Bad Framing

This strikes me as a bad way to go about arguing against torture:

There’s something intuitive about torture. Hurt something until it breaks. The phrasing of the the 24 scenario plays implicitly on that intuition: Do you do the thing that works and saves lives? Or do you let abstract principle ensure the deaths of thousands? Framed thus, it’s an easy argument to win. When applied to policy, though, it directly ensures the deaths of thousands and fails to capture the worst of the terrorists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture is ineffective under most circumstances, though I suspect that Reuel Marc Gerecht, for all his ideological posturing, knows quite a bit more about the efficacy of coercive interrogation than the American Prospect’s resident health care blogger. Regardless, it’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario in which traditional interrogation methods are rendered inoperative. Perhaps an interrogator is faced with certain time constraints. Or perhaps a particularly hardened suspect simply refuses to break. In 2005, Charles Krauthammer summarized our dilemma thusly:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion–yes, in this case even torture is permissible–is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. 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.

Moreover, there are empirical examples that prove his point. Consider the following excerpt from a Washington Post article in 2005:

Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.

“If we’d been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held,” Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines.

My larger point isn’t that torture is appropriate or morally justified; simply that objecting to the practice on purely pragmatic grounds cedes too much to advocates of  coercive interrogation. There will always be instances where torturing a suspect is more expedient or effective than the available alternatives. But the case against detainee mistreatment was never a tactical one. It has always been grounded in an important moral insight: human dignity should not depend on the whim of circumstance. I think it’s foolish and morally dishonest to suggest that a blanket prohibition on torture will never hamper our intelligence-gathering capabilities. But some things are simply more important.

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4 Comments

Filed under Morality, Terrorism

4 responses to “Bad Framing

  1. Pingback: “Foolish and Morally Dishonest” « Upturned Earth || John Schwenkler

  2. Pingback: Upturned Earth » Blog Archive » “Foolish and Morally Dishonest”

  3. Pingback: The Master Argument(S) Against Torture « Upturned Earth || John Schwenkler

  4. Pingback: Fresh Meat «

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