One More Quick Word Before I Go

I dropped the ball on the debate in the middle of the week on the idea of torture “working” raised by my response to Josh Marshall’s brief post over at TPM. Despite my promises to engage, I learned once again the eternal truth: the last week or so of the school year is, how shall we say it, interesting to students, and hence a touch crowded for their teachers. So, apologies, all.

Many of the commenters and then mistermix argued that I seriously misread Josh’s point. That would be that torture as a policy is always and everywhere wrong, even if one can imagine that an incident of torture might every now and then provide a bit of timely, useful information. To those folks, Josh was making (somewhat clumsily) a strong case against torture, and not a rhetorical concession to the monsters in our polity who have already done such damage to our country.

Because this has been chewed on pretty good around here, I’m not going to do my usual 4,000 word logorrhea game here, so I’ll just make two quick points.

1: I believe I am in violent agreement with mistermix et al: torture is a disastrous policy, and Josh concurs with that claim. But I do think that it is a real problem to make even rhetorical gestures to the wrong side of this argument. Once you say that it is conceivable that torture “works” — even in the limited sense that Josh may mean it here, as a (very) occasional source of bits of actionable intelligence, then IMHO you have tiptoed onto that often invoked, much more rarely encountered political sasquatch, the slippery slope.

That is: I think the concession allows the bad guys to return to scenario mongering, talking 24 nonsense and muttering about bombs in Times Square…and adding zombie lies about how sustained torture got something good out of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed or whatever, ramping up until the “vanishingly rare” of Marshall’s implied formulation becomes so critically important that it becomes (again!) unpatriotic not to perform the water torture on every detainee, just in case.

2: That leads to my larger point, and it is again one upon which, I think, both sides of the Balloon Juice discussants at least basically agree.

And that is that the use of the word “works” here obscures the reality that torture, in fact does not do so for any reasonable definition of the word “works.”

This is important because if you don’t get that, then in fact you can come up with a formally coherent (even if BS) argument that torture is morally acceptable. That’s the problem with slippery slopes, after all. Eventually you slide to the point of some ham-fisted utilitarian argument, where the harm done to a few people is outweighed by some hypothetical good.

Yes — obviously — there are lots and lots of logical as well as practical flaws in that cartoon of reasoning. But it illustrates the problem with making good faith concessions to bad faith argument.

The real argument that Josh was trying to make (assuming, as I’m willing to, that those who read him kindly are correct) is that it doesn’t matter whether acts of torture work, because summed over the policy, torturing does much more harm than good.

That’s true. Torture throws tons of bad info into the system; it puts our own people at risk, it utterly wrecks hearts-and-minds attempts; and so on. All this we know. It’s wrong, because it does more damage to the individuals who practice it and the societies that adopt it than any conceivable gain — I’m not trying to diminish the moral argument. But, again, to the question of how to conduct the campaign against the pro-torture thugs, we cannot, IMHO, allow them to define, even partially, the frame of the argument. It never is, or should be, about what happens in the dungeon where one luckless victim is being broken — except as illustration of the fact that the use of the vomit-in-the-mouth Orwellianism (really anti-Orwellianism…) “enhanced interrogation technique” is itself sin against any attempt to imagine a moral regime.

Rather, the argument over torture has to be about what happens summed up over the full range of consequences of a decision to ask the CIA to do what we hung Germans and Japanese for perpetrating. You can’t capture the moral catastrophe without demonstrating that the logic of torture evokes more torture to “remedy” the inability to extract “useful” knowledge from each prior attempt — and all the other evils that flow once it becomes possible to think of torture as an occasionally valuable practice. Whenever we allow the Cheneys and Yoos of the world to bullshit their way into a “debate” over whether water boarding KSM did or didn’t help lead to Osama, we’ve already conceded much more than we should, or is safe.

[Quick update: Commenter J argues that it’s important not to be absolutist on torture never working in the small sense — which tells me that I still wasn’t clear about my argument. I’m saying it’s meaningless to assert that torture can work on that scale. Look at it this way. On Monday, you torture ten people. Nine of them give you no or bad intel. One gives you a piece of valid data. You act on the results of all ten interrogations. Did the one valid one work? No, IMHO.]

That Josh may have been making this argument, I concede. That he did so in a way that opens the door for the wrong interpretation is a problem. I ended my last post on this asking for eternal vigilance; it is too damn easy to fall into habits of speech and arguments that concede much more than we intend to people who have already done immeasurable harm to our country and its security.

And with that belaboring of what was already hashed out in a few hundred comments. I’ll deliver my promised extra treat on 17th century English torture and the law as soon as I can, perhaps in 2011. Happy Mother’s Day, y’all.

Image: El Greco, Portrait of a Cardinal c. 1600. This is a portrait of one of two cardinals, each head of the Spanish Inquisition.

Explore posts in the same categories: Republican knavery, torture, words mattter

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2 Comments on “One More Quick Word Before I Go”

  1. DCA Says:

    Thing is, we already know the answer and knew it in 2001: what you get for pursuing an immoral policy is
    mostly crap. This was (as you hint) demonstrated extensively from 1500 to 1650 by the use of torture in witchcraft trials (England being the control experiment). See, for example, Erik Middlefort’s Witch Trials in Southwestern Germany.

    I’m convinced that all the people who “know” that torture “works” (eg Dick Cheney) would, if asked for evidence, point entirely to examples from fiction.
    Fictional descriptions are (fortunately) all that most of us encounter, and it is too easy to mistake their consistent pattern (a convenient plot device) for reality.

  2. Now that is one quick word that will definitely help me deepen my understanding of how this country is ran

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