Friday, January 28, 2005

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

No sooner do I get through lamenting the lack of discussion regarding the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical that Eric Martin is on the case. His post from Wednesday rounds up discussion from several sources on the subject. I could probably just point you in his direction and let it go, but that would deprive me of an opportunity to bloviate locally. Can't have that. So go read what he had to say and then come back to see what I did with his research.

First up is Belle Waring of Crooked Timber. Last June she blew her stack regarding what she viewed as the absurdity of the hypothetical case.

I am sick and tired of hearing about that ticking nuclear bomb in Manhattan. You know the one. Why? Because, if you let me put my thumb on the utilitarian scales, I can get you to agree that you have an affirmative moral duty to torture a three-year-old child to death.
She goes on, in a rather hilarious fashion, to create just such a case. In doing so, she clearly demonstrates that moral justification can be constructed for almost any action if you are allowed to freely manipulate the parameters of the situation (and you are a moral relativist -- which we all are). But, since the real world is filled with ambiguities, a situation with such clearly defined moral imperatives could never exist. In other words, the fantasyland hypothetical doesn't provide meaningful enlightenment to those of us living in the real world.

Next up is Matthew Yglesias. He wonders whether or not, given the mentality of law enforcement, this is really a situation that we need to worry about at all.

Knowing what we know about human behavior and the sort of people who make careers in the law enforcement and intelligence communities, it's a bit absurd to think that an interrogator would ever let, say, a nuclear bomb go off and destroy Chicago when he could have stopped it with a little torture, just because the Geneva Conventions said he shouldn't torture anyone. The world just doesn't work like that.
Therefore, we don't need to institutionalize exceptions to torture prohibition (which would, in practice, ultimately be abused) to keep us safe. Moreover:

The real question is, what do you do after the disaster has been averted? Well, in a world where torture is illegal, your interrogator's probably going to have to be arrested. But he's also going to be a national hero, he'll plead his defense of necessity, and no jury in the country is going to unanimously convict him. And even if he somehow did wind up getting convicted, he could be pardoned. We have, in other words, several methods for making ad hoc, ex post facto exceptions to the rules in our common law system.
Pretty neat. The bomb is diffused, millions are saved, and our hero goes free. Sure, our detainee gets roughed up pretty good, but he deserves it. He was trying to level Chicago, after all. And here's the best part. Changes required in the current system: zero. I like that.

And so it seems as though the extreme cases are handled. On the one hand, they are fairly unlikely to unfold in a simplistic manner. On the other, if they do so unfold, there's no preparation that's required. Case closed.

But what about the not-so-extreme cases. What if, rather than millions of lives, a "mere" dozen or so are at risk. Or, what if the extent of the risk is unclear. The nuclear "ticking time bomb" (and its equivalents) is a situation that we are unlikely to ever face. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the conventional parallel. In fact, we're facing it right now.

As I noted Wednesday, the Jordanian terrorist Zarqawi has credibly threatened to violently disrupt Sunday's elections in Iraq. His primary bomb maker and close associate is now in custody. If Zarqawi makes good on his threats, the ramifications could be quite serious. Not only will many die, but the potential exists for the entire election to be thrown into chaos. This could, in turn, shatter the remaining stability in the country and possibly even ignite a civil war. So, while none of this is certain, extremely dire consequences exist as a very real possibility. Aspects of it I would even describe as likely.

Now what?

To complicate matters further, the effects of engaging in torture extend beyond the situation at hand. To address this issue, Eric Martin unearthed commenter J Thomas.

There's another issue. Whatever you do, word will get out to the enemy and also to the civilians. Possibly you can arrange that tortured prisoners get kept in solitary and nobody ever sees them before they're dead and buried, but that will get out too. What effect will torture have on the ones who haven't been caught…

People who absolutely refuse to surrender even when they can't get away are a lot more trouble than people who'll surrender. They're likely to try to sucker some of you in close so they can take you with them. So you stand back and blow it up first, and you have a big mess -- when if they thought you'd treat them right and it would just be "The war is over for you" they'd surrender and maybe you'd have a building still standing and civilians alive and so on.
Mr. Martin then picks up the baton.

In addition to the effect this has on the psyche of potential combatants, and their willingness to surrender, the use of torture will also impact the perception that the target population as a whole will have of the occupier/aggressor. In the case of Iraq and the broader Muslim world, this perception is of supreme importance. We cannot win over hearts and minds, and convince people to make radical changes in their political, religious, and societal structures if we are not held in high regard - or at least not openly reviled. The use of torture undermines our status and moral authority, especially when so many of the victims were innocent civilians released back into the population to tell their tales of horror. Therefore, torture has transactional costs in terms of democracy promotion as well, which must be included as a variable in any cost-benefit analysis of the utility of the use of torture.
And this is all before we even begin to consider the effectiveness of torture as a method for information extraction.

What a mess. I wish that I had some tight concluding remarks that would untangle the issues and provide direction, but none are forthcoming. Like so much in this world, there are no easy answers. I am personally averse to employing coercive interrogation. Yet, I can too easily imagine a situation arising where I would regret having ruled out such techniques. It is hindsight, and not foresight, that is 20/20. It is only once the crisis has passed that we will know that we acted correctly. For all our discussion, the paradox remains.

At least we're talking.
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