Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Acceptance of Torture

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.


bs king said...

Personally, I took my stance on torture based on my personal beliefs and my understanding of the Geneva Convention. We ratified Geneva, and said this is something we wouldn't do. In that light, this isn't just a moral argument...this is something we said okay to, and are now trying to find ways around it. Even if that winds up being justified, what precedent have we just set? If we want to blow the whole torture debate wide open, we need to admit that we are no longer following Geneva, and put it up for a real debate. Until then, in my mind at least, we, along with almost every other country in the world, have already taken a stance on this issue, and the room to debate around that is limited.

cold pizza said...

The Geneva conventions were a good idea to try and prevent atrocities committed by armies in the field. We don’t kill POWs, but if you kill ours, all bets are off. It was a gentleman’s agreement that mostly holds true among civilizations that recognize gentlemen. Unfortunately, the pathologically dysfunctional, super-empowered terrorists groups hold no such restraints on behavior. Given the means, there are individuals who would willingly sacrifice themselves if they could take a handful of infidels with them. Imagine their willingness to take down an airliner or a stadium full of infidels.

Torture as a legitimate means of obtaining information is a tool of last resort. But first we must define what constitutes torture? Obviously the first thought that comes to mind are the Hollywood stereotypes where the protagonist being held by the “bad guys” is systemically physically tortured by a sadistic brute. The realities are much more complex and include psychological and emotional manipulation.

Consider a sovereign state as a body infected with a case of gangrene. Sure, you’d want to treat it with antibodies and other therapies, hopefully non-invasive, but there comes a point where the bone saw comes out and the limb comes off. Or take some radically invasive treatments for cancer. You do what you need to do to save the patient and you don’t rule out any treatment when the only alternative is death. A state must act in its national interests, whether you’re the U.S. or Britain or Pakistan. You do what you need to do. And while AVI has made the determination not to engage in torture (physical, psychological, emotional, etc.) there remains the need that this tool be available in order to protect the life of the state. Not to be used against the average grunt on the battlefield, but against the cockroach hiding in the shadows planning and plotting to rain death and destruction. If you sow the wind, prepare to reap the whirlwind. -CP

bs king said...

The Geneva conventions, however you categorize them, are still something we agreed to abide by. If we are no longer doing so, if the standards for breaking them are that "things have changed" or that "the other side violated it first" then I think we should state outright our standards. The reason we have hesitated to do this, is that most of our standards, while they may make sense, are fairly arbitrary. I don't think anyone likes the idea of Pakistan or China being able to claim that they have legitimate reason to stop following Geneva. Like it or not, what we do will be used as a model for what other countries believe they can do, and by legitimizing torture and invalidating longstanding international agreements, we have to realize that it is going to have some effects outside of our immediate situation. If a country is going to differentiate between "grunts" and "cockroaches" (and i will say that differentiation is totally valid), you best have a very good definition of which is which. Like it or not, like a younger sibling, the rest of the world is watching, and if we claim moral authority to decide who is worthy of torture and who isn't, how will we be able to tell them they can't do the same? I'm actually not trying to say anything one way or the other, just trying to point out that these actions have consequences on things other than just our current situation.

Back to the picture-thinking....I submit to the AVI the following picture that someone hit me with in regards to torture: England has been plagued for years by the IRA and various terrorist acts there. Does it turn your stomach more to think of hearing a newsflash about the British torturing Irish nationals for information? Whatever the differences in the situation, when I was honest, I definitely found that I was inherently more opposed to the situation when it was a country I was familiar with/had ties to than when it was a people group that was unfamiliar. There was definitely a difference in my reaction that facts couldn't explain away. That was a bit of a wake up call for me in the whole torture debate. Does unfamiliarity really breed contempt?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I agree with the abstract point about the Geneva Conventions, though that wasn't where I was going with the post in general. Certainly, what we have signed we should abide by. My understanding of the the current controversy is that people invoke "the Geneva Conventions" as if they know what that means about the current detainees, but misapply the Conventions. There are (I have read - I am no expert) three types of people identified: lawful combatants, civilians, and unlawful combatants. The last group actually has few specified rights. People plop our current detainees into the "lawful combatant" category, when that does not apply. It sounds very kind and noble, to extend rights to those who do not technically qualify, because it means we're good people who play by the rules. But the rules were made that way to protect civilians and lawful combatants, and granting rights to others reduces the safety of the groups we are trying to protect.

Whether it actually works is another question, but the thought is that if Hezbollah increases their personal danger hiding among civilians because they give up some rights thereby, they might be less likely to do it. The other side of the argument, I believe, is that the US must put all detainees in some category, and not hold them in some legal no-man's land.

The further complication, more to BS King's comment, is that the conventions were designed for Westphalian nation-states, and have uncertain applicability for non-state actors. If we want to gather everyone together to meet in Switzerland and modify the Conventions to fit the new reality, we should have started on that a decade ago, not in the middle of a war when the immediate situations might cloud the long-term issues.

But we weren't prescient enough to see the need, nor was anyone else, so the Conventions stand as designed, with our enemies looking for loopholes, and us trying to find loopholes to close the loopholes.