Torture, a Thought Experiment

Most people who are familiar with my views and my work know that I’m a vehement opponent of the ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ embraced by the Bush Administration. There are several reasons as to why:

1. Torture methods were introduced as a gut reaction; there doesn’t seem to have been any thought given to the origins of these methods nor their effectiveness.

2. It is highly unlikely that information obtained using these methods could not have been obtained through other ways.

3. The information obtained may not have been that useful anyway. Coherent intelligence policy should be capable of understanding the new terrorist paradigm (steal planes and fly them into things) and should be able to formulate effective responses without knowledge of specific targets.

4. Our government lied to us about what it was doing and in defending itself tried to reinterpret arguments and laws that explicitly prohibited such conduct.

5. Defenders of the program point to ticking-time bomb scenarios as justification, but it’s unclear what functional parameters were used to define a ticking time bomb scenario. I suggest such parameters are functionally arbitrary. It is clear that a nuclear bomb set to go off in a major metropolitan area is such a scenario, but I’m not sure flying a plane into a building, or most buildings, really meets that scenario, especially in a post 9-11 world where the US Air Force controls the sky and can defend against those threats easily. (PS. US air superiority rocks).

There are other arguments I’d muster, but let’s stop here and digress into a thought experiment. If we are justified in torturing people in emergency situations, why limit it to terrorists that we capture abroad? What is the difference between that scenario and torturing a sex predator or a murderer to reveal the locations of kidnapped victims as they face imminent death? Or would we be justified in torturing the Oklahoma City bombers if we feared that there were more bombs at other locations?

The difference of course is that the Oklahoma City bombers were Americans, and clearly entitled to constitutional rights. Followers of bin Laden and other organizations of course are not; though they were captured in combat situations we created a special legal class to dodge Geneva Convention rules on prisoners of war so that we could torture them. Would George Bush be in favor of creating a special legal class for Americans so that our government doesn’t have to worry about the constitution when prosecuting or preventing mass crimes?

My response of course is that we have a Constitution (and have bound ourselves by extension to rules about how war should be conducted) precisely so that the government can’t do those things. It’s because the Founding Fathers acknowledged a fundamental truth about the world: large organizations, including and particularly governments, are far more dangerous that any mob or terrorist cell. That it’s far more important to protect people from governments than it is to protect governments from people. Here I think is the essential argument: we shouldn’t let our government torture people because our government is far far more dangerous than any terrorist organization even if our government is a better government than any other. American history is full of examples: from perpetrating genocide against Native Americans, rounding up Japanese people in de facto concentration camps, massacring people in Vietnam, etc…The list is long.

The other fundamental truth about government is that leaders have their own biases and carry their own grudges. When we cannot control our leaders, people pay in blood. This is the real point of the arguments against torture and one I think gets lost far too often.


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