I’ve been away from posting for awhile, so I thought I’d start with something light – like torture.
Let me just say right off the top that I will forever despise the Bush administration for making my country into a nation that tortures. This is one of the main things that made me embrace being much more political and leaving the world of mainstream journalism behind. Torture is simply something that we as Americans should not do. As the conservatives like to say, we’re the Good Guys. Torture is for Bad Guys. The Bush administration – and their conservative movement and mainstream journalism enablers – made us into Bad Guys. Yes, the U.S. has a history much like most other countries. We brutally pursue our interests, and let morality and values be damned. (Just ask the native American people, etc.) But formally becoming a country that systematically tortures? I can still hardly believe it.
Torture is wrong. Torture is evil. And I’m not one that’s ever inclined to use that word.
Oh, and make no mistake, what’s described in the “torture memos” is torture, no matter what the rump conservative wackadoo movement says. Only the sickest of the conservatives would want anything described in those memos done to their mother, father, son, or daughter.
Which leads me – in not so direct a fashion – to the politics of torture.
A New York Times article makes the point that a lot of the politics will hinge on the perceived effectiveness of torture, on whether it works:
For both sides, the political stakes are high, as proposals for a national commission to unravel the interrogation story appear to be gaining momentum. Mr. Obama and his allies need to discredit the techniques he has banned. Otherwise, in the event of a future terrorist attack, critics may blame his decision to rein in C.I.A. interrogators.
But if a strong case emerges that the Bush administration authorized torture and got nothing but prisoners’ desperate fabrications in return, that will tarnish what Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have claimed as their greatest achievement: preventing new attacks after Sept. 11, 2001.
I don’t disagree with this analysis. And I think that’s the saddest point I can make. I don’t have polling to back this up, but I believe that the American public would condone torture if it could be proven that it stops terrorist attacks and saves American lives. I think many people would let the end justify the means, rather than cutting the debate off at the fact that torture is evil. In other words, Americans are no better or worse than any group of people frightened for their safety.
Over at the Atlantic, Megan McArdle makes a similar point:
I’ve long said that we shouldn’t waste time arguing that torture doesn’t work. For one thing, the evidence for those arguments seems empirically shaky, especially since many people employing them insist on arguing that torture basically never works, rather than that it doesn’t work very often and therefore has a bad cost-benefit ratio. For another, arguing that something doesn’t work isn’t necessarily an argument for not doing it–it could just as easily be an argument for improving our technique. And if advances in brain scanning research let us develop a reliable lie detector, as seems possible in the relatively near future, then torture will work very, very well.
If that happens, we’re in a nasty spot. Most people who make this argument do not, in fact, care whether torture works. They would still be every bit as much against it if waterboarding worked perfectly. Yet when they argue about whether torture works, they’re conceding that torture’s effectiveness is relevant to the question of whether or not we should engage in it. That implicitly means that if torture becomes nearly perfectly effective, they should change their minds–otherwise, it’s not a relevant criteria. So if we get that lie detector, they have to explain why we still shouldn’t use this very valuable interrogation method–or confess that they’re basically opportunists who will say anything that might advance the case. This will make it somewhat harder to convince people to listen to their other, better arguments.
Thus I think it is much safer to keep arguments about torture on solid moral ground: we shouldn’t torture because it’s wrong.
Otherwise, we’re stuck arguing that torture is just plain “bad.” It’s an unfortunate, but sometimes unavoidable, thing we do on our way to some other goal, depending on the particular circumstances.
Torture is evil.
And not simply declaring this so, as a society, represents the worst kind of “ethical relativism” about which conservatives so often want to scream and shout and stomp.
Update: Well, ask and thou shalt get an email. I mentioned above that I didn’t have any polling data for my intuition that many Americans would see torture as justifiable under the right conditions.
The Pew Research Center has the numbers:
Amid intense debate over the use of torture against suspected terrorists, public opinion about this issue remains fairly stable. Currently, nearly half say the use of torture in dealing with suspected terrorists is often (15%) or sometimes (34%) justified; about the same proportion believes that the use of torture under such circumstances is rarely (22%) or never (25%) justified.
The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 14-21 among 742 adults interviewed in English and Spanish on landlines and cell phones, finds little change in opinions about the use of torture against suspected terrorists.
There are continuing partisan differences over the use of torture under these circumstances. Comparable percentages of Republicans (15%) and Democrats (12%) believe that the torture of suspected terrorists to gain important information is often justified, but twice as many Republicans as Democrats say torture is sometimes justified (49% vs. 24%). Similarly, while nearly identical percentages of Republicans and Democrats say torture under these circumstances is rarely justified, 38% of Democrats believe the torture of suspected terrorists is never justified, compared with 14% of Republicans.
A majority of independents (54%) believe that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is often (19%) or sometimes (35%). That is up somewhat from February, when 44% of independents said terrorism was at least sometimes justified.
So, as the torture debate goes forward, there is what I would call substantial public support right now torturing people under certain circumstances.
The argument over torture then must be won not on its effectiveness, but on its immorality.
By the way, how much room does the U.S. now have to criticize other countries that torture? Using my Good Guy/Bad Guy logic from above, we can torture, but we’re still Good Guys because it’s for good reasons. But the Bad Guys? I’m willing to guess that most Americans would say there’s never a good reason to torture an American.
So, there are not only Good Guys and Bad Guys. There are Good Torturers and Bad Torturers.