Torture as pragmatism.

Credit: Flikr

It’s refreshing (if unsurprising given personal experience) to see John McCain buck the Right and come out against the use of tortue. I’ll give minor maverick points, but his argument from pragmatism isn’t the proper path to take the debate down.

McCain says he spoke with Leon Panetta personally to ascertain whether torture techniques played a role in finding and assassinating Osama bin Laden:

I asked CIA Director Leon Panetta for the facts, and he told me the following: The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a description of him as an important member of al-Qaeda, came from a detainee held in another country, who we believe was not tortured. None of the three detainees who were waterboarded provided Abu Ahmed’s real name, his whereabouts or an accurate description of his role in al-Qaeda. [emphasis mine]

First things first: What does “believe was not tortured” mean? My understanding was that detainees who have been held in other countries via extraordinary rendition were sent abroad for the express purpose of evading U.S. laws and oversight, but surely the CIA director would know what has happened to these people? Did John McCain not think to ask, since his argument hinges upon whether this presumption is correct or not?

But I digress.

Here’s what I glean are McCain’s reasons for why tortue is bad. I’ll quote him so as to mitigate the risk of misrepresentation.

  • “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.”
  • “Mistreatment of enemy prisoners endangers our own troops, who might someday be held captive.”

But these aren’t really reasons for why torture is bad at all. They are reasons for why torture is imprudent. And I don’t even buy the second reason — I think McCain has his logic mixed up. A common defense of the torture regime is that our own men and women would be tortured by terrorists regardless of our treatment of captives.

One can always choose to make moral arguments from consequentialist grounds, but I think it’s weak in this debate. Tortue is a prudential technique to get people to talk. They may sometimes say incorrect things, but it probably has marginal improvements over lesser techniques and major improvements over mere interrogation.

That’s not the point. The point is that torture is simply wrong. I think Will Wilkinson’s piece for Democracy in America here gets at the heart of it:

But the bedrock reason not to torture is that it is wrong, that it is evil, period. There are some things we may not do to one another, and torture is one of those things.

If torture advocates refuse to believe us, and agents of the state go on to torture people, then all we can do is to continue to say what we believe to be true: that torture is a great evil; that those who argue for it are facilitating evil and deserve to be scorned; that those who do it are guilty of evil and deserve to be punished, even if the evil of which they are guilty led SEAL Team 6 to Osama bin Laden’s door.

Taking the deontological tack involves a lot of moral rectitude, and certainly there are a lot of people who think it’s simply ludicrous to declare torture categorically wrong. They fail to realize that a moral rule need not ALWAYS hold to be generally valid. If I were to say that torture is wrong even if torturing KSM would prevent global destruction, then I would have surrendered my own agency to a principle. Morality is about enhancing agency, not stifling it. Everything requires careful consideration. But torturing for the trillion dollar cause of two unnecessary wars and the less-than-certain prospects of finding an old and increasingly irrelevant man on dialysis hardly passes the test. That’s the argument to be made. As a veteran of America’s formerly-most-useless war who was himself tortured, I would have expected McCain to see that more clearly.

Maybe he’s just making the most politically expedient argument.


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