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March 9, 2003

Get it straight. It’s not about being nice to the bad guys. It’s about actual goddamn security. You know. Being safe, the real deal. Is anyone listening, or are you just cowering and repeating your NA NA NA NA I CAN’T HEAR YOUs?
It is more beneficial that many guilty persons should escape unpunished than one innocent person should suffer, because it is of more importance that innocence should be protected than it is that guilt should be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in the world that all of them cannot be punished, and many times they happen in such a manner that it is not of much consequence to the public whether they are punished or not.

But when innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, the subject will exclaim, “it is immaterial to me whether I behave well or ill, for virtue itself is no security.” And if such a sentiment as this should take place in the mind of a subject there would be an end to all security whatsoever.

That was John Adams. Second President of the United States. An actual conservative. Not that we have any of those any more. (Quote courtesy of Joel Rosenberg, via Lydia Nickerson.) [11:21 PM]
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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Get it straight.:

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 01:12 AM:

"It92s not about being nice to the bad guys. It92s about actual goddamn security. You know. Being safe, the real deal."

Advocates of real politik may scoff at this, but the psychological damage inflicted on the torturer is real, too. It's also about who you are after committing a dehumanizing act (in the belief that the act will protect your life).

Even if the promise of safety offered by torturing information out of someone *weren't* an illusion, I still wouldn't want to pay the price. I'd rather try to defend myself (or my family) in some other way and live with the risk of dying.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 02:21 AM:

"the psychological damage inflicted on the torturer is real, too"

You know, I'm suddenly, genuinely, worried about such people getting into office. If a square-jawed sociopathic liar like Ollie North can become a hero and candidate, so can someone who spent the war doing awful things and coming to like it.

Hell, it would be bad enough having someone like that retiring to a job in Homeland Security.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 08:59 AM:

Lenny, I'm not sure what you mean when you refer to "advocates of real politik", but you're absolutely right that the practice of torture has dire effects on the torturer as well.

I'm opposed to torture on moral grounds, but it seems to me the sum of the practical arguments is sufficient as well. After a public servant (soldier, policeman, intelligence officer) has crossed the bright line once, it's easier and easier in each succeeding case.

In other words, the "moral hazard" argument is as strong as the straight moral one, and needs to be addressed by even those defenders of torture who reject the a priori moral postulates from which the straight moral argument proceeds.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 11:07 AM:


By "advocates of real politik" I meant people who take the position that we should use any means that might work in order to deflect terrorist attacks. "If torturing a _probably-guilty_ suspect might yield information that helps avert terrorist attacks, then let's do it."

Since there's not much evidence that use of torture produces useful information, the politik might not actually be very real.

I'm taking the philosophical point of view that even if torture worked to produce information that could avert terrorist attacks, it would still be a no, no. We agree that practicing torture damages the torturer as well as the victim.

So a) we're not infallible in selecting victims who are guilty (as you pointed out earlier), b) there's not a lot of convincing evidence that torture yields information that actually saves lives and c) inflicting torture is a moral/psychological hazard for the torturer.

C) is an argument against the use of torture with both moral and practical components. I feel that a) and c) would outweigh use of torture even torturing suspects _did_ sometimes produce information that might avert future attacks.

Lenny Bailes ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 12:11 PM:

Um, I'm saying that

Even _if_ torturing people produced reliable information, the possibility of selecting innocent/ignorant subjects and the longterm psychological damage to the torturer (us, the United States) outweigh the possibility that we might gain life-saving information from the victims.

The pragmatic carrot that we _might_ gain useful information is probably not a real carrot. But I'm also uncomfortable with the degree that the Bush administration has influenced us to evaluate our actions in terms of pragmatic "ends justify the means" outcomes.

Faisal ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 02:04 PM:

It is perhaps worth noting that references to this quotation on the web indicate it was said by Adams in defense of British soldiers accused of murder in the Boston Massacre. Which is to say: in reference to foreigners who murdered American civilians and were intent on the destruction of the United States of America.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 10, 2003, 04:14 PM:

That's beyond silly. The Boston Massacre happened in 1770. There was no "United States of America" then, nor would there be for another several years.

The Boston Massacre was indubitably a nasty bit of business, but characterizing it as the "murder of American civilians" by "foreigners" is tendentious in the extreme. Arguably the event was a major step along the way toward Americans seeing themselves as something other than a variety of Englishmen. But when it happened, they weren't there yet. And they certainly weren't identifying as any kind of "United States of America."

Faisal ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 12:10 AM:

I plead guilty to excess hyperbole. I meant it (admittedly unclearly) as an allegorical point. A lot of the argument for torture (not to mention a number of other constitutional bypasses) today are being justified with the argument that the framers of the Constitution did not have to deal with enemies intent on the destruction of America, with people within the country who were loyal to foreign powers. etc.

But the nascent country was full of people loyal to the crown and the crown wanted the independence movement crushed. While the events of the Boston Massacre predate and to some extent contributed to the move to independence, and the people involved were not yet citizens of the non-existent USA, I do think the principles of justice which Adams argued for were as relevant today as they are then - for the reasons - and the contexts are not as dissimilar as torture proponents would claim.

Faisal ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 03:22 AM:

I seem to have reached a new level of bad typing and worse editing skills tonight. "a lot of the arguments", "predated", "for the same reasons".

Joel Rosenberg ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 11:44 AM:

Well, yes, it's about security. John Adams' take is primarily practical. That it's in accord with his (utterly laudable) desire not to put innocent people in jail is, perhaps, not utterly coincidental.

(The only way to be sure never to put an innocent person in prison is to never put anybody in prison. The best that the various checks and balances can do is to limit how often an innocent person gets screwed over. The analogy between torture imprisonment is, I think, not irrelevant -- talk to a prison guard sometime about how he feels about the fact that he's got some innocent guys locked up.)

And that's the problem with the way the whole torture question is being handled, it seems to me. Many people are very quick to decide that it can't ever be useful, no matter what the circumstances.

Many moral questions, it seems to me, don't get shortstopped on such easy practical grounders.
If you assume that it's always useless and/or counterproductive, you don't need to get to the morality of it.

If you conclude that it could be useful under some set of circumstances, then you've got both practical and moral problems. Both, I think, are tough. Practically: is *this* a situation in which it would be useful? Would the negative practical side-effects of using it outweigh the benefits to be gained? (And: should your answer to the practical questions come out the way you want it to morally?)

If you can honestly answer no, you don't get to the hard question: can it ever be right?

I don't think there's any question that torture can be useless, as has been pointed out. Utterly useless -- in more ways than one -- for convicting somebody like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In other ways, the utility of it gets more likely, at least in theory. Sure -- apply the hot poker and, probably, he'll give you whatever names he thinks you want, even if they don't exist. But can he give you verifiable addresses? Bank account numbers? Phone numbers? Time and dates of meetings?

If you're interrogating the guy, wouldn't you want to know that stuff? The purpose of whatever interrogation he's going through isn't, after all, to generate evidence to prosecute him. It's to extract useful information out of him -- and I don't see anybody saying that he doesn't have any useful information, or that it wouldn't be a good idea to get him to share it by morally acceptable means.

The real practical question, it seems to me, is this: can torture, under at least some circumstances, get useful information more rapidly than other forms of interrogation?

If not, then you can stop there; no problem. No need to do something as ugly as torture if there's no benefit to be gained. You don't have to worry about what those circumstances might be, because they don't exist. The people who will die because some folks failed to stick the bamboo splinters under KSM's fingernails will die anyway. You don't have to get into the hard questions, because it's just as useless to torture him for information on Al Qaeda's plans as it is to grab some random kindergartner off the street and torture her for the same information.

That's easy.

Try a different set of assumptions. Assume that:

1. The operations chief of Al Qaeda has some information that would be useful in preventing further Al Qaeda murders. (I think that's a safe assumption.)

2. Assume that the sooner you get this information, the more useful it's likely to be. (Again, fairly safe, I think.)

2. Assume that verifiable information can be extracted more quickly by the use of torture than other techniques. I'm just assuming that; I dunno. But if you believe the folks who say that the tortured will quickly say whatever he believes will please his captors, that argues *for* the practicality of it, rather than against it -- as a practical matter, it comes down persuading the tortured that what will please his torturers is verifiable information.

Then you've got a difficult problem.

Morally/religiously, it can be easy.

"But if you could bring on the End of Days, with Heaven beyond, by torturing a small child to death 9696 just one small child, a sickly one, one that was likely to die momentarily anyway 9696 what would you do?"

That's easy, in some moral/religious contexts: such an offer can only come from the Devil, and it's a lie.

Me, I'm an agnostic, and I dunno.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2003, 11:59 AM:

This discussion generates curiosity as to the participants' answers to some questions:

Would you walk away from Omelas?

Would you save the suffering child in the basement?

(For anyone who doesn't get the reference, it is to the story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin.)