Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What Should Be Done About Torture?

The left blogosphere has erupted in anger this morning upon news that U.S. government interrogations at Guantanamo Bay may have been modeled on Chinese Communist techniques from the 1950s.

Eric Martin's indignation is classic:

Shame. Profound and bitter shame. I want more from my country than for our top government officials to go diving in the dumpsters of Communist regimes in order to recycle discarded manuals on torture. And for all you apologists and semantic hair splitters that insist on dancing the torture/not torture two step: you've been had. Not that you'd know it or admit it.

Anyway, there's a presidential election this November. One of the candidates, John McCain, wants to continue to permit our government to engage in a policy of torture gleaned from observing the methods employed by brutal Communist regimes. The other candidate, Barack Obama, doesn't.

Tough choice.
Martin's profound simplicity is mirrored by many other anti-administration bloggers. One lefty commentator notes that this story "captures the moral failings of Bush’s war on terror."

But does it? Is the application of torture as state policy so easily reduced to knee-jerk moral condemnation?

I don't think so.

John McCain's campaign website includes this statement on fighting the war on terror:

As President, John McCain will ensure that America has the quality intelligence necessary to uncover plots before they take root, the resources to protect critical infrastructure and our borders against attack, and the capability to respond and recover from a terrorist incident swiftly.

He will ensure that the war against terrorists is fought intelligently, with patience and resolve, using all instruments of national power.
Note that last line: "all instruments of national power." The use of coercive interrogation techniques can be categorized as such, and while McCain is on record as opposing torture, he supported the Bush administration's veto of legislation banning harsh interrogation techniques, saying that there should be some exceptions for U.S. intelligence officials to employ coercive methods.

This stance is what has lefties up in arms.

But note how
political scientist Jerome Slater has discussed the problem of torture in U.S. policy:

What should be done about the problem of torture in the war on terrorism? Which is better—or worse: the continuation of a principled but ineffective “ban” on torture, or an effort to seriously regulate and control torture, at the price of its partial legitimization?

Until 11 September 2001, the issue scarcely arose. Since the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every civilized society and moral system, certainly including the Judeo-Christian, or Western, moral system, in principle (although not always in practice) has regarded torture as an unmitigated evil, the moral prohibition against which was to be regarded as absolute. Since September 11, however, many Americans—not just government officials, but a number of moral and legal philosophers, as well as media commentators—are far from sure that torture must be excluded from our defenses against truly catastrophic terrorism. In any case, there no longer can be any question that since September 11, agencies of the American government, particularly the armed forces and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), have systematically used various forms of physical and psychological coercion, beatings, or even outright torture (especially “waterboarding,” or near-drowning) on suspected terrorists, both directly, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, or indi-rectly, by turning over suspected terrorists to allied states that are known to torture.

To be sure, in some cases, lower-level soldiers have apparently gone beyond what was authorized, or at least tacitly condoned. However, various reports and nvestigations have left no serious doubt that the overall use of methods that have long been considered to amount to torture, or something close to it, have been either authorized, defended as legal, or, at a minimum, condoned at the highest levels of the American government, apparently including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, if not beyond him.
Assuming that this assessment is accurate, what can be done about it? Even more pointedly, what should be done about it? I will address these issues in the framework of traditional just-war analysis, a very useful perspective that often has been neglected in the recent discussions about torture. My premise is that the war on Islamic terrorism is indeed legitimately regarded as a war, however nontraditional; if so, I will argue, the issues raised by torture should be regarded as simply a special case of the issues raised by any normally unjust means that may or may not be employed in a just war.

Slater's argument is carefully drawn, but he concludes torture's sometimes necessary:

Put differently, so long as the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks against innocents is taken seriously, as it must be, it is neither practicable nor morally persuasive to absolutely prohibit the physical coercion or even outright torture of captured terrorist plotters—undoubtedly evils, but lesser evils than preventable mass murder. In any case, although the torture issue is still debatable today, assuredly the next major attack on the United States—or perhaps Europe—will make it moot. At that point, the only room for practical choice will be between controlled and uncontrolled torture—if we are lucky. Far better, then, to avoid easy rhetoric and think through the issue while we still have the luxury of doing so.
See also, Daily Pundit, "You Morons, We Are Not Engaged In A Game of Patty-Cake Here," and Captain Ed, "ChiCom tactics used at Gitmo?"