Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Stupid Rhetorical Tricks

Recent news reports now indicate that Abu Musab Zarqawi’s primary bomb maker has been captured. This man, known as Sami Mohammed Ali Said Jaaf, has apparently admitted under interrogation to have constructed "75% of the car bombs employed in Baghdad since the US-led invasion in March 2003." I wonder if anyone is asking him where he got his explosives.

Snark aside, Jaaf’s arrest is unequivocally a major step forward in the battle against the Iraqi insurgency. He and Zarqawi are responsible for hundreds of deaths, most of whom were innocent Iraqi civilians. Capturing this man won't end the carnage, but it will slow it down for at least a little while.

Naturally, wingnuts across the globe are flogging this story mercilessly. And since this is an event worth celebrating, I won't deny them a moment of joy.

That is, as long as they're going to be honest about it. If not, well -- I can't be held responsible for what happens.

So, I was listening to Sean Hannity yesterday (insert comment about my masochistic tendencies here) when I happened to catch him slapping around a liberal caller with a particularly disingenuous argument. This shouldn't be a shock to anyone, but since the particular rhetorical device he was using was so common, I thought it would be worthwhile to spend a little time debunking it here.

Here's the set up. Hannity notes correctly that Zarqawi has pledged to disrupt the upcoming Iraqi election by any means necessary. The violence that has been aimed at election officials and poll workers of late demonstrates that this is no idle threat. Hannity continues by concluding that Jaaf, as a close associate of Zarqawi, most likely has operational knowledge of upcoming attacks. These attacks would certainly mean the loss of many innocent lives and could potentially have the effect of derailing the legitimacy of the election itself. Hannity then asks, given the nature of the threat, what interrogation techniques should we be willing to use to extract information that might allow us to prevent them.

So far, I'm totally on board. This is a version of the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario, and a legitimate version at that. This is a very hard question to resolve and it is worthy of full and open debate. If you can demonstrate that lives are at stake (which I think you can in this case) does it still makes sense to limit your options in any way?

But then, rather than argue the merits, Hannity presents the following analogy. Suppose that your spouse/child had been kidnapped and you had been able to capture one of the conspirators. What techniques would you be willing to employ in your efforts to rescue your loved one?

Unfortunately, our hapless liberal caller was unable to avoid the trap. And let's not kid around here, a rhetorical trap is exactly what this analogy is. Either you admit your willingness to use all methods at your disposal, and concede the larger point, or you endorse restraint and come off as a naïve and impotent peacenik (à la Michael Dukakis). If you accept the premise, there are no winning responses.

But of course, the premise is bullshit. Here's why:

Hannity's analogy assumes that the interests of the individual and the interests of the larger society are indistinguishable from each other. This is absolutely false. In this situation, the individual’s bonds to the victim are so strong that he/she could not help but react in the most visceral fashion. Any cost would be borne in order to prevent harm from befalling their loved one. On the other hand, the larger society has many other interests to protect. It must consider the ramifications of its actions for other members of the society. For example, it cannot rationally respond in a fashion that would result in equivalent or greater harm to others, even if that response could guarantee the safety of the victim.

To see it clearly, let's change Hannity's analogy ever so slightly. Assume the same kidnapping scenario. But, instead of a captured co-conspirator, you have a ransom note. What would you be willing to pay to save your loved one? Everything you have, of course. Does that mean that the government should also be willing to empty its accounts on your behalf? Absolutely not, and in practice the government wouldn't even be willing to pick up part of the tab. Nor should it, lest it reward the kidnappers and encourage future abductions. The government's interests and responsibilities are different from yours and its reaction must reflect that.

(As an aside, you can see how this is another manifestation of the nature of scaling, which I first discussed here. As the size of the social unit changes -- from family to society -- the nature of the bond between individuals changes and, therefore, solutions that function at one level fail at the other.)

Like I said earlier, the "ticking time bomb" hypothetical is one worth investigating. If it is clear that lives are on the line and that time is of the essence, it is at least possible to argue that the moral imperative against coercive interrogation is no longer operative. We may indeed face exactly such a situation in the future. It sure would be nice if we had thought about it beforehand.

But not if you're going to use it to just muddy the waters. The existence of the hypothetical doesn't excuse what has already happened. Nor is it a simple question to resolve on its own. And if you're not willing to have an honest discussion about it, why should I (or anyone) be willing to engage you? The world actually is a complex place. Why should anyone believe you when you say it isn't?

This is a discussion that we should be having. Just not like this.
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