Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Friday, November 11, 2005

It's the torture question again

David Gelernter writes intelligently about the naive McCain torture initiative (or maybe I classify it as intelligent because I agree with it):

Americans will never be permitted to use torture as punishment or vengeance. A criminal might deserve to be tortured; we refuse to torture him nonetheless, because to do so degrades us. But if torturing a terrorist (or carrying out some other form of rough interrogation) is the only way to save innocent lives, we have no right to refuse. Most human beings recoil from committing torture. But sometimes we have an obligation to do hard things for the good of the nation — as no man knows better than McCain, who fought for his country and suffered long years as a brutally mistreated POW. But his amendment lets the CIA do what he refused to do. It lets the CIA take an easy out. In 1982, the philosopher Michael Levin published an article challenging the popular view that the U.S. must never engage in torture. 'Someday soon,' he concluded, 'a terrorist will threaten tens of thousands of lives, and torture will be the only way to save them.' Suppose a nuclear bomb is primed to detonate somewhere in Manhattan, Levin wrote, and we've captured a terrorist who knows where the bomb is. But he won't talk. By forbidding torture, you inflict death on many thousands of innocents and endless suffering on the families of those who died at a terrorist's whim — and who might have lived had government done its ugly duty.
Of course, this also forces us, again, to confront what is torture. Most people are in agreement that tying someone to the rack, beating him brutally, burning him, etc., is torture. But what about parading a dog or pig in front of the prisoner when he is not afraid of but revulsed by dogs and pigs, since Islam considers both animals unclean? (Of course, this never stopped Uday Hussein from having a few around to eat people alive, which is clearly torture.) Or how about slapping around the person's religious book? Clearly upsetting to some prisoners, but is it torture? It's when you get down to this level of minute detail that you really start having problems. Personally, I can't get out of my head the 1970s record album from Frank Zappa that showed a picture of a dog with a gun to its head, accompanied by a statement saying "Buy this record or we'll shoot this dog." Pure silliness, of course. I have an equally vivid memory, however, of Smith, the protaganist in 1984, who is not broken by the most brutal physical torture, but is broken when his head his locked in a cage containing the things he fears most -- rats. Overall, I think my own confusion on the subject indicates that Bush is precisely right to insist that at least one government organization has some leeway, no matter how distasteful that may be, to decide upon the neccessary level of coercion should national safety be at stake. Of course, considering that the CIA is ineffective, riddled with leaks, hostile to the current administration, and usually wrong in its analyses, I'm not sure I'd leave that discretion to the CIA of all government organizations. Maybe we should leave it to a more reliable organization, such as the . . . um . . . well . . . I'm sure I'll think of one eventually.