Talking Over Torture

Conor Friedersdorf responds to Jonah Goldberg’s continuing attempts to frame the debate over water-boarding as a debate over semantics: Talking Over Torture | The American Scene

Goldberg is absolutely wrong to argue that there are no good responses to the ticking time bomb scenario. Perhaps he means that he chooses to pretend like nobody is making them. This makes sense, since the neocon crowd is quite adept at plugging their ears and yelling their mantras (not to mention running their own cable news networks) in order to drown out any opposing viewpoints. In fact, Friedersdorf’s analysis, as well as the comments of Mike Farmer’s above, provide two excellent responses to the ticking time bomb scenario.

I humbly offer a third: the thought experiment is flawed from its inception. Consider what it asks us to believe: that authorities don’t just suspect an imminent large-scale attack on innocent civilians (their native countrymen, of course), but know that one is imminent. Furthermore, they know that a given suspect has information that will save lives, and they know that the only way to obtain the information necessary to prevent the attack would be to torture said subject, or enhancingly interrogate them, or perform conscious-shocking procedure X, or whatever other label Goldberg would like to hide behind.

But how is it that authorities have such certainty in these facts, and yet cannot not gather the intel as to where the attack is, or how to prevent it, without resorting to extreme measures? As with most amateurish thought experiments (and many professional ones), the major flaw lies not in the conclusions but in the assumptions.

The danger of accepting, for the sake of argument, the thought experiment is that its conclusions can sound perfectly reasonable. If we know that visiting unspeakable horrors upon a suspect will save the lives of thousands or millions of innocent people, then we are hard-pressed to explain why we should sacrifice all those lives for a moral principle.

Of course, we never know these things, and our leaders never know them either, no matter how many national security briefings they are privy to. Our justice system recognizes our fallibility: this is why a detective’s hunch is not enough to secure a conviction (except perhaps in Jack Bauer’s world).

Friedersdorf’s statements above reveal (inadvertently or not) the scenario’s latent absurdity: we as justified in believing that raping a 9 year old girl is necessary to save the world as we are believing that water-boarding an adult terrorist suspect will. Admittedly, the latter case is more likely than the former, but the ticking time-bomb is not a statistical argument: the scenario leaves little room for statistical analysis before the big kaboom, and the correct statistical choice is probably to doubt the certainty of the authorities’ information anyway.

Perhaps more depressingly, Goldberg reveals the hand that the neo- and social-conservatives alike have taken up these days. Their arguments inevitably come down to semantics and/or appearances. According to the right’s rules, if Goldberg can just convince the audience that water-boarding is not torture, then he wins the argument. (Nevermind that Goldberg does a poor job of arguing this with a non-sequitor and invalid thought experiment, in which he tries to actually justify torture by its very label.)

I find this to be an alarming development in conservatism in general: a post-modernist casting of politics in which truth and meaning can be redefined via rhetoric. The right has adopted the ideology of the far left from 20 years ago, making strange bedfellows with the convoluted ideas of French intellectuals, neo-Marxists and radical feminists (to name a few).

The stodgy old conservatives used to appeal to pillars of absolute truths and moral convictions. Capitalism was right because it derived from correct conclusions about human nature. Moral laws were right because they were given to us by God, or derivable from natural law, etc. The left was a bastion of relativism: multiculturalists who held nothing sacred but demanded political correctness from all, folks who want to redefine the meanings of our founding documents and impose artificial systems of control in order to make up for the failings of human nature.

How far we have come when the left makes appeals to traditional pillars of moral decency and the right argues that the meanings of words like “torture”, and the techniques which have long been included in such meanings, are fluid and at the whim of circumstance and/or the diktat of The Leader. After decades of conservative resistance to the threat of Soviet totalitarianism, Jonah Goldberg (along with others, such as the father-daughter Cheney duo) could today be mistaken for operatives of Minitrue, busily churning away at the next edition of the Newspeak dictionary. One wonders in which volume these loyal party officials will do away with the word “torture” altogether.

What Goldberg misses but we all see is that the debate over water-boarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” is not just a legalistic debate over the semantics of “torture”. The fact is that we among the human population who still have consciences recognize that pain-inducing false executions like water-boarding, and other techniques that debase and psychologically scar their victims are attacks upon humanity itself, and no matter what they are called, are to be condemned and punished.

That there are circumstances, contrived or otherwise, where many people might forgive the perpetrator due to emotional motives does not, as Mike Farmer points out, allow for the acceptability of such behavior in general. Juries understand that extenuating circumstances can exist for otherwise unacceptable behavior. Our justice system accounts for this, both in civilian and military courts. There is no reason to leave the torture debate up to the rhetoric of political hacks on Sunday morning talk shows when a rich history of jurisprudence avails itself to us. We don’t turn to Jonah Goldberg to define what is murder and what is justifiable homicide, and neither should we leave it to him and his ilk to define what is torture.

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