Despite my vow last year to cut back on my news consumption, I fear I'm in deeper than ever, listening to talk radio and NPR non-stop while I'm driving, reading a dozen news sites. The idea that I'm actually learning anything new from all this media consumption is debatable. Instead, I feel even more than ever that the same debates just keep being rehashed, with the left and right moving ever farther apart.
The latest "haven't we talked about this before?" feeling has been triggered by the right wing reviving the argument that torture should be a preferred method of interrogation for terror suspects. The underwear bomber, it's argued, should have been tortured right there on the tarmac until he spilled the beans on who had given him the explosives, who else had trained with him, etc. It's outrageous, some on the right say, that he was read his rights and placed in civilian custody instead of being swept off immediately to Guantanamo.
The argument from the left seems to be: Let's not sink to their level. We should be above using torture on anyone. If we want to set an example to the rest of the world, we have to vigorously adhere to civil rights, even if our enemy does not.
The argument on the right boils down to: Torture saves lives, sometimes, maybe. Imagine that a nuclear bomb was about to go off, and you knew it was going to go off soon, and you knew the man you had just captured knew exactly where and when. Torture was going to be the only way to get the information out of him. Not torturing was going to be the same as setting off the bomb yourself, choosing to let thousands of innocents die all in the name of some namby-pamby sense of fairness.
The people on the right have a point, in some ways. In cases of clear and present danger, we expect our authorities to use violence to protect us. For instance, if a man is on a rooftop with a rifle firing randomly into a crowd, there's an obvious understanding that a cop, or a private citizen for that matter, has every right to shoot the bastard. You have to be a pretty nutty pacifist to say that it's always wrong for police to use violence, and you should just let the man keep shooting until he's out of ammo, then arrest him peacefully. And, if you accept that it's okay to use violence to stop an unfolding crime, why not use it stop a crime that might be unfolding tomorrow, or the next day?
Where the argument on the right falls apart, however, is that in order to justify torture, you would have to have so much information already available to you that the torture wouldn't be needed. In the nuke scenario, you'd have to know that they had the weapon, you'd have to know roughly where it was at and when it was going to be used, and you'd have to be certain that the man you had in your custody had the last bits of information you needed. But, it seems like the only way you'd ever know if the man had the last bits of information you needed would be to already know that information. Otherwise, you're just torturing in order to fish for information your victim might not possess. So, I suppose that the argument would be that torture would be okay if you're seventy percent certain that the man you have in your custody has information you urgently need that can only be obtained by torture. But, again, seventy percent certainty seems like a high bar. If we'd been seventy percent certain the underwear bomber was a terrorist, I don't think we'd have let him on the plane. So, to start torturing him the second we have in him custody means we're torturing based on pretty much zero evidence that there's a nuclear bomb about to go off, or another plane about to get blown up, or whether he was acting alone or part of a larger group.
In the real world, to gain any information by torture, you'd have to torture a lot of people who might not have much actual information. Would you torture a ten innocent men to save lives on a plane that may or may not be in danger? A hundred? A thousand?
If our government was always wise and in command of information to the best level possible, and felt that the only way to improve the gathering of information further was through torture, I might be willing to listen more closely to an argument that we should grant authorities this power. But, the underwear bomber case shows that our government isn't wise or in command of information. We can't trust them to manage a no-fly list. We want to grant them the power to pick, at a moment's notice, who to waterboard? And, if it's not at a moment's notice, if we torture after a long review process, then it seems to completely remove the urgency of the need. If it takes a week to review all the data to decide if your captive is a good target for torture, then, obviously, there was no immediate danger.
Anyway, I know my thoughts here won't change any one's mind. It's just something I wanted to get off my chest after listening to two weeks of pro-torture logic that's left me feeling a little queasy.