My Gut Tells Me We're Better Off Without Torture

Damon Linker writes:

In the end, the statesman needs to rely on his judgment — on what Aristotle called practical wisdom (phronesis) and President Bush (and Stephen Colbert) called his “gut” — in making the decision about whether and when and for how long and in what ways to deviate from what is normally right in order to “preserve the mere existence or independence of society” against its mortal enemies.

We all know what President Bush and his advisers decided. In the wake of 9/11, they (along with writers such as Charles Krauthammer) judged militant Islam to be an existential threat to the United States. And an existential threat is perhaps the clearest example of a case in which normal justice has to give way to the preservation of the common good at all costs.

Perhaps the term “existential threat” obscures more than it clarifies. I’d have said, immediately after the September 11 attacks, that radical Islam posed an existential threat to America, though I never thought that Islamic terrorists possessed a nuclear weapon, or that an Islamic state commanded an Army capable of invading the United States, or that radical Islam threatened America more than the Cold War era Soviet Union.

So what did I mean when I used the term?

Technological advancement is enabling ever smaller groups of people to possess weapons that can kill ever larger numbers of their fellow human beings. I worry less about suitcase nukes than I do about a virus that can be cooked up on a terrorist’s budget, and that decimates the world population upon its release. Insofar as radical Islamic terrorists are willing to die for their cause, possessed of impressive resources, and growing in number, I think that time is on their side — that eventually they’ll be able to get their hands on a weapon so destructive that it’ll destroy whatever society it is turned against, and that they’ll be willing to use that weapon. Therefore, I reasoned, they are an existential threat — though not, I believed, an immediate or “imminent” one.

Why does the distinction matter? Well, for one thing, any threat but the most immediate and unexpected is best governed by laws agreed to by a polity beforehand, or else that they debate and determine through their elected representatives as a conflict unfolds. America’s laws against torture, for example, were enacted by legislators who deliberately prohibited the practice not only in times of peace, but specifically for times of war — that is to say, the only time torture would likely be pondered.

And the distinction matters for another reason too.

Linker writes:

If we were truly confronting an existential threat — a perpetual undetected ticking time bomb — then it would have been immoral for those responsible for defending the common good of the United States not to torture a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative such as Abu Zubaydah in order to extract every last bit of information from him. (Even if torture rarely works, the fact that it sometimes does would be quite enough to justify its use in a genuinely dire situation.)

Perhaps torture is the surest way to save innocent lives in certain “existentially threatening,” genuinely dire circumstances, though I hasten to add that those circumstances are so extreme and unlikely that I find it hard to believe they’ll ever happen. A perpetual undetected ticking time bomb? It sounds like the invention of a hack Hollywood writer devising a villainous plot capable of being thwarted by a Jack Bauer-like hero. In fact, if radical Islam is an existential threat, it is far more plausible that it’s the kind of medium to long term threat that I fear. And that makes all the difference in the world, doesn’t it?

Using torture against that kind of existential threat — even if it worked rarely — might well produce so many false leads when it didn’t work as to make Americans less safe. It might well cause upstanding intelligence professionals in the CIA to resign, and others in the FBI to remove themselves from interrogations, thereby hurting our capacity to gather good intelligence. It might push more Muslims into the radical camp, aid terrorist recruiting efforts, undermine support for the War on Terror among significant numbers of Americans, and cause allied countries to cooperate less with American counterterrorism efforts. It might bleed into military prisons, undermining our mission in a critical military theater and leading to the rightful imprisonment of American soldiers.

In fact, all those setbacks did happen because we tortured detainees, and unlike the supposed benefits of torture, those drawbacks were knowable, predictable, and verifiable. And, of course, the Bush Administration’s torture wasn’t restricted to high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives. We tortured bad guys who weren’t part of Al Qaeda. We tortured innocent men turned over to us by crooked foreign police forces given bounties for every body they handed over. And the fact that these people were tortured is largely due to the Bush Administration’s failure to put adequate mechanisms in place to distinguish high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives from dime a dozen insurgents and innocent Muslims.

Given all that, it seems obviously incorrect to argue, as Linker does, that “judging the justice of the Bush administration’s policies on torture thus requires answering a single (extremely difficult) question: Was the administration right to believe that militant Islam posed (and perhaps still poses) an existential threat to the United States?” Other questions seem relevant to judging the Bush Administration’s torture policies, questions like, “Did they torture innocent men? Was the hypothetical threat imminent? Did their efforts hurt our security more than it helped it? How much did it undermine the rule of law? How harmful will that be in years to come?”

A final question is whether the Bush Administration itself ever feared that the United States was imminently and existentially threatened. It certainly claimed credit for preventing “another 9/11,” but did it ever even argue about the possibility an attack so drastic as to destroy the nation itself? Some would argue that preventing another 9/11 is sufficient justification for torture, but that is different than the “existential threat” argument.

One more thing, too: Al Qaeda posed less of a threat than the Soviet Union, possessed of its doomsday arsenal, did at the height of the Cold War. Was torture morally permissible for the duration of that conflict? Would we have been better off with the Bush Administration’s torture policy back then, or did our pre-9/11 approach prove itself superior? Why does Israel, which seems to be in far greater danger of suffering an existentially threatening attack, find it prudent to prohibit torture? Should Great Britain have tortured German prisoners during WWII when it faced an existential threat to its survival? Should George Washington have tortured British prisoners? I don’t mean to suggest that these questions have easy or obvious answers, but it does seem clear that the Bush Administration thought torture more justified than numerous leaders who faced threats far more imminent and extreme.

That seems like corroborating evidence that their approach was flawed.

Linker is right about this: I cannot say with certainty that Bush Administration torture didn’t save us from a catastrophic attack. (Nor can I say that President Obama’s cessation of torture won’t save us from the same fate.) And it is possible — though not likely — that future torture might prevent the very destruction of the United States. But so what? Imagine all the horrors that might save the United States from destruction. Perhaps a President so powerful as to be a dictator is needed to ward off the grave threat we face. Maybe we’ll be under the thumb of radical Islamists unless we nuke the whole Middle East in the next five years; or seize by force all the nuclear weapons in Europe; or immediately prohibit all future research into biotechnology and murder all the scientists in other countries; or round Muslim Americans up in WWII style camps; or launch a guerrilla marketing campaign to increase the incidence of abortion in the most radicalized regions of hostile countries.

All these abhorrent practices, which might save the United States given certain circumstances, are nevertheless unthinkable for good reasons — it isn’t just that they are morally wrong and unlikely to be of utilitarian use, it is the fact that the likely damage done by implementing those policies is so great, and the likelihood that they’d be implemented only in the right circumstances so low, that we’re far safer as a society prohibiting them in all cases. It is possible to imagine a scenario where that safest bet is nevertheless the wrong one, just as one can imagine a car crash in which the driver would’ve been better off without his seat belt. In formulating such judgments, I’d much rather rely on wisdom accrued by civilized countries over many decades, and the established laws of the nation, than the gut of George W. Bush or Barack Obama or any other president. There are systems of government that empower one man to do whatever it is his gut tells him is necessary. Ours is not one of them.