Viginti quattuor

Michael Gerson confuses sophistical pseudo-skeptical hand wringing with actual moral deliberation.    

The Justice Department memos raise a question: Can coercive interrogation ever be justified? Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome — securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

So the use of coercion in interrogations lies on a continuum of ethics and risk. Lines must somehow be drawn on the slippery slope — the difficult task that Justice Department lawyers were given. On which side of the line should waterboarding lie? It is the hardest case. The practice remains deeply troubling to me, and it was discontinued by the CIA in 2003 after being used on three terrorists. But some members of Congress, it is now apparent, knew of the technique and funded it. The decision was not easy or obvious for them. It was just as difficult for intelligence and Justice Department officials in the months of uncertainty following Sept. 11.

And, skipping a paragraph:

Some have dismissed this argument as "moral relativism" or the assertion that the ends justify the means. But this betrays a misunderstanding of ethics itself. The most difficult moral decisions in government are required when two moral goods come into conflict. Most of us believe in the dignity of the human person, a principle that covers even those who commit grave evils. Most of us believe in the responsibility of government to protect the innocent from death and harm. Government officials pursue both moral goods in a complicated world. In retrospect, they may sometimes get the balance wrong. But national security decisions are not made in retrospect.

I suspect that most Americans, in considering these matters, would come to certain conclusions: There should be a broad presumption against harsh interrogations by our government. An atmosphere of permission can result in discrediting crimes such as Abu Ghraib. But perhaps in the most extreme cases — when the threat of a terrorist attack is clear and serious — American officials may need to employ harsh questioning, while protecting terrorists from permanent injury. In broad outlines, this approach is consistent with the Justice Department memos.

Moral deliberation would seem at least to involve knowing what is minimally acceptable conduct.  Luckily, sometimes what is acceptable is just obvious, there is, for instance, no right time and right place and right woman and right way to commit adultery, so says the Stagirite at least (Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1107a8-12).  On that analogy, water boarding, and various other techniques considered torture by the US military and the FBI (to name a few relevant organizations) is torture.  Redefining the words (now it's "harsh interrogation") and feigning skepticism (on which side should water torture, ahem, waterboarding lie?) about their meaning and application because of worries about a TV show scenario shocks the conscience.

2 thoughts on “Viginti quattuor”

  1. I find this use of the torture argument really perplexing. It’s a sort of foot in the door strategy.

    1. Torture is perhaps permissible in some very limited conditions (or perhaps just the lesser of two evils).
    2. It’s really hard to know whether or not a particular set of circumstances falls under that set of limited conditions.
    3. Since the motivation was noble, we should excuse the mistakes in torturing people who shouldn’t have been tortured.

    That’s what seem pernicious to me about the ticking-time bomb scenarios. The self-defense justification for torture seems reasonable–that is when we know that there is an attack coming and the subject is the pepetrator of the attack and we have good reason to believe that intelligence can be gained (and only gained) by “harsh interrogation,” then our right to defend ourselves against attack may mark permissible torture of perpetrators (though this argument has to allow our enemies to torture as well).

    But then the argument becomes carte blanche for cases where the government believes that there is an intention to attack and that the subject may be associated with the attack, and there might be intelligence that may help us avoid the attack.

    The argument in favor of that sort of torture makes its permissibility contingent on the actual satisfaction of the relevant conditions. In the absence of that it is culpable torture. Motivations may then be mitigating, but not as far as I can see exculpatory.

    This seems like there’s a fallacy in here somewhere.

  2. I think you’re one to something here. There seems to be somewhat of a contradiction between 1 and 2. We are always in a state of ignorance before we engage in an act of torture, so it seems we’ll never be able to claim a justification prior to torturing someone. Given the unreliability of torture, however, we’ll always feel justified afterward.

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