According to this article in the Guardian, the most left-leaning of the British newspapers, key information in the thwarting of the attempted multiplane bombing in the UK was obtained in Pakistan using torture.
The whole issue of torture seems different in that light. Morality, however is not about seeming, but about actuality. What is the real principle underneath, how does it apply, what other factors are germane to the issue?
Yet it is at least interesting, and perhaps illuminating, to examine why the seeming changed so quickly for me. I believe an examination of the topic will provide some insight into the moral reasoning of others. In the discussions about Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, etc, I have tried to draw clear distinctions between what we might find distasteful or even unacceptable and actual torture. I have declared myself against the latter, I hope as firmly as possible.
Yet when I read that the roundup preventing the bombings may have been spurred by information obtained by the Pakistanis by means of torture, I did not feel immediate horror, but simply a mild "Oh. That's unfortunate." Why?
Retrospectivity has something to do with it. Because I heard of the plot first, and had some dim imagining of the possible victims, they were more real to me. As everyone in my family traveled through London last August on our way back from Romania, on three separate flights, it occurred to me that those who might have been in danger were much like us. For a minute or so over the weekend, I thought of the people who had been on our flights, and pictured who the people on this year's flights might be: returning tourists, young couples with crying babies who had been brought to Europe to meet Grandma and were now returning, tired businessmen and women, a woman with a just-adopted Russian baby, British and other European tourists on their way to see the US. Even a brief thought of them gave them a peculiar reality, though I don't know any of them really.
The persons who may have been tortured, in contrast, seemed rather faceless. Their part was done. They had been picked up in unknown circumstances. More importantly, the fact that their information turned out to be true proves that they were not innocent - they did know something. Thus, they were faceless and evil. The trade as pictured, 3000 nice people for one bad one, is a no-brainer.
Usually, when we discuss the issue of torture it is the other way around. The people captured are in our custody, so we can make some picture in our minds who they are. As we don't yet have any information from them, there remains some possibility that they are innocent, or at least know nothing of value. The people who might be saved because of the information extracted, however, are quite faceless. We don't know how many they are, whether they are soldiers, foreigners, civilians. If we work at it, or someone paints the picture for us, we can imagine the likely scenarios and speculate who might be made safer. But it doesn't come naturally. The trade as pictured in this case becomes 3000 possibly bad prisoners tortured for zero to ? good people saved. That's harder to feel good about.
I have said that torture shouldn't be used because it doesn't work well. I have thought that the public relations disaster of using it costs us more than we could possibly gain. Those who are antiwar make precisely the same arguments about war itself.
But despite those more rational statements about why we should not torture, I think my real reason is that I think it's just wrong - I react badly to the very idea. Yet now I see that my reaction may have been founded more than I had thought on mere picture-thinking. Some guys who just might be innocent, in pathetic pain for no identifiable reason. It's a horrible picture, and no one likes to think of us causing it or lightly justifying it.
In a calculus of actually being responsible for the safety of the American people, however, picture-thinking may mislead. And if it really does work, in spite of my automatic assumption that it doesn't, and the public relations value is unimportant because people hate us whether we do good or ill, what is left of my picture?
We have been reminded frequently during this war how photographs influence public opinion. (Hint: Pictures always lie) Conservatives have been angry that no pictures of frightened or maimed Israeli children have been shown, and angrier still that pictures of the destruction in Lebanon have been altered and posed.
If I, who tell myself I am the uberrationalist, find that picture-thinking may be at the root of my opposition to torture, and see precisely parallel arguments between my own opposition to torture and others' opposition to war itself, how much more must we suspect that their opposition is not founded on moral clarity, but on pictures in their heads? And if the pictures have been planted by others, where shall we look for clarity?
I don't say this to offer any justification for torture. My previous position holds: it's wrong and we shouldn't do it. I'm just no longer sure of my basis for this in a complex situation where many people could die, in many ways. I need to think about this more.