Tag Archives: Charles Krauthammer

More enhanced logical techniques

Ethics is full of thought experiments.  The Trolley problem, for instance.  Such thought experiments allow one to articulate one's moral principles.  They do not serve, however, as definitions of morally permissible conduct.  The ticking time bomb scenario, a favorite among consumers of torture pornography, might be a useful way to think about "what we would do if. . . " But it's sheer unlikelihood makes it unhelpful as an everyday guide.  Just because it can happen, and perhaps has happened, does not mean that we structure our moral thinking around it.  This hasn't stopped Charles Krauthammer from thinking long and hard about the ticking time bomb scenario.  He writes:

This month, I wrote a column outlining two exceptions to the no-torture rule: the ticking time bomb scenario and its less extreme variant in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives. The column elicited protest and opposition that were, shall we say, spirited.

And occasionally stupid. Dan Froomkin, writing for washingtonpost.com and echoing a common meme among my critics, asserted that "the ticking time bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians." (He later helpfully suggested that my moral deficiencies derived from "watching TV and fantasizing about being Jack Bauer.")

On Oct. 9, 1994, Israeli Cpl. Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car. He was interrogated with methods so brutal that they violated Israel's existing 1987 interrogation guidelines, which themselves were revoked in 1999 by the Israeli Supreme Court as unconscionably harsh. The Israeli prime minister who ordered this enhanced interrogation (as we now say) explained without apology: "If we'd been so careful to follow the [1987] Landau Commission [guidelines], we would never have found out where Waxman was being held."

Who was that prime minister? Yitzhak Rabin, Nobel Peace laureate. The fact that Waxman died in the rescue raid compounds the tragedy but changes nothing of Rabin's moral calculus.

That moral calculus is important. Even John McCain says that in ticking time bomb scenarios you "do what you have to do." The no-torture principle is not inviolable. One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks. (By the way, I've never seen five seconds of "24.")

That is not the point.  No one has denied the empirical possibility or even the actuality of the ticking time bomb scenario.  Not even Froomkin obviously.  Besides, to counter that Krauthammer offers up something that doesn't include a bomb or lives in imminent danger, but rather a straightforward hostage situation (in which the rescue attempt killed the hostage–negotiation anyone?).  Those terrorists in Krauthammer's example do not take hostages to kill them–they take them to trade them for stuff.

In the second place, as someone else has noted, Krauthammer had a month to come up with an example which would overcome Froomkin's objection.  And this non-ticking-time-bomb scenario from 1994 is all he could find. 

More importantly, he ought to measure the one time when torture provides the precise code and location of the ticking bomb versus the mountains of disinformation torture usually yields.  How many examples of that can we find?


The President of the Czech Republic has helped Charles Krauthammer find the true enemy of freedom.  It's knowledge about the natural world.  This knowledge is especially dangerous if Krauthammer doesn't have the patience, time, or expertise to understand it.  He writes:

Predictions of catastrophe depend on models. Models depend on assumptions about complex planetary systems — from ocean currents to cloud formation — that no one fully understands. Which is why the models are inherently flawed and forever changing. The doomsday scenarios posit a cascade of events, each with a certain probability. The multiple improbability of their simultaneous occurrence renders all such predictions entirely speculative.

Yet on the basis of this speculation, environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation. "The largest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity," warns Czech President Vaclav Klaus, "is no longer socialism. It is, instead, the ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous ideology of environmentalism."

If you doubt the arrogance, you haven't seen that Newsweek cover story that declared the global warming debate over. Consider: If Newton's laws of motion could, after 200 years of unfailing experimental and experiential confirmation, be overthrown, it requires religious fervor to believe that global warming — infinitely more untested, complex and speculative — is a closed issue.

But declaring it closed has its rewards. It not only dismisses skeptics as the running dogs of reaction, i.e., of Exxon, Cheney and now Klaus. By fiat, it also hugely re-empowers the intellectual left.

For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class — social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies — arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism).

Two decades ago, however, socialism and communism died rudely, then were buried forever by the empirical demonstration of the superiority of market capitalism everywhere from Thatcher's England to Deng's China, where just the partial abolition of socialism lifted more people out of poverty more rapidly than ever in human history.

Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but — even better — in the name of Earth itself.

Such a combination of straw men (the weakest versions of global warming arguments–not to Newsweeks's idea of "debate" about global warming), red herrings (communism, socialism, etc.), ad hominem (arrogant scientists are just trying to rule the world), ad ignorantiam (since we don't know much about the effects of carbon, let's do nothing. . . ), and just plain non sequiturs (Newton's law of motion was "overthrown" so distrust everything short of that) has not been seen for, um, weeks on this page.

Everyday America

(I think I've mentioned this issue once before) Rare it is when columnists mention one another's arguments.  There seems to be some kind of agreement that you can't mention another columnist by  name (although I seem to remember George Will doing this to Krugman once).  So imagine my surprise when I read Harold Meyerson this morning.  He writes:

This year, we can expect to see almost nothing but these kinds of assaults as the campaign progresses. The Republican attack against Obama all but ignores the issue differences between the candidates to go after what is presumably his inadequately American identity. He is, writes one leading conservative columnist, "out of touch with everyday America." His reluctance to wear a flag pin, writes another, shows that he "has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism."

The first quote is Charles Krauthammer, the second Michael Gerson (we talked about it the other day).  In fairness to the columnists, who both write for The Washington Post, Meyerson ought to give more context.  If he did, he'd be unable to argue that they assert these things themselves.  Rather, they merely observe the fact that others will assert them.  First Krauthammer:

It wasn't until late in the fourth quarter that she found the seam in Obama's defense. In fact, Obama handed her the playbook with Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, Michelle Obama's comments about never having been proud of America and Obama's own guns-and-God condescension toward small-town whites.

The line of attack is clear: not that Obama is himself radical or unpatriotic, just that, as a man of the academic left, he is so out of touch with everyday America that he could move so easily and untroubled in such extreme company and among such alien and elitist sentiments.

Clinton finally understood the way to run against Obama: back to the center — not ideologically but culturally, not on policy but on attitude. She changed none of her positions on Iraq or Iran or health care or taxes. Instead, she transformed herself into working-class Sally-get-her-gun, off duck hunting with dad.

He's talking about Clinton, hardly a Republican.  Whether Krauthammer's account of Hillary's position is true is another story.  He certainly doesn't think it's true to call Obama unpatriotic.  But he doesn't really care.  Now Gerson:

The problem here is not that Obama is unpatriotic — a foolish, unfair, destructive charge — but that Obama has declared himself superior to an almost universal form of popular patriotism. And this sense of superiority, revealed in case after case, has political consequences, because the Obama narrative reinforces the Democratic narrative. It is now possible to imagine Obama at a cocktail party with Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, sharing a laugh about gun-toting, Bible-thumping, flag-pin-wearing, small-town Americans.

Gerson doesn't care either.  Meyerson would have a stronger argument had he directed it at the media types who will repeat these charges in just the way Krauthammer and Gerson have.  Sure, they argue, they're not true.  But still, will everyday, real Americans–who apparently have no regard for the truth and don't read Gerson or Krauthammer–be convinced by them?

After all, if everyday Americans read Gerson and Krauthammer, they'd know that such charges are baseless.  Wouldn't they?