Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

To torture or not

This excellent column by Charles Krauthammer makes the case for torture, in certain, limited situations:
Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

I have to say, troubled as I am by the whole concept, I agree. And once you agree that torture is sometimes justified, the whole Pandora's box is open. Krauthammer makes what I think is a good argument, that torture should be limited to specific cases: the "ticking time bomb" situation as above, and analagous situations where terrorists have important information, but the time urgency is less (e.g. an attack is being planned and the detainee knows the identity of the planners but not the details themselves). Obviously, the second exception could vary in scope enormously depending on the definition of important information.

He goes on to suggest that the military be banned from using torture and only specific, specialized intelligence agents be allowed to use these techniques. This would certainly help cut down on the Lyndie England type abuses.

I can't say I can personally see a way around the "ticking time bomb" problem. The two most appealing arguments for an absolute ban on torture are that it damages us as a country and that it doesn't work.

I do see how the abuses at Abu Ghraib, for example, have really hurt the U.S. position as promoter of freedom and democracy, which I don't think I fully understood at the time. I suspect that is why the CIA apparently operates secret prisons for high-level terrorists.

The second argument, that torture doesn't work is appealing primarily because it gives us such an easy solution to the problem: torture is ineffective, therefore we are absolutely against it. Unfortunately, I think much of the basis for torture's ineffectiveness is wishing it to be so. A priori, I just can't imagine torture wouldn't work. Sure, there are problems, like people tell you what you want to hear, but I have to believe torture to be effective in certain cases.

To sum up, I suspect everyone is troubled by the idea of torture. But if you oppose torture absolutely, you are saying you'd let the bomb in Krauthammer's scenario blow up, killing all those thousands for the sake of your principle.


At 6:10 PM, Blogger Tom Watson said...

I have a really hard time with the gray area here. From a moral position, if killing someone is OK, what is the problem with applying a little pain? And if we take the position that we only go to war and kill out of necessity, then can’t we also use a little force on our prisoners under the same conditions?

One of the main reasons not to torture is that it relieves the necessity to fight to the death. You may remember in the first gulf war the huge numbers of surrendering soldiers. There were even soldiers surrendering to the unmanned vehicles used for spotting fire from the ships. That doesn’t happen if they believe they will or even might be tortured.

With all the information in the press about secret prisons and prisoner mistreatment, I think we have a hard road to go back to where we were. But the last place to be is in the middle where we don’t get the maximum information but still have the reputation for torturing.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger ollie said...

Let us also remember that toruture extracts FALSE information; people will say anything to get the pain to stop.

Where torture actually "works" is that it can intimidate people (who aren't caputured as yet) into cooperating with a given force.

But yes, I see torture as being morally wrong, and remember we bill ourselves as being "the good guys".

Of course, our country is one of the few where we would be having this discussion out in the open.


Post a Comment

<< Home