Torturing Logic

Is pulling fingernails really just an aggressive manicure?


I never imagined, immediately after 9/11, that four years later we would be having a debate on whether and how much the United States should torture prisoners--or that the Bush administration would wage a losing battle against anti-torture legislation sponsored by a Republican senator. Maybe I should have seen it coming, after the attacks on New York and Washington ushered in a new culture of fear. Most people agree that desperate times call for desperate measures. But just how desperate can we get?

The disclosures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib were followed by revelations that such tactics had also been used in interrogations of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, with high-level government approval. The issue finally came to a head in 2005 with the anti-torture legislation spearheaded by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), himself a survivor of torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese. The White House found itself in the curious position of arguing, simultaneously, that "we do not torture" and that the McCain bill (which clarifies that the ban on "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" applies to all U.S. personnel and all persons in U.S. custody) would tie our hands in the war on terror. In December the administration finally caved and dropped its opposition to the legislation, whose passage seemed inevitable.

Torture is the ultimate depravity. Fittingly, the torture debate has featured some new lows in depravity of the rhetorical kind. Leading conservative pundits, including Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, and Thomas Sowell, have derided opposition to torture as "moral preening" or "moral exhibitionism." Others made an issue of the homosexuality of journalist Andrew Sullivan, who has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of torture. After Sullivan condemned a notorious incident in which a female interrogator pretended to smear an Al Qaeda suspect with her menstrual blood in order to make him unclean in the eyes of his God, The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto suggested that Sullivan's reaction came from disgust at female physiology related to a lack of sexual experience with women.

The Journal editorial page also distinguished itself by taking the peculiar position that so-called "waterboarding," a technique in which a tightly bound detainee has water poured over his face in a way that induces a sensation of drowning, was not really torture but a "coercive interrogation" tactic relying on "psychological pressure."

The Journal just as bravely dismissed exposure to extreme heat and extreme cold, just short of causing fatal hypothermia, as mere "discomfort." The columnist and Council of Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot (a Journal editorial page alumnus) pronounced in the Los Angeles Times--on the very day the Bush administration dropped its opposition to the McCain bill--that the torture scandal was vastly overblown because a lot of this so-called torture was quite similar to what millions of U.S. soldiers have to endure in boot camp.

Of course, when those trainees are subjected to waterboarding, it's precisely to prepare them to withstand torture. Besides, one could use a similar analogy to argue that sodomizing a prisoner with a plastic tube is no big deal because it's quite similar to the colonoscopies voluntarily endured by millions of Americans every year.

The most nuanced "anti-anti-torture" case was made by Charles Krauthammer in The Weekly Standard. Krauthammer agreed that "torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity," and he did not try to excuse practices like waterboarding as "nontorture." But he also argued that some forms of this monstrous activity must remain permissible in extreme circumstances, and that our leaders must take this burden of conscience in order to save lives. He outlined two exceptions: the "ticking time bomb" scenario and the high-value, high-level terrorist who possesses a treasure trove of information about the terror network and the plots it's gestating.

But Krauthammer's argument has several weaknesses. He greatly overestimates the plausibility of the "ticking time bomb" scenario. If the attack is to take place within minutes, coercive or painful methods ought to be useless: The captive will tell the interrogators a fake story--possibly pre-planned in the event of capture--and by the time they realize they've been duped the bomb will have gone off.

The reliability of torture-extracted information aside, allowing what Krauthammer calls "torture-lite" (stress positions, heat and cold, probably waterboarding) with the goal of saving lives raises a disturbing question: What if the "lite" version doesn't break the detainee? Do we start pulling fingernails and administering electric shocks to genitals? Use "coercive" techniques on a terrorist's child? Where on the slippery slope do we stop?

Curiously, Krauthammer also argues that McCain's anti-torture position is more flexible than it's made out to be. The senator has said that the president may authorize illegal techniques in an emergency such as a hostage rescue or an imminent attack; and legal experts, including The National Journal's Stuart Taylor, suggest that his bill would likely be interpreted so that the harshness of allowed interrogation techniques could increase depending on the urgency of the situation.

This should trouble real anti-torture purists, but why does it bother Krauthammer, who concludes that "McCain embraces the same exceptions I do"? Because he thinks that McCain's anti-torture crusade is dishonestly moralistic, a claim to the moral high ground based on false pretenses. Krauthammer wants us "to be honest about doing terrible things." But what, from Krauthammer's point of view, do we have to gain from being honest?

I am more strongly opposed to torture than Krauthammer is, but I'm enough of a realist to recognize that any "no torture" stand will likely be qualified with some tacit acknowledgment that, under some very bad circumstances, some very bad things will happen. That's far better than a Krauthammer-style declaration that "we must all be prepared to torture." If we start with a "thou shalt not torture" absolute, we are likely to be extremely vigilant about lapses from this commandment. If we start with the idea that torture is sometimes acceptable, that slippery slope is going to take us pretty low.

Already, we've reached the point of seriously debating why torture is bad. On National Review's staff blog, Goldberg wonders what makes it so much worse than killing people in combat or putting them in prison.

Actually, there are a lot of reasons. Torture robs the individual of all control of his or her body and mind. It's quite possible to maintain one's human dignity and selfhood while imprisoned; not so with torture, which, as Sullivan put in The New Republic, "takes what is animal in us and deploys it against what makes us human."

Imprisonment does not do that. Nor does death; it simply ends the individual's existence. Many people have chosen death over severe pain --not only because of the suffering involved, but because of the loss of dignity.

On the giving end, the evil of torture is unique as well. It inflicts systematic severe suffering on a helpless human being. It also creates the danger that at least some of the torturers will enjoy it, particularly if they have been primed to see the one being tortured as an evil, subhuman creature getting his just deserts. Every pro-torture (or anti-anti-torture) argument, including Krauthammer's, relies on the assumption that terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment.

Anti-torture absolutists often point out that we were able to beat Hitler without resorting to torture. On the other side, there is the valid point that America did not really win that war with clean hands: Consider the internment of Japanese-Americans and the large-scale bombing of civilians. That we no longer do such things is surely a sign of moral progress. If the War on Terror brings us regression on the issue of torture, it will be a tragedy--and, in all likelihood, one as unnecessary as internment was during World War II.