Talking Over Torture

Jonah Goldberg poses thoughtful questions about the torture debate. I’d like to take a crack at answering and hopefully persuading him. He begins by saying that he would be happy if the United States never water-boarded anyone again. He goes on to say this:

But I still have big problem with how the “is it torture?” argument tends to dominate these debates. Torture is a taboo word, and for good reason. Like incest, bigotry or, in some circles, censorship, the word torture separates good from evil, right from wrong. Once we decide something is torture, we end the debate over what the right policy should be. The right policy is to never torture.

The debate ends, or should end, when we decide that something is torture partly because as a country, we’ve already had a debate about what the right policy is — elected officials went so far as to enact legislation that makes torture illegal, and to sign treaties prohibiting it. Unless I’ve missed something, advocates of waterboarding made no attempt to change these laws. They just assert that the executive branch has the power to water board, or else that a practice we’ve always considered torture before, that we’d call torture if it were done to our soldiers, and that other countries have long considered torture is actually something else.

That’s one reason why supporters of waterboarding reject the term torture, preferring “enhanced interrogation methods” or some such; because conceding that it’s torture is like surrendering. It’s also why opponents of waterboarding are so intent to win the argument that it is torture. I don’t doubt they believe it, but they also recognize that the taboo value of the term is their strongest weapon against the practice. They certainly aren’t going to win much ground trying to muster sympathy for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

I agree that the rhetorical fight Mr. Goldberg describes in this paragraph is part of what’s going on.

And so the discussion descends into a battle of semantics, dictionary entries and checklists. Joe Carter lists a bunch of definitions and if he persuades the reader that waterboarding fits the definitions, bada bing: he wins.

Since torture is illegal, I think it is appropriate that those who oppose it win when we decide that some practice is torture.

My problem with this taxonomical approach, as I’ve written before, is I think context and intentions matter. The Catholic Church — as Carter and Marc both know far, far better than I — has a theory of just war. That means war is sometimes justified, right? It also means it is sometimes evil and criminal. The question depends on the circumstances. Similarly, killing is sometimes murder and sometimes it is self-defense or (for some) lawful and justified execution.
No one has ever explained to my satisfaction why torture, or let’s say some kinds of torture, is objectively and in all ways worse than killing. Which would you rather happen to you? Would you rather be waterboarded or killed? Which would get you a stiffer criminal penalty, waterboarding someone or murdering them? Why do you think that is? Which do you think deserves the greater criminal penalty?

I’d rather be water-boarded than killed, but that hardly matters in the way that Mr. Goldberg seems to imagine — what his questions elide is that someone killed in battle during a just war is a threat to the morally justified side, whereas a terror suspect captured is already a prisoner. That is why the Catholic Church would never say that torturing him is moral. He is already under your control, and as an individual represents no threat to you. Surely Mr. Goldberg can understand the distinction. Imagine that we were raping prisoners, and an apologist for that practice said, “Well, just war theory tells us that we can kill these people on the battle filed, and I’d rather be raped than killed, so it follows that once they are in our prisons we’re justified in raping them.” Does that example help to clarify the problem with this reasoning?

It seems, going by Marc’s response, that CIA waterboarding is not quite the same as what they did during the Spanish inquisition. That’s good to know. But even if the two were more similar, Carter leaves out a hugely important difference. Waterboarding someone for punishment or to force them to renounce their faith and convert to Christianity is morally a very different thing than waterboarding someone to find out how to stop the next 9/11. It may be that the latter waterboarding is still wrong – that’s a real debate – but it surely must be less wrong than waterboarding for sport. A kid who kills dogs and cats for fun is a sadistic bastard. A vet who euthanizes dogs and cats when it’s necessary to ease their pain is something very different.

The question is whether the kind of water-boarding we’re doing is wrong. Even if we discovered a different kind of waterboarding that is more wrong, that is hardly relevant. It is also unclear to me that we can establish “our motivation” for water-boarding. Is it the intention of the actual CIA employee that matters? Or the intention of the president? or the average intention of American citizens who support the policy? Or what? (Of course, torture advocates are mostly willing to use the practice even absent evidence of an imminent 9/11 like attack, as calls to water board the underwear bomber demonstrates.)

Admittedly this is an extreme hypothetical, but if someone had information on where a nuclear bomb was under Washington DC — where I live and my family lives — and if some form of torture was the only way to save my life, my wife and daughter’s lives and the lives of a million other people and the social, political and economic security of my entire country, qualms about the ethics of torturing the guy who could abort the detonation if he revealed the location wouldn’t rate very high.
Opponents of torture/waterboarding hate these ticking time bomb scenarios not simply because they have no good response to them other than to wish them away as scare tactics and red herring fantasies. I suspect what they really don’t like about the ticking bomb scenario is that it undermines torture’s status as a taboo word. If torture is sometimes permissible, if torture is one of those things – like killing and war – that can be justified depending on the circumstances, then the opponents of waterboarding lose a very powerful rhetorical weapon and actually have explain why a specific human being in a specific situation should not be waterboarded. That’s much harder than simply invoking the abracadabra power of “torture.”

Whether ticking time bomb scenarios in fact weaken the taboo against torture is an open question. Let’s concede it for the sake of argument. What is more important is that logically it shouldn’t weaken the taboo. Mr. Goldberg invokes his family and the million DC residents he saved by torturing someone in a hypothetical because we wouldn’t blame him for having tortured. Again, this is less powerful an argument than Mr. Goldberg imagines.

If saving the life of his wife, daughter, and a million people, plus the entire infrastructure of the federal government, required Mr. Goldberg to rape a single innocent 9 year old girl, or to crush the testicles of a single innocent 6 year old boy, perhaps most people wouldn’t blame Mr. Goldberg for doing what he thought best in a harrowing moral dilemma, but even if everyone said that Mr. Goldberg made the right decision, it would hardly be a repudiation of taboos against child rape or testicle crushing. It wouldn’t made us think twice or qualify the statement every time we said “raping innocent children is wrong.” It would hardly mean that we should institutionalize child rape as something that is sometimes legal, because there is some hypothetical situation we can conjure where it might prevent a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Among the many problems with the ticking time bomb scenario is the fact that it is basically about what an individual should do in an awful circumstance, not what legal regime a country should adopt when weighing the treatment of prisoners. The United States not only should prohibit torture in the handling of detainees, it already has done so. Today’s torture advocates think that the law should state otherwise, but are unwilling to admit as much, so they construct Orwellian descriptions like “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe water-boarding. The semantic debate about torture is their creation, and at bottom, it matters because if it’s proved that water-boarding is torture, they’ll have been proved to have broken the law.