Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Torture or Die

The Guardian confronts the tough question, but doesn't change its answer.

Torture and other illegality can offer authorities a short-term seduction, perhaps even temporary successes. Information provided by torture may have helped foil the alleged airliners plot. But evidence provided uder [sic] torture is often unreliable, sometimes disastrously so - and its use always pollutes the broader credentials of torturers and their allies. This battle must be won within the law. Anything else is not just a form of defeat but will in the end fuel the flames of the terror it aims to overcome.

It does take nerve to look out your office window over a placid crowd of Londoners, schoolgirls and commuters, and say, "better 3,000 of you should fall in flames and die than that one would-be terrorist should suffer torture." There's an argument to be made for a people upholding its ideals even in the most agonizing circumstances. But it need not be an absolute one.

UPDATE: Apparently, this needs an explainer. If you're reading this as a pro-torture post, you're wrong. It's comforting to say, and believe, "torture never works," in an immediate and practical sense. But the Guardian editorial points out that it might work in some cases, and the most recent thwarted terrorism plot might have been an example of torture working in an immediate and practical sense.

If you're only against torture because you insist it never works, you haven't made an ethical decision. You've made a practical one. You can't claim any moral high ground for that.

If you want to decide the question ethically, you have to follow it through to its ugliest, darkest possible permutation. That's what the Guardian editorial did, and that's what I'm doing. You have to confront the question, "torture or die" to know who you are, rather than evading it by saying such a case never can happen. You should have to imagine yourself looking those people in the eye and saying, "you, and you, and you should die rather than our entire nation be poisioned out of everything that makes it civilized."

After an exercise like that, you don't get to feel proud and pious. You don't get that warm, glowy feeling you always get when you piss on a "right-winger." After an exercise like that, you want to take a long shower and draw the shades and go back to bed and hope for good dreams.

It's not like I never published my opposition to torture.