After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don’t live in the world of 24, guys. And we don’t. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won’t do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it’s your call blah blah? Pretty low, I’d guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.
Well, yes, we don’t live in the world of 24. One of the reasons I think 24 makes us uncomfortable, however, is that while its portrayal of terrorism is totally outlandish, it does get at the torture debate’s fundamental quandary. Like it or not, torture can be effective under certain circumstances. These circumstances are not nearly as ubiquitous as the show’s plot lines suggest, but it’s still a possibility we have to confront. Drum’s objection seems to be something along the lines of “Well, 24 is so self-evidently ridiculous that there can never be any pragmatic justification for torturing a suspect.” This is simply not true, and using 24 as a stand-in for other, more nuanced advocates of coercive interrogation makes for a pretty weak pragmatic case against detainee mistreatment. Over the course of a long post on waterboarding, Stephen Walt concedes as much, noting that “[a] realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country . . .” Absent some appeal to morality, the arguments for a categorical ban on torture are just incredibly weak.
UPDATE: Just to clarify – I wholeheartedly oppose torture. I do think, however, that any argument questioning coercive interrogation solely on the basis of “effectiveness” is extremely unpersuasive.