I said I was going to move away from waterboarding hypotheticals and on to reality, but Armed Liberal’s response to me has one foot firmly planted in the world of philosophical discussions about morality. I’ll try to respond to him while firmly keeping in mind the realities we face.
I find Armed Liberal’s answer particularly interesting because he answers my original KSM hypothetical “no.” (I won’t repeat the hypothetical, but if you haven’t read it, please click the link before reading further.) Armed Liberal gives his answer without the smug self-righteousness shown by some others. And nobody can question his devotion to addressing the problem of terrorism. So his “no” answer is one that carries credibility, and deserves a serious response.
Armed Liberal says:
Let me take his hypothetical a step further, and suggest that it shouldn’t be too hard to build a helmet that could be put on someone’s head, not damaging the skin, that would – when turned on – induce incredible levels of fear – or pain – inductively, acting directly in the brain. And, having switched it off, leave the person wearing the helmet unscathed except from whatever physiological reactions they had to the perception of pain or fear.
Armed Liberal says that we should not employ a technology like that if we could. Why? He says:
First, and foremost, because – as I’ve noted – using something like this moves us into the realm of being a fear-based society; one that rules on might and terror. The corrosive impact of that stance is what drives this, and on some level it’s the violation of the integrity of the person by depriving them of all their power over themselves, and by – I’m not finding the right description, but somehow erasing the integrity of their ‘self’. Prison doesn’t do that; even Joe Arpaio – who keeps his prisoners in tents, offers them no recreation and dresses them in pink – does not violate their integrity in the ways that I’m describing – they still make choices, have some responsibility as to their behavior.
Armed Liberal’s objection to torture appears rooted in the violence it does to the concepts of personal integrity and responsibility — not simply the notion that it creates a society that rules in part by “fear” or “might.” After all, some degree of fear and might are necessary to the operation of government. The threat and reality of prison — which Armed Liberal accepts as necessary — is nothing more than a way to keep criminal elements in check through fear (of going to prison) and “might” (if fear isn’t enough to keep you from committing crimes, we’ll lock you up).
In his next passage, Armed Liberal makes it clearer that his objection is to the idea that torture removes personal integrity:
Bluntly, I’d rat[h]er shoot someone than torture them harmlessly. I believe it’s more moral; I’m violating their ‘person-ness’ less through an act of outright violence than through one that seeks to break their ownership of themselves in the ways that torture does.
And on a basic level, you can’t have a free society in which people don’t have that sense of personal integrity – that sense that they ‘own’ their own behavior and person. Once you violate that and make it clear that someone – the state – owns you, the nature of the political relationship is irrevocably changed.
I am not aware of any truly effective truth serum. But what if there were? Would administering a truth serum to a suspected terrorist be an act that breaks the terrorist’s ownership of themselves? Would it be an act that makes it clear that the state owns them?
Would Armed Liberal oppose administering an effective truth serum to a terrorist?
Or, to put it in terms of Armed Liberal’s hypothetical, what if the helmet didn’t cause pain, but just told us if the terrorist was lying? Or, more coercively, made him tell the truth?
Or, for Harry Potter fans, would administering Veritaserum to Mad Eye Moody be the sort of act we could never condone in our society?
Let’s bring this into the realm of the real world. My understanding of the efficacy of a truth serum is in the subject’s belief that he can’t tell a lie. So what about administering sodium thiopental to a terrorist and telling him that it’s a 100% effective truth serum? Could we condone that under Armed Liberal’s view?
Note that, even in the law enforcement context, courts often sanction interrogation techniques designed to fool the subject into thinking the government knows more than the suspect realizes — including when he is telling the truth and when he is lying. Police may employ trickery and deceit in interrogating a suspect, as long as they don’t do anything that would make an innocent suspect confess.
As an aside: this is the main problem I have with waterboarding and other forms of torture: it’s a technique that does often cause people to confess when they are innocent, or to give up details — any details, whether or not they are true — just to make it stop. As I have discussed here before, a threat to one’s family was enough to get Abdallah Higazy to “confess” to owning a radio he didn’t own.
That’s a problem.
But the more certainty you have that the person in question is a terrorist, and the more “checkable” his information, the less I worry about these particular aspects of coercive interrogation on a moral level. (Legal issues are a different matter.) Once you achieve near 100% certainty that the fellow you have is indeed a high-level terrorist, the “reliability” issue becomes merely a matter of whether he is going to tell you the truth. And I don’t think that the chance he could lie to you is a good enough reason, by itself, to forego a form of interrogation that you have otherwise determined is justified under the circumstances. How can the morality of waterboarding lie completely within the power of decisions made by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to lie or tell the truth? That makes no logical sense to me.
It’s quite a different matter when you have someone as to whom you are less certain, like, say Adballah Higazy — or countless other people we have in our custody. Which is why I have said, as a general matter, that we should not permit torture.
Getting back to the main subject, Armed Liberal makes a related but slightly different argument, in quoting a commenter as saying:
Does ‘our way of life’ better survive the deaths of thousands of innocents, or ‘the adoption of a new social order which includes torture as a legitimate tool of our government’. I would argue the former less damaging.
Many have made this argument. I am used to seeing it made with an intolerable degree of smugness — e.g. John Cole commenters who say in all sincerity that I am a greater enemy to America than the planners of 9/11, because I am a “torture apologist” (actually as you can see, I’m not), and therefore I am working to undermine our whole way of life. But the fact that many make the argument with insufferable self-righteousness doesn’t automatically make it an invalid argument. And Armed Liberal and his commenter express it in a very well-stated and non-smug way.
To me, this is a judgment call. Many people make the exact same argument about capital punishment: that empowering government to take a human life degrades our society and brings us one step closer to savagery. Armed Liberal tells me in an e-mail that he supports capital punishment. So really, this is just a question of where you draw the line. I won’t mock the people who make the argument, but for me — as a purely theoretical manner — I can’t say that society would be destroyed by 2 1/2 minutes of waterboarding similar to the waterboarding that this journalist voluntarily underwent, just for a story.
My bottom line is this: I don’t have a huge moral problem with limited waterboarding in extreme circumstances. I have several practical problems with it.
It’s somewhat similar, in fact, to my feelings on capital punishment. As a moral matter, I think the death penalty is the correct penalty, morally, for the worst murderers. As a practical matter, because so many innocent people end up on Death Row (a problem I discussed at length in this post), I have serious concerns about how it is practiced in much of the country, and I would like to see much stricter limitations placed on its exercise.
That’s not completely how I feel about waterboarding, but it’s pretty close.
I’ll leave the matter there, as I think Armed Liberal will have more to say about this.