Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Point That Seems To Be Missing From The Torture Debate

I've been following the arguments around the question of torture. On the side opposing torture are arguments from duty (to be moral one may not create such pain that it destroys the humanity and autonomy of another), virtue (torture corrupts the character of the entire nation that condones it), rights (the right to bodily autonomy is a universal human right and we cannot violate it without overstepping a moral line), and utility (torture does not really give the benefit of reliable information and will result in the harm of our soldiers being tortured). On the other side is "but what if 24 were a documentary and that was your wife and child being raped and killed by terrorists, you'd want every available means used, wouldn't you?"

The justification that is given for the inhumanity of treatment of detainees is the same that is given in the case of the death penalty -- these are not normal people, these are bad guys who deserve it. But notice an important difference between the current question of torture and capital punishment: capital punishment is a punishment, it is a penalty meted out after someone has been found guilty of doing something horrendous, that is, there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that they did something. The torture in question, on the other hand, is not retributive, it is not giving someone "what he deserves," it is not a punishment for something the person has done, rather it is an attempt to find out something the person might know.

The operative word in that last sentence is "might." The point is that you interrogate a person because you do not know what he knows. If you knew what he knew, there would be no reason to interrogate him, you already know what it is that he knows. So any given prisoner under interrogation may or may not have useful information, may or may not be able to corroborate what you think you know. You may have good reason to suspect that thins person probably has some information about something or other, but you don't really know. Interrogation is always a hit and miss sort of thing. The interrogating side is always dealing with partial information, some of which is false, some of which is purely speculative, and they are hoping with each new interrogation to fill in more pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes those missing pieces will make you realize that the information that led you to believe that this person had valuable information was a curveball and that you now realize that this person could not have known what you thought he knew. If you had known then what you know now, you would not have wasted your time interrogating him.

As such, when you argue in favor of torture as an interrogation method, you are asserting that it is morally acceptable to torture innocent people since some will most likely be accidentally included because of incomplete or inaccurate intelligence information. As such, the faux retribution frame won't work. You can't hide behind the fact that these are bad guys who deserve it since you don't really know how bad they are because you don't know what they know. So even if it were true that torture was a realiable means for gaining reliable intelligence, the moral fig leaf doesn't quite cover.