Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Taking On Torture

There is a reason for the United States to abjure torture. That reason can be summarized thusly: We could allow torture in exigent circumstances (e.g., to save the life of a kidnapped child who has been buried in a sealed container, where the perpetrator is in custody and is unwilling to disclose the child's location). But if we do that, it is likely that the precedent will result in the use of torture in circumstances where an innocent person is tortured to no avail.

As an answer to that objection, there is Alan Dershowitz's proposal to legitimate and regulate torture (as summarized at Wikipedia):

Although [Dershowitz] claims to be personally against the use of torture, he believes that authorities should be permitted to use non-lethal torture in a "ticking bomb" scenario, regardless of whether international law permits it, and that it would be less destructive to the rule of law to regulate the process than to leave it up to the discretion of individual law-enforcement agents. Under his proposal, the government would not be allowed to prosecute the torture subject based upon information revealed under that interrogation method. "If torture is going to be administered as a last resort in the ticking-bomb case, to save enormous numbers of lives, it ought to be done openly, with accountability, with approval by the president of the United States or by a Supreme Court justice". [A CNN interview of Dershowitz on this subject is here.]

Relatedly, Tom Bevan of the RealClearPolitics Blog writes about an exchange between Charles Krauthammer and Michael Kinsley:

Last December Charles Krauthammer argued the following in a Weekly Standard cover story:

However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Michael Kinsley responded the following week, calling Krauthammer's argument a case of "salami-slicing:"

You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why? Slice the salami too far, and the formerly solid principle disappears.

If the reports out of Pakistan are true [that Pakistan used torture to develop the intelligence that led to the breakup of the plot to take down 10 UK-U.S. flights], this theoretical debate just became much more interesting, because we now have a very real slice of salami. If more than four thousand lives were saved as a direct result of intel obtained using torture, does that make it justified? I think it's clear what Krauthammer would say. But what about Kinsley? Are four thousand innocent lives a big enough slice of salami for him?

Krauthammer seems to subscribe to something along the lines of Dershowitz's proposal. Kinsley does not, because he is worried about proportionality. In Kinsley's case, the proportion must be, say, tens of potential victims saved for every act of torture. That's akin to the foolish notion that it is better that ten [or 100] guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. But, as I put it here,

Better for whom? It's better for the guilty, who may claim more victims, but certainly not better for those victims. [See also this post.]

With respect to torture, the right proportion, under the right circumstances, is one to one. Why should the life of, say, one kidnapped child be sacrificed because we are unwilling to condone the torture of one known perpetrator? Where's the morality in that?

It seems to me that given the circumstances now surrounding the United States, we should openly adopt a policy along the lines of Dershowitz's proposal, as opposed to posturing piously about torture à la John McCain.

Other related post: A Rant about Torture