Thursday, December 21, 2006


On torturing terrorists

Over at Aces Full of Links, James contemplates the scenarios that some put forth for supporting the torture of terrorists for information. Go read the whole discussion. I've put a comment there that I want to repeat here.

The basic scenario goes like this, as James quotes it:

I was thinking of the torture scenario examples that proponents use, how perfectly they are crafted, and how far-fetched. “What would you do if you could save 3,000 lives by torturing a known terrorist!” Note: you know for certain somehow that he’s a “bad guy.” Note: you know for certain he knows something of value. Note: you know for certain you can extract the information successfully. Note: you know for certain you can prevent the attack once you have the information. Note: you know for certain how many people you will save.

James poses an alternative scenario, where instead of “torture” that's used to get information to directly prevent an attack, you perform medical experiments on the terrorists in order to get medical information that will save lots of lives. Does your answer change?

In the comments section we also come to this issue:

The scenarios are not supposed to be punitive, yet the reasoning of “these are bad men” recurs regularly in the discussion. How does the “bad men” determination have any bearing on how we choose to conduct ourselves? Torture, as far as I know, is not intended as a punitive measure nor a deterrent to terrorists.

Maybe it's not directly punitive, but I think the answer is that there's a punitive subtext to it, or at least a brutal one.

We're more willing to be brutal to people we don't like than to people we're neutral about, or those we like. Suppose we change the scenario to something like this[1]: You've captured two people, and you know that one of them has the information that will save 3000 people. You can only get the information by torturing the other one, thus convincing the one with the information to give it up for his friend. Now, four alternatives:

  1. The one you have to torture is a known terrorist, who's bombed office buildings and killed hundreds.
  2. The one you have to torture is just a random guy from the terrorist's country, not known to have done anything nasty nor particularly suspected of it.
  3. The one you have to torture is Mother Teresa.
  4. The one you have to torture is your own brother or sister.

Does your answer change, depending upon which of those alternatives you choose? I think that even for hard-core “torture them 'til they squeal” sorts, the answer does change. It's easier to consider treating a random Syrian chap with brutality than treating Mother Teresa or your brother (or even the guy next door) that way. Even if you're not considering it “punitive”.

For the record, I'm in the “never torture” camp. While I agree that the needs of the few often give way to the needs of the many, I believe we should never cross over to the dark side of morality, because therein lies the proverbial slippery slope. Abuse begets abuse. We mustn't start the transition.

[1] The nice thing about hypothetical scenarios is that you can ignore sense or reality. There are some people who will always say “torture them” and some who'll always say “never torture”, but for those in the middle I have no doubt that their answers do not reflect how they'd actually choose in a real situation. It's just a thought experiment.

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