Thursday, August 23, 2007

Torture's Bad, Mmmmkay?

I had thought that most people were pretty much in agreement with the idea that torture was bad. Evil, even. That's why the revelations about what happened at Abu Ghraib got so much attention; why the three-year detention and abuse of Jose Padilla generated so much controversy; why the American Bar Association and American Psychological Association recently condemned the practice and the participation of any of their members in it. It appears, however, that I was mistaken. Professional blogger Megan McArdle yesterday posed what she seems to think is a very difficult question: why shouldn't we torture people?
One of the most facile dismissals of torture is that it doesn't work, so
why bother? That's tempting, but it's too easy.

To be fair, she's not actually advocating torture. So she's got that going for her. However, we should note that, from the beginning, she gets things backwards. The argument that torture is ineffective only arises if you happen to be discussing torture with someone who already thinks it's morally acceptable. The theoretical argument is logically prior to the practical argument.
Torture seems to me very likely to work provided that you can verify the
information, which I assume interrogators can in at least some circumstances.

If the information can be verified, what's the point of the torture? The usual justification for the use of torture is that the information that the torture is intended to reveal can't be obtained any other way. This, at least, has been Alan Dershowitz's argument, and he remains the most prominent advocate of legalizing torture in the United States.
Nor is it obvious to me that the quality of information is likely to be
lower than that obtained by other means: yes, people will say anything to avoid
torture, but they'll also say anything to avoid imprisonment. Maybe the lies
will be vivider or more voluble under torture, but it doesn't seem necessarily
so that the ratio of lies to truth will increase.

I admit that I'm not entirely sure that I follow McArdle's thought here. It seems to be that torture is no less reliable than other ways of getting information from someone (interrogation, for example, seems to work reasonably well for the police). But that's not really to the point; what she ought to be arguing is that information that is obtained through the use of torture is more reliable, and the enhanced reliability justifies the extreme measures. I don't know what evidence she could use to support the argument, but what she's actually saying here doesn't help her out at all.

I'd rather see people take the hard stance and say "Yeah, torture may still
work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong."


Well, OK. Torture may work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong.

I note here that she herself is unwilling to "take the hard stance" - she just wants "people" to do it. Why she's unwilling to make the incredibly bold statement that torture is wrong remains unclear.
Otherwise, you're kind of stuck if someone comes up with a way to make it
effective. I've been thinking about this in relation to the much vaunted lie detecting brain scans.

Huh. I've been thinking about this in relation to our own government's documented abuse of "enemy combatants" (and, indeed, its own citizens) but I guess freaky mind-reading devices are also a threat. Judging by the Wired article she cites, the "lie detecting brain scans" would be an alternative to torture rather than an accessory for it, which makes her concern here speculative at best.
Most people have talked about the implications for the criminal justice
system--does the fifth amendment still apply? But what I wonder is, what does
this mean for torturers?

Weird that she's concerned not with the potential invasion of the civil liberties of innocent people posed by lie-detecting machines, but with how said apparatus will affect people who are engaged in criminal activity.
If you can actually tell accurately when someone is lying, torture suddenly
becomes very, very effective, doesn't it?

Or, you know, unnecessary, because presumably you'd know if they were lying even without torture. I think she wants to say that this lie-detection stuff will justify using more extreme measures to induce people to tell the truth, but she's not saying it and I'm not sure how she'd get there.
And yet, it would still be wrong. So make the case on those grounds.
Efficiency is a dangerous red herring.

As a consequence of starting from the wrong end of the argument against torture, she ends where she should have begun. She throws out a challenge to her reader to make the case that she's either unwilling or unable to make: that torture is wrong. Her entire post comes down to: "Torture's wrong because it doesn't work, but what if it did? Would it still be wrong?"

And this woman is paid well by the Atlantic Monthly for this.

But it's not just her filling the tubes with this lazy, poorly thought out stuff. Her Atlantic colleague Matt Yglesias responds thusly:
For some sense of "necessarily" this may be true, but this flies in the face of
historical practice. It seems unlikely to me that torture's most famous
systematic applications almost all come in the context of regimes specifically
looking to generate spurious confessions. Stalin's Russia, North Vietnamese POW
camps, the Spanish Inquisition, it's always the same story. It's not the case,
however, that torture "doesn't work" -- Nikolai Bukharin and others confesses to all
sorts of preposterous crimes
exactly as Stalin wanted them to. The question
is whether routinized torture of al-Qaeda suspects is a useful method of
advancing any public purpose.

Yglesias gets a point for noticing that most torturers are less interested in the truth of the confessions they get than the fact of the confession (I'm guessing the "unlikely" in the second sentence shouldn't be there). But then he loses it for missing the moral question McArdle attempted to bring up. The question isn't the utilitarian one of "whether routinized torture of al-Qaeda suspects is a useful method of advancing any public purpose." That's just the effectiveness argument in a different dress. The question is whether torture is morally acceptable at all.

Megan counterproses that "people take the hard stance and say 'Yeah, torture may
still work, but we still shouldn't use it because it's wrong.'" I think Megan
thinks that people from the "torture doesn't work" camp are arguing in bad
faith, but I'm really not.

Well, maybe he just doesn't read very carefully. For one thing, there's no reason I can't think both that torture is morally unacceptable and also ineffective as a practical matter, so there's no reason to suppose someone has to be in one "camp" or the other. Nor does McArdle imply that the argument that torture doesn't work is being made in bad faith; she's saying she finds it unconvincing because she can imagine a situation where it could work, and wonders what the objection to torture could be in that situation. (Hint: it's moral!)
I don't think it makes any sense at all to say that there's a categorical moral
against smashing people's fingers with a hammer or whatever other depraved acts
of torture you may care to imagine.

Oh. Well. I suppose I'm being nonsensical when I say that, morally speaking, Yglesias' opinion here is troglodytic.
After all, I believe (as most people believe) that it's sometimes morally
praiseworthy for the state to have its agents kill people with bullets, bombs,
mortar shells, etc. so there's surely some end such that torturing someone
would, if effective, be a just method of achieving that end.

I'm going to have to disagree with your police work here, Matt. War, and violence generally, is not the same thing as torture. Let's see if you can spot the difference:

The difference is that despite the horrors of war, there's a very strong
argument to be made that if good people systematically disavowed war-making as a
practice that bad guys would run roughshod over us. When Hitler's tanks start
rolling across Europe, someone's got to shoot back. By contrast, I don't see any
examples of societies using routinized legal torture to gain a decisive
advantage over their foes or any evidence that the current era of torture has
been a net positive in fighting al-Qaeda.

Ah. No, he can't. For Matt Yglesias, the only real argument against torturing people is that it hasn't been a "net positive." If it were, he'd presumably be first in line to work the rack and smash some fingers with sledgehammers. Or maybe he'd just leave the dirty business to other people and enjoy the "net positives."
To say that a method of investigation works "provided that you can verify the
information" is, after all, merely to beg the question. Consulting a psychic
works provided that you can verify the information, but spending person-hours
chasing down the psychic's "leads" isn't going to make the country safer.

Oooh, "person-hours." How very enlightened. Matt Yglesias, in favor of "net positive" torture, but not of hurting the tender sensibilities of people who might be offended by the term "man-hours." On the other hand, he did notice that "verifying the information" is a problem for McArdle's original post. So, kudos, I guess.

McArdle's not the type to take that kind of thing quietly, so she responded as follows:
I don't think that Matt &c are arguing from bad faith. Indeed, I agree with
them that torture in most cases isn't very effective. I don't agree with what we
might call the "strong case" against the efficacy of torture, which is that it
never works. If I have, say, a kidnapper from whom I want to get the location of
his victim, and I can credibly promise to shoot out his kneecap if the victim
isn't where he says she is, then I think I have a reasonable chance of finding
out where the victim is by torturing him. If he knows, it is clearly in his best
interest to tell me rather than a) playing dumb or b) giving me false
information.

Unless he really doesn't know or has some even more powerful motivation for not telling you. But, sure, it might work. So might other methods that don't involve shooting his kneecap off. Police use them all the time.

Now, those cases might be rare. Which is why many people, I assume Matt
included, make what we could call the "weak case" against torture, which is that
it generally isn't that effective. But I don't think that this is a very good
argument to deploy if your goal is, as mine is, a legal ban on torture by the US
government. The weak case doesn't prove we shouldn't use torture; it just proves
that we should limit it to cases, such as the above hypothetical, where there is
a reasonable likelihood that it will be effective. I doubt the rules for doing
so would be as complicated as, say, the New York City building code.

Which is basically Alan Dershowitz's argument for "torture warrants." Except the part about her goal being a legal ban on torture. I'm pretty sure Alan's not in favor of that. I'm not too sure about Matt, either.

The other problem with the weak case is that torture can theoretically be made
more effective. Those brain scans are real; a workable machine might be less
than a decade away. (It also might well not; the history of science journalism
is littered with the corpses of "next big things" that turned out not to,
y'know, actually work.)

I really wish she'd left the scary mind-reading devices out of this. I think even she realizes it doesn't do anything for her argument.
If you cannot make the case against legal torture without resorting to efficacy
arguments, what the hell do you do if it becomes pretty damn effective?

Well, exactly. What's your argument, Megan?

My position is that even if it is 100% effective--in the sense of producing only
true information--we should ban it. I don't trust anyone, not myself and
certainly not the state, with the power implied by sanctioned torture. I don't
want to live in a state that tortures people. And I don't think you need an
efficacy argument to make that case.

So, still kind of kicking it to someone else to do the work, then? I mean, I agree: we shouldn't torture people. I don't understand why McArdle is uncomfortable making a moral argument against it, though. And I really don't understand why the Atlantic is paying her good money to ask other people to make her arguments for her; surely they could find someone who's willing to take a position and support it. For example, here's one way:

First, to address Yglesias' idea that since he supports war in some circumstances, he must also support torture in some circumstances. Fighting is different from torture. If you're in a fight, you can fight back, or you can run away. You have options. Torture is a fundamentally different thing; the essence of torture is that the victim can't get away. The relation between the torturer and the victim of the torture is one of total dominance and total powerlessness. The point of torture is to break down the victim as thoroughly as possible until the torturer gets whatever it is he wants. Combat is different. A soldier may want to kill the enemy, but he runs the risk of being killed himself - neither side is utterly at the mercy of the other. It's possible to fight and die with dignity, but it's impossible - for either the torturer or the victim - to emerge from torture with human dignity intact. So, no, Matt - you can say that in some circumstances, it's right to fight and die without being forced to agree that sometimes, pulling out fingernails is OK.

Torture is immoral because the practice of torture is the most profound violation of a person that we can practice. Torture deprives its victims of any control over their persons. Indeed, whether it's inflicting physical or psychological damage to the victim, it's actively using the person's body and mind against him. Furthermore, assuming the victim survives, he bears the scars - mental and physical - for the rest of his life; in that sense, torture doesn't "end." If you think that there is a basic human right to control of your own mind and body, torture is immoral.

That is an argument against torture that has nothing to do with how useful it might be to the depraved people who would engage in its practice.

1 comment:

Bob B. Bobomai said...

Good Piece, my brother. Keep up the excellent work.

bob