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.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.
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.
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.