Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

On torture

The legality, pragmatism and morality of non torturing.

Nobody who pays even occasional attention to the news in the United States could possibly be unaware of the ongoing debate on torture as it was practiced by the US Government during the early years of the so-called war on terror, under the full knowledge and conscious endorsement of high-level officials in the Bush administration, beginning with former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. It seems to me astounding that we have to have a debate at all, instead of an open and speedy prosecution of the people responsible for the policy, up to and including former President W. (and let’s not get started on the even more obvious issue of the false pretense under which the Iraq war was started). Still, if we have to have a debate, let’s have a rational one (see how naive I am after all these years?). There are three areas of dispute that have dominated the public discourse on water boarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques used by the US on terror suspects: legal, pragmatic, and moral. Let’s take a quick look at each in turn.

The legal question: it’s pretty simple, really. The United States ratified in October 1994 the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which was crafted ten years earlier). According to that radical organization, Amnesty International, the US is bound by its own Constitution not to engage in torture, since the Eight Amendment clearly prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” Moreover, in 1994 the US Congress passed a law (18 U.S.C. § 2340) that extends US criminal jurisdiction to acts of torture committed by a US national outside of the country. It shouldn’t take the team on Law & Order to figure out that torture is illegal in the United States, and that it is illegal for Americans to engage in torture abroad (that includes Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib). Period.

Now for the pragmatic angle: Americans are the quintessential pragmatists, both in terms of national ethos and even in strictly technical philosophical terms (think of philosophers like Dewey, James and Peirce). So one may argue that despite the transparently obvious legal case outlined above, “we live in a post-9/11 words,” as the tired fear-mongering phrase goes, and so we should change the law to reflect such circumstances. It’s a new era in which our very existence is under assault (though that is a gross exaggeration, the US isn’t Palestine or Israel), and we need all the means of defense at our disposal. Except of course, that the experts who have spoken about torture in the past several months, including members of the FBICIAand the military, have repeatedly pointed out that it doesn’t work, for the simple and well understood fact that a person under torture will eventually give information — any information, including the false variety — just to be at least temporarily relieved from the pain of torture. The infamous “ticking bomb” scenario mindlessly brought up by so many Republicans is fictional (see the infamous show “24,” which has been criticized even by the US Military), just like those weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein turned out not to have possessed.

One more thing on the pragmatic question: Dick Cheney has been repeating as recently as yesterday that torture is justifiable because it has kept terrorists from attacking the US. His “reasoning” seems to be: (premise 1) We practiced torture after 9/11; (premise 2) We have not been attacked after 9/11; therefore (conclusion) Torture impeded terrorist attacks. This is so stupid that it should be hardly necessary to point out why it doesn’t work. But here we go nonetheless: First, the above is an egregious example of the ad hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy(after that, therefore because of that). Plenty of other things have happened since 9/11, like the Red Sox winning the World Series, or ER going off the air. Maybe those are the real reasons we haven’t been attacked. Secondly, and more seriously, perhaps some of the otherthings we have been doing in terms of national defense since 9/11 are actually responsible for the lack of attacks on the US soil, like two wars being fought on foreign soil, or billions spent in enhanced border security. Third, and most damning of all, the Bush administration (under Cheney) ceased the use of torture in 2004. Five years later, westill haven’t been attacked. So perhaps torture has nothing to do with it?

Finally, the moral issue, which really should trump all of the above, especially in a nation with such a high (and overblown) understanding of its own moral place in history (Americans keep thinking of themselves as a shining example for the rest of civilization, just like colonial Britain and the Roman empire did. Evidently they forget that their country got started with a combination of genocide and ethnic cleansing, prospered financially on the back of slaves, has had a history punctuated by an almost uninterrupted series of wars of aggression, and has been marred by an ugly civil rights strife that is not over yet). Torture is immoral because it is precisely the kind of behavior that we do not want to have others done unto us, a straightforward application of the Kantian imperative. This isn’t just a hypothetical statement: the US prosecuted, convicted and either jailed or executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American soldiersduring World War II.

The whole point of an open, democratic, and moral society is that we try to uphold certain moral standards. Such moral standards are understood to apply to everyone everywhere, that is we maintain them to be universal across the broader human community (and perhaps beyond, if you accept the more controversial idea of animal rights). A good measure of the morality of a society is precisely how well it holds to its principles in times of hardship. It is easy to claimthe moral high ground when we enjoy peace and economic prosperity. It is poverty and war that bring forth the ugliness in human beings, and it is then that we fight our moral wars against the worst possible enemy: ourselves.

The aim of terrorism is to undermine a society, to overthrow its values and replaced them with others. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the direct death of 2,974 people (excluding the hijackers). At current count, 4,299 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and 31,285 have been wounded. And that doesn’t count the deaths in Afghanistan or, of course, the civilian casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which are at least an order of magnitude greater. The combined wars in those two countries have cost us close to $860 billion dollars, and that doesn’t take into account the huge costs of homeland security. Why are we doing all this? Just so that we can keep ourselves alive? That would be insanely stupid, considering that an American is 225,409 times more likely to die in an auto accident than in a terrorist attack(it’s also twice as likely that you’ll die crashed by a vending machine). Hey, the debacle of the auto industry might actually save a lot more lives than waterboarding! But no, we are doing all of this because we want to preserve and improve our society, which in large part means our ever evolving system of morality and expanding set of rights. Engaging in torture, or even defending the use of torture in the public forum, kills that system from within, no need for further terrorist attacks.

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Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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