Saturday, August 23, 2008

More on Torture, Part 2

There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one
thing, while methods and tactics are another. -Emma Goldman, social
activist (1869-1940)

Here are some very interesting comments on interrogation by a guy who knows the field:

I am certainly pleased to hear that the ticking time bomb scenario is in fact unrealistic. But I should point out that even without that scenario's unlikely justification, Sam Harris's defense of torture is quite compelling. I'm not so sure I can stand by my claim that I unconditionally oppose torture (although my thoughts about the legal process that must govern its use most certainly hold). Harris's argument is essentially that if we are willing to engage in a practice (namely, war) that will undoubtedly kill innocent people, how can we cringe at a practice (torture) that might do the same or less, and presumably on a much more limited scale. (The argument that torture can in fact be worse than death is, if true, not applicable. Maiming, disembowelment, the loss of children, parents, and loved ones are all inevitable consequences of war. In short, there is no suffering that can be inflicted by torture that is not inflicted by war.) He sums it up thusly:

Assuming that we want to maintain a coherent ethical position on these matters, this appears to be a circumstance of forced choice: if we are willing to drop bombs, or even risk that rifle rounds might go astray, we should be willing to torture a certain class of criminal suspects and military prisoners; if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war.

Unfortunately, I find his logic quite sound. The logical conclusion of any frank discussion about the ethics of warfare seems to arrive at simplistic aphorisms. If warfare is permitted at all, then "all's fair in [love and] war," or more simply, "war is hell." How then do we stay on the high side of the slippery slope to Shermanesque absolute war?

I don't know. But in the theme of reducing complex ethical issues to vulgar wisdom, I'm reminded of a movie quote on war:
"Strange game. The only winning move is not to play."