Refreshing Our Memory on the State of Debate on Torture

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We really are right back to the state of national debate just prior to the election of Barack Obama as president:

President Donald Trump declared Wednesday he believes torture works as his administration readied a sweeping review of how America conducts the war on terror. It includes possible resumption of banned interrogation methods and reopening CIA-run “black site” prisons outside the United States.In an interview with ABC News, Trump said he would wage war against Islamic State militants with the singular goal of keeping the U.S. safe.

That being the case, what I wrote back in the day seems like a reasonable starting point:

So, is [waterboarding] torture? Is it a sin that cries out to God? I can’t say that I think it is. It’s immoral, surely, at least inasmuch as it objectifies the subject. I would not perform it, and I would not ask that somebody else do it on my behalf. But does this specific procedure surpass the line across which we must forbid it even among those who believe it to be necessary? Those who have the burden of security for millions of their countrymen? I’m not so sure.

The underlying question that often seems to get lost in the emotions surrounding the issue is: What is torture?  Is it loud, cheesy pop music keeping somebody awake when he’s very tired?  Is it an interrogation session staged to be intimidating, even fear-inducing?  At one extreme of the disagreement, one gets the impression some would include any slight deprivation intended to manipulate a prisoner to divulge information.

One peculiarity of that perspective is that many of those who share it are decidedly comfortable with the concept of “nudging“:

There’s a gray area in all interpersonal interactions, but there’s a difference between persuasion and deliberately manipulating circumstances to make it more difficult to choose any option other than the one that the “architect” desires.  The latter is a sort of benign torture; the torturer just wants the victim to do the right thing (divulge some information that will save lives, for example), and the pain that he inflicts is nothing other than “organizing the context in which people make decisions.”  You can make the pain stop at any time; you’re doing it to yourself.

Is the view of the Left that the government can “nudge” our population broadly and indiscriminately toward preferred behavior but not “nudge” a terrorist to give up information?  Such are the questions that have to be asked when we’re having a public debate about the ways in which we’ll allow our government to protect us from fanatic enemies.

Sure, President Trump is loose with language, but we have to know how we define torture, ourselves, even more clearly when that’s the case.  If Trump concedes that, say, loud pop music is torture and successfully makes the case to the American people that it is necessary and just, then we’ll be less able to draw a line between that technique and debilitating physical abuse.  Once again, the media histrionics are not only unreasonable, but dangerous.

On moral grounds, we should not torture.  On practical grounds, we must calmly discuss what counts.  On practical grounds, we must consider that the Obama interregnum hasn’t exactly shown our gentler policy yielding results in the way fanatics treat and attack us.  People will have observed that fact, meaning the practical arguments against torture will be more difficult and the moral grounds will have to seem reasonable, rather than a matter of presumed moral superiority.



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