Detainee Dilemma: A Modest Proposal on Use of Torture

by Mike on 9/24/2006

in Best of Release, Mob Rule, Perpetual Beta : Release, Possibly Abrasive

Torture works.

Thanks to ABC correspondent Brian Ross, we know that several high-level Al Qaeda members in U.S. custody broke down under expert interrogation – some lasting for mere seconds, none more than just over two minutes. In the process, they gave up valuable information leading to the arrest of several operative and the foiling of at least one major plot to blow up L.A.’s largest skyscraper. Thousands of lives were saved.

So torture, under the right circumstances, works.

This means we no longer have the luxury of refusing to torture our prisoners on grounds of mere efficacy. We can torture certain people, and in the process, win major victories in the war on terror. We can torture people, and avert future terror attacks of the same scope at 9/11. We can torture people, and in the process, save thousands and thousands of lives.

When you look at it like that, how can we not choose torture?

The bad news is that torture’s newly proven effectiveness almost compels us to use it as a tactic – not just in the context of national defense, but in almost any arena in which torture could bring about substantial societal gain.

Torture can protect us – and our children – from dreadful evils. Torture can stop child pornographers. Torture can stop the meth peddlers. Torture can stop rapists and murders. Why, torture might even stop the terrible threat of gay marriage.

It can stop everything except becoming the kind of country that is willing to torture people if the rewards are great enough.

Once we decide that yes, if the stakes are sufficiently high, torture is the kind of tool we should use, then to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, we already know what we are, we’re just haggling over the price.

It seems to me that we’re not quite the society that is willing to condemn torture no matter what the circumstances, no mater what the risks or rewards. After all, Jack Bauer is immensely popular for his willingness to do whatever it takes. How, then, can our society guarantee that torture is and should be the ultimate last result, to be used only when the need is truly extreme and only when we are willing to pay a great cost?

(To my fellow legal scholars who rush to interject the Bill of Rights, I say… oh really? When torture is used not as a penalty and outside the realm of the criminal justice system, what relevance do the Fifth, Eighth, and even the Fourteenth Amendment have? Call me a cynic, but when temptation looms, the law will not be our moral refuge.)

I put forth a modest proposal. Any torture conducted by the government must be authorized by a designated official whose primary purpose is to evaluate every potential need for the application of duress, and to decide whether or not it will be authorized. Then, if this official decides torture is necessary, then that same official subjects himself to the exact same treatment, of the same intensity and duration, as that meted out to the interrogation subject. The torture stops when either the official or the subject breaks. Any rogue agent using torture without authorization would also be subjected to whatever treatment was doled out to the interrogation subject.

Economists call this “incentive.” If the interrogation would truly save thousands of lives, then the government official who authorizes torture — knowing that he himself will have to outlast the interrogation subject under identical inhumane conditions — would be a hero. If the objective isn’t so important that one of our own wouldn’t undergo torture to achieve the desired outcome, then less severe – and less morally hazardous — methods might be used instead.

Such a policy not only limits the temptation to use torture at all, it limits the extent and intensity of the methods used to those least severe which still accomplish the objective. After all, who among us wouldn’t be willing to try a little sleep deprivation to save lives? But most of us would draw the line at bamboo under the fingernails, or being broken on the wheel. So this policy would provide self-enforcing limits on the use and misuse of torture. There’s also a certain moral appeal to scrutinizing the use of torture under the microscope of the Golden Rule.

If torture works, there will come a time when we will really need to use it. But if we ever want to make sure we never become the nation that feeds its enemies feet-first into the wood chipper, we need to have very strong reasons to hate torture even as we acknowledge that sometimes it may be needed.

Cross-posted at RedState.

  • Johnny Chunders

    As long as we continue to teach children to believe in god/gods and belonging to countries we will have war.

  • Johnny Chunders

    As long as we continue to teach children to believe in god/gods and belonging to countries we will have war.

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