The Tortured Logic of Torture Apologists

Dear Dr. Krauthammer,

I came across your article in the Weekly Standard which argued for two hypothetical exceptions from a blanket ban on torturing prisoners by the U.S. government. I must tell you how strongly I disagree with your conclusions merely on practical grounds (to say nothing of the morality of torturing detainees, a complicated issue you did address admirably).

Your first example was laid out as follows:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Now, we both took political science degrees at McGill and I can safely say that my freshman year seminar on ethics provided no such justification for torture (of course, we took these classes almost thirty years apart).

But let's look at this particular example carefully, if it can truly be claimed to be a case which justifies torture, as you say:

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

I think this justification sidesteps the most important issue here, and that is the veracity of information obtained under torture. If you were a terrorist who knew they could only be torutred for one hour, there would be practically no incentive to give up the true location of the device, because you know they can only torture you for a maximum of one hour before you all die. Likewise, if you give false information, the authorities have one hour to verify your claim, which would almost certainly not be enough time to stop the explosion, but it would save you up to an hour of suitably horrifying pain.

The very urgency of the situation makes it less likely the information you extract (regardless of whether or not you torture) is verifiable. The closer you are to the event horizon the less incentive the prisoner has to give up that information. While the aformentioned nuclear bomb scenario might make for riveting television, it doesn't ring true outside of Fox television on Tuesday nights.

It's true that sometimes torture yields useful information, but there is nothing to suggest that it does so with greater effectiveness than interrogation methods which are prohibited under the 'Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment' a UN resolution the US signed in 1988. The waterboarding of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi yielded the false assertion that Saddam Hussein had conspired with Al-Qaeda, something which we now know to be false, even though this information was presented as fact to the American public by no less than the President and the Vice-President.

The example of al-Libi is instructive because it reveals the point of torturous interrogations. The relationship established between the torturer and the tortured is simple: give me the information I want and I'll stop the pain. It applies as easily to the victims of the Inquisition as to modern-day political prisoners.

It's in light of this 'textbook' example that I wonder what you mean by 'the slightest belief.' Your article indicated that you recognize the danger of the sliding scale in these situations, so the question is really at which point we can safely balance the hypothetical interests of the many against the one.

The second example you gave, of the "slower-fuse high-level terrorist," carries its own interesting implications as well; why limit these practices to terrorists? If the utilitarian calculus of torture outweighs our adherence to international law, then we would have a moral duty to use measures across the board where "the level of inhumanity of the measures used … would be proportional to the need and value of the information." If the actions of a suspect could be construed as harmful to a large enough number of people, why should we not, then, torture white collar criminals whose crimes impact the economy on a large scale? Or heads of state whose decisions lead to the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians? Would we be remiss in not torturing eco-terrorists whose targets are industries and not humans? Pharmaceutical executives who manufacture medicines with potentially fatal side effects?

Most importantly, would any country be justified in torturing anyone they capture who holds the kind of information they might find useful in preventing a military attack on their soil? Take the example of John McCain–there is no question that his mission in Vietnam was to kill Viet Cong. Were the North Vietnamese then justified in torturing him into revealing the names of his fellow soldiers, who were posing an immediate risk to the lives of North Vietnamese? And how was it possible for McCain to divulge only the names of the Green Bay Packers offensive line instead of the information his torturers were seeking?

If we are only to rely on anecdotal evidence in determining the effectiveness (and consequently, the morality) of torture, we have no basis in declaring torture to be morally necessitated. Of course, there's more than just the effectiveness of interrogation at stake here, as you noted yourself.

<br>D. J. Waletzky


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