May 14, 2009

Two "Torture" Related Comments

There have been two recent torture related debates floating around that I have wanted to add my two-cents to.

1. Obama's U-turn on the photos of detainees. Look; I understand the "don't release" side of this argument. I see that releasing a couple of hundred photos of Muslims who are being (at a bare minimum) humiliated by uniformed US soldiers is going to inflame some part of the Middle East. I get that. But thinking that not releasing them is going to prevent that outrage is very short sighted. Obama's reversal does not (I think) guarantee that the photos won't be released (the ACLU lawsuit will continue to move forward); plus, I suspect that the photos will come out at some point in the future (near or far is unknown) either through leaks or by court order. So, not releasing them just punts the issue down the road, it doesn't make it go away. You can't make it go away until you come to terms with the entire thing, and coming to terms with in involves a public debate (and possible hearings/independent prosecutor/"truth commission"). That's what the world expects of the US and its democratic system, and the "harm" to the US image by releasing them must be balanced against the "harm" that remaining secret will continue to do to our image. So: it's a trade-off between harm of the images versus harm to our overall image of being free. I understand that reasonable people can disagree reasonably about which harm is greater (I'm on the side that argues releasing them is less harm than not releasing them), but I'd like to see a greater debate about this, and see Obama acknowledge (publicly) the harm that keeping them secret does to our image at home and abroad.

2. The recent "torture is effective" meme that the fucknut wingers are propagating. (Also see an idiotic column by Cohen.) Look, if we're going to make public policy based on what is "effective" versus what is not, then there are a host of issues to reconsider. For example (and very directly relevant): if it is OK to torture a terrorist who might have knowledge of a "ticking bomb," why is it not OK to torture uniformed enemy soldiers that are more likely to have knowledge of enemy formations/plans/actions? The odds of a terrorist having actionable intelligence are actually lower (I would think) than the odds of an enemy soldier (during war) having information that can clearly save lives on the battlefield. (In both cases we are talking about high-ranking terrorists and soldiers: I'm assuming; one could make a similar argument so long as we are talking about terrorists and soldiers at roughly equal "ranks.") The point is that if we decide torture is acceptable because it has utility under some circumstances, then torture becomes acceptable under all circumstances that are roughly equal (kidnappers? drug wholesalers/kingpins? public corruption cases? getting the billions back from Bernie Madoff?). The "ticking time-bomb" scenario argues for rationalizing torture based on utilitarian principles (take actions that produce the greatest gain for the most people); but there are a host of moral, legal, social and philosophical arguments against utilitarianism. Moreover, our political system isn't based on utilitarianism, and it shouldn't be allowed to creep in on this policy.

Posted by baltar at May 14, 2009 11:00 AM | TrackBack | Posted to Atrocities of War | Crunchy Nutbars | Free Speech | International Affairs | Politics


As to point 2, I can't believe people are taking this seriously. If you believe in torture, pass a law making it legal. Until then, it's illegal - case closed.

Otherwise this whole thing is about as relevant as simply musing "what if rape works?", "what if killing someone's children in front of them works", etc. Just because something might "work" in a handful of cases doesn't mean it's broadly useful, doesn't mean its costs don't outweigh its benefits, and doesn't change the fact the simple fact that it is illegal.

Posted by: Armand at May 14, 2009 02:24 PM | PERMALINK

To point #1... I'm intrigued by the theory (floated by somebody, somewhere) that the turnabout might be about not tainting the jury pool. That is to say, Obama might have decided to sit on the photos until such time as they can make their debut in a criminal courtroom.

Posted by: jacflash at May 14, 2009 03:02 PM | PERMALINK

RE #2: I don't know why were discussing it either, but the "its effective" argument keeps popping up. It isn't effective, but even it it was, it makes no sense (which is what I was trying to say).

RE #1: I think that's a little Machiavellian for me. I don't think anyone from the previous administration will ever see the inside of a court room. In addition to the political arguments against it (it will torpedo any right-side-of-the-center support for any of Obama's programs), I just don't think they'll be able to mount a "beyond a reasonable doubt" charge against any of them. So withholding pictures on the off-chance that some sort of effective prosecution is possible seems a bit far-fetched. Doesn't mean it isn't a pretty theory, though.

Posted by: baltar at May 14, 2009 05:53 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that it is unlikely that they will see the inside of an American court room. No bets on Spain, etc.

Posted by: jacflash at May 14, 2009 05:56 PM | PERMALINK
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