Monday, December 16, 2002

Torturing Enemy Captives

Apparently, one isn’t supposed to torture people. I got yelled at for saying that any members of al Qaeda in custody and suspected to have valuable information should be tortured for it. But there is an idea is that there are certain things one doesn’t do to other human beings under any circumstances. The rules are (1.) Don’t kill innocents as a means of defending yourself in war (e.g., Dresden, Hiroshima) and (2.) Never torture anyone. Supposedly, a human being of moral character will not do these things, even if the external circumstances seem to justify otherwise.

Consider the case of a man who has planted a nuclear time-bomb in a large American city. We have him in custody, and he refuses to say where the bomb is. If the case were different, and he were about to trigger the bomb manually by flipping a switch, it would be permissible for us to use force, even lethal force, if this were necessary in order to stop him. But if torture is always ruled out, then in the case in which he is in custody having set a timer, torturing him in order to stop him from completing his scheme would be wrong. Since he has used a timer, he doesn’t need to flip the switch. We must let him accomplish his murder. So the argument goes.

I don’t accept that. If it is permissible to kill a man to stop him from murdering thousands, then it is permissible to torture him in order to do the same thing; death is worse than being tortured. If that is right, then it is permissible to torture terrorists in captivity for information about future terrorist attacks. The future attacks are projects that the terrorists in captivity have contributed to, just like the man who has planted the bomb. There is no relevant difference. Neither can continue to contribute to the terrorism, but both have set their respective terrorist attacks in motion. So, the only counterargument to the case for tortuing al Qaeda in captivity is that torturing them is inconsistent with being a kind, just, and compassionate human being. I don’t buy that premise. Torture of a helpless terrorist in captivity is an act of self-defense like any other. Furthermore, it is even wrong not to torture them for information, if doing so is permissible and might save thousands of innocent lives. Besides, you could play this game recklessly and say that it is impermissible to do surgery on innocent people because cutting people open is inconsistent with being a kind, just, and compassionate human being. But that would be silly. For me, the fact that it is okay to kill a terrorist to stop him means that it is okay to torture a terrorist for information about how to stop the conspiracy to which he has contributed. (By the way, keep in mind that there are methods of torture that do no damage to the body.)

I guess this is rapidly becoming the lose-your-humanity blog. Or do you lose your humanity when you let thousands of American children be butchered on the grounds that you don’t want to dirty your pristine character? Do you realize that al Qaeda in captivity might have valuable information but we are not allowed to torture them for it? Are you happy with that? Moral high road? Dead American children by the thousands? Cowardice? Courage? Can you tell which is which?

This is not a joke. There are al Qaeda in custody. They are trying to kill us. We are not allowed to torture them for information. Many thousands of Americans may die because of the principle that torture is always wrong. Does that make us better than we would be if we tortured them? Or does it make us more cowardly and foolish?