealed the Hitlerite potential in humanity, which was so horrific people came to think it had to be outlawed. In effect this was a desire to criminalize the methodology of Hitler, which was essentially war.

Of course, the problem with this desire to criminalize war is that it is fundamentally naive about the inherently conflictual nature of our humanity. Instead of recognizing that we are all fallen beings - that it is thus dangerous to believe in pacifism - and that it is sometimes better to do the lesser evil, i.e. go to war against real threats to one's humanity than to do nothing at all, the desire to criminalize war is utopian. Indeed, like all over-investments in methodology - and outlawing torture is a kind of over-investment in a methodological view of mediating conflict - it is inherently utopian, i.e. an attempt to preserve the form of one's method in face of the erosion of form that is the essence of human conflict and history.

Seneca the Younger said...

What confuses me is that part of the definition of torture seems to include things that cost $20 a dance at the local ecdysiasts' emporium.

Knucklehead said...

Ecdysiasts. I am not worthy! You guys are awesome. Too kewl fer skewl.

As for that, do you suppose there might be a certain element of:

"I don't care what you do with me, Brer Fox, says he, "Just so you don't fling me in that briar patch. Roast me, Brer Fox, says he, "But don't fling me in that briar patch."

in there?

Peter UK said...

It is because we are too squeamish to define torture that our opponents can define it for us..
Intersting that we accept what ever value they put on themselves....they are offended merely because they say they are.

St Ecdysias,wasn't that the patron saint of Melcryptovestimentaphilia?

Seneca the Younger said...

Quote a little Mencken at'em and they get all wobbly.

ambisinistral said...

Present conventions on how to fight war were made between European nations. While other countries have signed them, they have been largely ignored except by European combatants.

Realistically, it is the potential major combatants, the USA, China, India, England and Australia that would have to sit down and hammer out new agreements (that fringe players would continue to ignore anyways).

The last serious attempt to negotiate a treaty regulating warfare was the landmine treaty. Landmines serve legitimate defensive purposes, their main problem is indiscriminate sowing of mine fields through artillery or air drop. There was hope that such delivery methods could be outlawed, yet defensive mine fields (for example those surrounding fire bases and the like)
would still be allowed.

That was the only negotiating position that a nation with an army would agree to. Alas, the negotiations were derailed by NGOs who injected themselves into the process and forced through a complete ban on mines. A slew of minor countires signed on, but the major military powers did not.

So we have a meaningless feel good treaty on paper, and the indiscriminate sowing of mines fields is still not regulated. Can you guess if the US got credit for not air dropping mines in Gulf war II, or if they get chastised for not signing that ludicrous scrap of paper?

The same problem exists with the debate on torture. It doesn't matter what NGOs aligned with postage stamp sized third world countries demand, it matters what the major military powers will agree to.

My guess is Congress will pass a law that sounds good, but has enough holes for what needs to be done. Meanwhile the moral titans of the world, like those that occupy the Human Rights Commission of the UN, will natter on and on and on.

One final thought, the US outlawed unrestricted submarine warfare at the end of WWI. In WWII we were the one nation that was successful in conducting unrestricted submarine warfare.

The feel good stuff always gets trumped by reality.

Luther McLeod said...

I know this has been said before, many times. But the current definition of torture as defined by the 'utopian's' as trupeers sums it, would mean a total revamp of many of our institutions.

And perhaps that's one of the objectives by some. By institutions, I mean of course, all the military training facilities, a good majority of our police and fire academies and countless other institutions in which physical and mental intimidation are used to instill character and resolve. Of course those particular attributes are sorely lacking in a number of those who support a ban on any 'uncomfortableness'(wd?) we might use against those who would kill us in an instant.

It does seem that this an attempt to ban all violence, with, of course, exceptions for totalitarian regimes imposing socialist utopias.

terrye said...

Like most people I shudder at the thought of torture, it seems so midieval to me.

And then I hear that some to some people being wrapped in an Israeli flag is considered torture and I find myslef wondering if the entire issue is just another example of whiney cry babies making a big thing out of nothing.

I also find it hard to believe that a combination of isolation and sleep deprivation can be compared to the Nazi death camps.

Rick Ballard said...


When does our side get to talk about the pyschological duress imposed by the lefties in the institutions under their control? There is a bit of suffering involved in living in fear of having tenure denied because of honest disagreement. Just as their is duress involved in a work environment that uses shunning techniques against those who speak their minds.

I'm weary of the pandering pols who push feel good legislation that costs them nothing but may cost our servicemen harm. I'm especially weary of John McCain, who may be as brave a man as has ever walked but is as dumb as a potted plant and as steady as a weathervane.

To even speak of a "need for further guidelines" is to imply that current guidelines have been exceeded on a regular basis. That is a pernicious lie and those ninety nitwits in the Senate who whooped through a stupid amendment need to be told so.

Luther McLeod said...

Good points in your first graf, rick. But that's just a bit of 'cultural revolution' you know. All for the good of the common man and such. They mean well an all. As for when 'our side' gets to talk, well never, of course. We're evil pigs looking only to subjugate the world for our hedonistic pleasures.

As for pandering pols, I submit that that has been a problem since 1770 or so. Some didn't care about our servicemen then, and some still don't, though they would deny the obvious of course. I am beginning to think that six years in the senate may be a bit excessive.

As for McCain, I've never warmed to the man. And this may be not a good thing to say, but I have served under three individuals who had been POW's. One each, from WWII, Korea and Vietnam. They were all good people, and I give them all the credit in the world for surviving horrible circumstances and for their service to this country, but, in the end, all three were just a bit...not connected to the real 'real' world anymore. They had gained their positions by virtue of being POW's, and to enable them to finish out their years for retirement. And that is fine with me. But, simply, these gentlemen were sometimes an impediment to getting things done. Is there a touch of that in McCain? I don't know. McCain seems mostly to be about McCain.

And, yes, "further guidelines" is a baseless and politically pandering act. But, alas, I'm still looking for a "few good spines" in the Senate. Not much luck so far.

Knucklehead said...

I'm with Terrye. Stuff that would barely qualify as hazing for a frosh making the HS football team doesn't "rise to the level of torture". If some prisoner is so whacked out that the sight of an Israeli flag or a woman in a t-shirt drives him bonkers, then I'm all for waking the bastard up several times per night for a few weeks and sending him completely over the edge and getting whatever information he possesses out of him.

Every US soldier goes through escape and evasion training where they are treated far worse than what these idiot "stop the toruture" morons are shrieking about. They survive and it does them no damage. Every college frosh suffers self-inflicted sleep deprivation. They survive and it does them no damage. Every adolescent on earth experiences verbal humiliation. They survive and it does them no damage. Such things aren't torture.

Peter UK said...

You can torment me with as many t-shirted women as you want..I'm still not talking!