Wednesday, October 04, 2006


The Argument Against Torture.

Last week, following my plaintive wail of despair over the Senate vote on torture, I got an email with a link to this: Sam Harris' "Defense of Torture." In it, Harris argues that torture may be bad, but it's no worse than modern, civilian-killing smart bombs--and is probably more effective. He says we don't like torture because it's a hands-on activity, whereas sanitized bombing from overhead is palatable. Having dismissed ethical distinctions, Harris argues about the efficacy of torture versus bombing:
Make these confessions as unreliable as you like—the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb. What was the chance that the dropping of bomb number 117 on Kandahar would effect the demise of Al Qaeda? It had to be pretty slim.
Harris would rather not be right, but "no one has pointed out a flaw in my argument." I see several flaws, though I can make not claims about whether Harris would find them persuasive. They persuade me.

According to the Harris argument, there can be no distinction between torture and bombing. In a certain sense, he's right: I'm pursuaded that pacifism is a more useful intervention than war. (Harris brushes the whole of pacifism aside using a single Gandhi quote, borrowing from the Rove toolkit of the straw man defense. But we aren't talking pacifism, so I'll leave that aside.)

Actually, we can make distinctions between torture and bombing. To use the kind of rhetorical technique Harris employs, take this hypothetical: if torture is no worse than bombing, all torture must be permitted. Imagine the horror of flaying. If waterboarding is kosher, what about flaying? Is there no act you cannot commit against another human to achieve your end? No. The very act of torture itself is a debasement and a barbarism, and it's one compelling reason civilizations have outlawed torture. Where war may be necessary, we attempt to hew to rules to preserve our humanity. Tormenting a helpless being is indecent and immoral. Wars are conducted against populations; torture is a debasement of the individual. It's not particularly murky, ethically.

In my earlier screed, I gave the two reasons why torture is ineffective: it produces as much or more misinformation as it does no information--never mind the tiny chance of usuable info. This poses obvious strategic consequences merely bombing a city doesn't have. Now that the US has an established program of torture, I expect our enemies will train in planting misinformation through captured troops.

Second, it creates an environment in which our own troops and citizens become targets for capture for reciprocal acts of torture--as happened following Abu Ghraib. Another issue not created by a sanctioned war effort.

It doesn't really seem like a close call. You gain almost nothing by torturing, and it costs you an enormous amount, both strategically and morally.

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