The Right Coast

June 09, 2004
By Tom Smith

The mainstream media seems to be doing its best to whip up moral outrage over the OLC memo regarding interrogation techniques that was leaked recently. This fulminating editorial from the Washington Post is an example. It's not a very pleasant topic and most commentators quite sensibly avoid it, but that has never stopped us here at the Right Coast.

First, it bears repeating that there are some circumstances under which torture is morally justified, and it would be stupid and immoral not to use it. One could make up many examples, but since it was such a popular theme on TV the last couple of years, I will take examples only from the moist, humid confines of Hollywood's imagination. In one episode of The Shield, an excellent crime drama on the FX cable channel, a pedophile had abducted a child and had imprisoned him or her (I don't remember which) in the basement of a rented house, without food or water. Vic and the gang at the precinct knew the criminal had kidnapped the girl, as there were witnesses. However, for some plausible reason I don't recall, the perp thought he was better off not disclosing the location and letting the child die (horribly, one might add, as dehydration is a very bad way to go), rather than telling where the child and potential witness to his crime, was chained. In a very gratifying scene, Vic intimidates the pedophile into disclosing the location, mostly with pure meanness, but also with some creative use of a telephone book. Was Vic morally justified in beating the information out of the suspect? Of course he was. Even if Vic's actions were a crime, they were still morally justified. No, I don't want to live in a country where police routinely beat suspects for leads, but I do want police to ignore the rules in those very unusual circumstances where they can save innocents by doing so.

Another television drama that used torture as a plot device was "24." A couple of seasons ago, terrorists (supported by an evil corporate big wig -- this is Hollywood) were plotting to detonate a nuclear bomb in LA. On various occassions, the Keifer Sutherland character used torture and the threat of more pain or death to get information out of terrorists about where the bomb was hidden. Millions of lives were at stake, and there was little or no doubt that the people was was torturing were terrorists involved in this very evil plan. If you can save millions of lives by torturing a terrorist, you should torture the terrorist.

A few other points should be borne in mind by editorialists. First, depending on whom you are interrogating, torture is less evil than other practices that are a lot more accepted in warfare than they probably should be, such as the targeting of civilian populations. If you are morally certain that somebody is actively involved in terrorism, he is a lot less innocent than some young mother in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think the US military does more than any military in history to avoid civilian casualties, but if they can avoid killing more innocents by extracting information from likely terrorists by rough interrogation that amounts to mild torture, I'm for it. Second, interrogation techniques that involve inflicting discomfort and some pain can cause less damage even to non-innocent parties than bullets and bombs. Torture varies from the unpleasant to the horrific. It almost always inflicts some measure of psychological damage, I should think. But the damage it inflicts can be less and less indiscriminate than warfare. Of course, using it is a slippery slope, and opportunities for abuse are great. It may be that as a practical matter, the dangers and evils of torture outweigh any good in the form of information that can stop terrorism. But in a world where a terrorist attack involving a weapon of mass destruction in a major American city is not just an implausible plot for a cheap thriller, one should not just jump to this conclusion. The stakes are very high. Finally, as Senator Joe Biden lectured yesterday, the reason we have rules against torture is to protect our soldiers against it if they are captured. The flaw in this argument is that neither the former Iraqi regime nor the various islamo-fascist terrorist groups care about these rules, any more than they care about the rules that make terrorism against civilians a violation of international law. We can abstain from torturing Al Qaeda suspects all we like, and expect no mercy or quarter from our enemies. The argument that we must observe the Geneva Conventions and similar laws for the sake of our own lawful combatants, doesn't follow.

None of the above means that we should routinely follow a policy of torturing terrorist suspects to get information. The circumstances that would justify doing so will, one hopes, remain very unusual. It might, however, be the case that conditions of confinement that are less comfortable than those we would provide lawful combatants and insist on for our own military, were we fighting a civilized foe, are justified. If suspects can be persuaded to talk to get off of a boring diet, to get more than 5 hours of sleep a night, or to avoid digging ditches, for example, that doesn't bother my tender conscience. Sexual humiliation as at Abu Gharib I would oppose. Having to make decisions about whether to torture somebody would be a dirty business. My only point is that editorialists should realize that in a war of survival against terrorism, the idea that torture is never justified, no matter what, is itself a morally ridiculous position.