A lot of opposition to Bush administration interrogation policies seems to depend on an absolute moral prohibition on torture. Jeff Jacoby defends such a position in The Boston Globe, insisting that he would not condone torture even to save a city, even while, not entirely consistently, noting,
Context matters. Actions that are indisputably beyond the pale under normal conditions – waterboarding a prisoner, for example – can take on a very different aspect when conditions are abnormal, as they surely were in the terrifying wake of 9/11.
Alexander Pruss holds an absolutist position, too, “that torture is literally always wrong,” on the basis of Vatican II. Richard Fernandez finds these positions “morally sustainable,” even though he does not share them. Fernandez gives the perspective of one who has been close to the issue:
When I ran safehouses in the anti-Marcos days the first order of business whenever a cell member was captured by the police was to alert the surviving members, move the safehouse and destroy all links to the captured person. That’s because everyone knew that there was a great probability that the captive would talk under duress, however great his bravery and resistance. Nobody I know, or have heard of who has had experience in real-life situations has ever said, “our cell should continue as usual and the safehouse should remain open, despite the fact that one of our own is being tortured by the secret police, because I read in the New York Times that coercion never works.” The probability is that torture works and for that reason its use constitutes a moral dilemma; and the reason why Jacoby believes he is expressing a noble sentiment when he forswears it even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror.
But there was another oath everyone in the underground tacitly made, which is structurally identical to Jacoby’s own. It went something like this: “I promise never to reveal the whereabouts of my companions to the secret police however brutally they torture me.” We all accepted this charge as a moral statement of intention, without deceit or mental reservation, yet without having the slightest certainty that we could carry it out. And the reason for the uncertainty was simple. Nobody actually knows how long he can last until he’s actually in the situation. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.
It is not often realized that the oath not to break under torture is very similar to Jacoby’s promise never to use coercion even as “a last and desperate option” against an brutal enemy. Fighting terrorism, like the promise never to break under duress, is a test of how much one can endure without crossing a line. And when fear and survival are stake, I am not sure at all what lines people won’t cross….
It is one thing to swear that you will not divulge secrets to the Marcos police under any circumstances, while sitting safe in a bolthole, with a .38 in your lap. It’s quite another to say nothing when your interrogator is prying your eyeball out with a penknife. It is one thing to say I won’t use coercive methods even as “a last and desperate option” in the War on Terror, but entirely another matter to maintain that stance when your child is gasping for breath through his anthrax ridden lungs. Anybody who tells you different is probably a liar or fooling himself. Some will go further — much further — under duress than they think. Others will break right away. But nobody can predict it in advance.
There is one sense in which I unreservedly sympathize with Cheney’s request to reveal the “successes” of the coercive interrogation program: we ought to know all the facts before making up our minds about moral stances. We ought to look everything in the face. I find it curious that a society which thinks that the CIA’s destruction of the video record of the water boarding sessions is immoral can simultaneously maintain that showing the video of Daniel Pearl being beheaded is inflammatory or inappropriate. Let’s see it all. They are two sides of the same coin.
I fear that one day, perhaps soon, and perhaps under Barack Obama’s Presidency, that an attack on US soil will be made which will dwarf 9/11 both in destructiveness and brutality. And I predict that when it happens, many of the people who are now baying for the prosecution of Bush era officials will be demanding that they be protected — at all costs. They demand protection not because they are morally inferior, intellectually infirm or ideologically corrupted, but because survival is the first rule of life. Anybody who has gone through a hospital ward and heard the patients, request and then demand their pain medication knows that to the question “how far can you go?”, there is no easy answer. Nobody really knows the meaning of “last and desperate” until he’s been there.
Partly for these kinds of reasons, I think it’s much harder to sustain an absolutist position on torture than most people think.
Immanuel Kant famously said that it was always, absolutely, immoral to lie, even to someone seeking the whereabouts of your friend in order to kill him. “Let the consequences be what they may,” Kant writes; it makes no moral difference whether a murder results from your truthtelling. Here’s the thing: Almost everyone thinks that Kant was wrong about this. Surely you can tell a lie to save your friend. Any moral theory that tells you otherwise needs to be revised.
In principle, however, an absolutist stance on torture is committed to exactly the same position, and fails for exactly the same reason. Of course, one might deny that lying to a murderer is morally equivalent to waterboarding him. But consider something mild that causes discomfort—plucking a hair from someone’s head, say, without that person’s consent. It’s normally wrong to do that because of the discomfort and invasions of liberty and personal space involved. There is merely a difference in degree between that and any practice, such as waterboarding, that causes discomfort without causing any lasting physical damage. Isn’t the absolutist committed to saying that it’s morally unacceptable to pluck a hair from someone’s head even to save a city? Since consequences don’t matter—even to save the world?
The ancient Chinese sage Lieh Tzu proclaimed that he would not pluck a single hair from his head to save the entire world. Contemporary absolutists on torture are committed to something similar—that they would not pluck a single hair from a mass murderer’s head to save the entire world. I think that’s insane. My sympathies are with Representative Hoekstra, who is calling for an investigation of the harms to national security that have resulted from the President’s revelations of classified material over the objections of his own appointees.
UPDATE: Apparently I’m not alone; Rasmussen is showing that a strong majority think that the torture memos’ release has harmed the national security of the United States.