February 12, 2006

Zoning Torture

Hatched by Dafydd

Apropos no stunning new information or front-page articles on the subject, I've been thinking much about the Democrats' charge that President Bush's policy of "extraordinary rendition" (ER) is really just outsourcing torture to countries that are less scrupulous about such matters.

Without passing judgment on whether the charge is accurate, let's take it as read for purposes of this debate: resolved, outsourcing torture is a legitimate and necessary practice in a civilized society.

Defining our terms

First, let's make the terms more precise:

  • We're not talking about torturing ordinary criminal suspects for domestic criminal acts.
  • Nor do we discuss torturing people to obtain confessions to be used against them at trial.
  • We don't mean torturing people for punishment (as in Communist and Islamic countries) or abusing them for fun (as Charles Graner and his then-girlfriend Lynndie England did at Abu Ghraib).
  • Finally, we do not mean torturing (or abusing) ordinary prisoners of war who have no extraordinary intelligence for us to gather.

And we're not concerned here with defining "torture" and distinguishing it from mere abuse; that's a subject for a different post.

Rather, we are discussing one thing only: torture of "high value targets" (HVTs) -- top-ranking enemies or enemies who possess extraordinary information that could prevent a serious attack on American civilians or allies -- in order to obtain that intelligence and thwart the attack.

The dilemma

The arguments against torture basically boil down to two, one moral (absolute right and wrong) and one affectional (how it affects us, individually and as a culture):

  1. Moral: It is unjust to the "victim" of the torture to inflict cruel and unusual pain, suffering, or lasting damage on a person who is already in custody.
  2. Affectional: It is dehumanizing to the torturer, making him (and the society that employs him) more cruel, more vicious, and more nasty and brutish (but probably no shorter).

The moral argument

The first argument is interesting but beside the point: the torture discussed here is not done as an act of justice but rather to save lives. This boils down to a variation on the question discussed in Ursula K. LeGuin's seminal short story "the Ones That Walk Away From Omelas," and Shirley Jackson's story "the Lottery": under what circumstances is it justified to torment one innocent (in the LeGuin and Jackson stories) in order to make life better for a great many other innocents?

The variation here is that the one being tormented is almost certainly not an innocent; he is far more guilty -- unless there has been a huge mistake -- than the many. And the torture is not simply to make life better for the many but to save them from death at the hands of the guilty one who is being tortured and his co-conspirators.

I won't waste much time on this one. The argument for torturing him (to gain critical intelligence) is structurally the same as the argument for killing him to protect those he would destroy: by acting so unjustly himself, has he given up any claim to rights he might once have had?

That is, do the unjust retain a legitimate demand for justice? I argue that thousands of years of Western culture answer No, they do not: it would be unjust to imprison an innocent man, but we have no qualms imprisoning a guilty man. Even those who argue against capital punishment don't claim that execution is too harsh a punishment for murder; they fall back on the second argument, saying it dehumanizes society, and to argument by fear of error: what if we accidentally execute an innocent person? (See below.)

We do not tolerate the intolerant, and we need not give moral justice to the morally unjust. Besides, what is justice? Is it really morally unjust to torture someone who is participating in a conspiracy to commit mass murder -- and may well have helped carry out such horrific crimes in the past? It's hard to say in a specific case, but in my universe, as a general rule, there are some crimes so dreadful, not even the death penalty is sufficient punishment -- though of course, we're not now talking about torture administrated as punishment.

The argument changes if the victim of the torture is in fact an innocent we have mistaken for an enemy, but only to the extent that it would if we killed him. Either way, it's not a crime then so much as a tragic blunder. So we move on to number two, that torture dehumanizes the torturer.

The affectional argument

This claim may well be true; it certainly desensitizes him to the suffering of others... if he were not insensitive, how could he do what he has to do?

(Alternatively, perhaps torture does not dehumanize; perhaps it's only that the inhuman naturally gravitate towards such careers. But if torture does not dehumanize anyway, then ER is a legitimate practice, and the resolution succeeds by default. I personally believe it does dehumanize, however.)

Social dehumanization seems to follow any official sanction of torture, just as it dehumanizes society to officially tolerate the deliberate killing of the innocent. Because of our deep-seated repugnance at the idea of deliberate torture, this same argument becomes much more intense in the latter case.

Too, because of the "emotional multiplier" of the target being a specific, named individual instead of a mass crowd -- "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic," as Stalin is reputed to have said -- most people would feel far worse hearing that one terrorist was tortured for his information than hearing that a hundred terrorists were killed by a military attack.

Thus we have the dilemma: if we desperately need intel that we strongly suspect a captive enemy has, do we torture him to get it, saving lives but "losing out souls?" Or do we keep our souls lily white, but only at the cost of thousands of other people's children, wives, husbands, and parents?

Enter extraordinary rendition

Under ER, we cut the Gordian Knot by choosing neither to torture nor to let the intelligence remain unrevealed; instead, we "outsource" the torture to some other country that doesn't scruple to carry out such activities routinely.

The moral argument in that case is unchanged: murder is murder even if you hire a hit man to do it; and by the same token, killing to defend innocent life is just as moral if the shooter is a hired bodyguard as it is if the shooter is the person whose own life is in danger: separating the action from the actor by hiring an agent can't change the morality of the action. It's either just or unjust, standing on its own, regardless of how personally involved was the ultimate decision-maker.

However, the affectional argument is very much altered: being an executioner might very well desensitize a person to human life, even if one he believes the executions are all perfectly just. But I don't see any such desensitization in merely being a member of a society that hires executioners to execute the guilty, no matter how much death-penalty opponents claim that it does. We have the death penalty and France does not, for example; yet America would never have allowed 15,000 old people to die in their homes for lack of air conditioning during a heat wave; and even if some did, we certainly would have condemned the adult children who refused to break off their August vacations to come home and bury their father's or mother's body.

This and many other examples indicates that we have at least as much regard for innocent human life as do the Europeans, despite the fact that we allow executions and they do not. Wanting to keep murderers alive is not the same sentiment as wanting to preserve the life of innocents, and neither implies the other.

So to the extent that personally engaging in torture might dehumanize someone, the farther removed it is from the actor, the less dehumanizing is the action.

This should be fairly obvious: which would callous and embitter a person more -- dropping a bomb from an airplane that he knew would probably kill some innocent children, or actually pointing his rifle at a child who is holding a live grenade and squeezing off a round? Even though morally, the latter is probably more defensible than the former -- nevertheless, I would much rather be the first guy than the second.

The reckoning

So let's tote up the damages:

  • Morally, ER is no better or worse than carrying out such torture ourselves; it stands or falls on the morality of the action, not the specific agent.
  • But in terms of the dehumanizing nature of torture, the farther removed from the United States, the less will Americans, civilian and military, be dehumanized.
  • And clearly if a non-American is the actual torturer, then no American suffers the psychological consequences of that job. The closest people will merely be observers -- worse for the soul, perhaps, than not being there at all, but not as bad as the people actually conducting it.

The only thing that remains is the question of how it affects the other country involved. And there, the answer is fairly easy: in each case, we pick countries that customarily and regularly engage in such torture anyway... so any dehumanization that might occur has already happened. One more terrorist being tortured won't change the character of a country that tortures criminal suspects and prisoners of war as a matter of course.

America should outsource torture -- limited to extraordinary circumstances -- for the same reason neighborhoods "outsource" animal slaughter to slaughterhouses, factories to industrial areas (or even other countries), and the holding of prisoners to established prisons.

It's really just an example of zoning: America is not zoned for torture, so we rendite certain special captives to a country that is. We outsource polluting industries to places where the natural byproducts won't cause us as much harm -- and the same practice makes just as much sense for torture.

It may sound odd, but it's really no different than what every city council in America does every day.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, February 12, 2006, at the time of 9:13 PM

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Tracked on February 14, 2006 12:05 AM


The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

Zoning Torture

Only in America...

Heck, most of what the Liberals, Democrat Party, John "Broken" McCain, and what the MSM basically reports and claims to be "torture" falls under under simple basic training in the US Military.

Zoning Torture

There is no such 'Thang as "Zoning" or degrees of Torture. Torture is Torture...simple as that.

Torture...American Style Part 2

Water Boarding and Abu Ghraib

Water Boarding is training, and not "torture". The more i hear John McCain cry, the more i suspect that he was broken by a mere slap or yell. Heck, beating someone on the head with the New York Yellow Pages ain't even close to "torture" when compared to the likes of *THIS*!!!

Dafydd...zoning is about Real Estate, and has nothing to do with "torture" or training. Weak men cave in from mere fear in any Prison or on any battleground...the other weak men cave in after you slap or yell at them. Such weakness should not be explained away by some so-called Torture Zone, in my humble opinion.


The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 12, 2006 10:23 PM

The following hissed in response by: cdquarles


This is a very thought provoking post. I find it to be quite compelling. Karmi is right about the Newspeak that the Left wingnut Media and far too many 'I am God' politicians engage in. Many, if not most, of the practices mentioned are not truly torture; but, instead, they have been redefined as torture for political purposes against President Bush (and his successors when they find themselves in a similar kind of war).

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 12, 2006 11:02 PM

The following hissed in response by: radarbinder

Zoning for torture - Remarkable way to look at this, and yet even at that most of what likely occurs is no more torture than that which I and my compatriots endured as Army draftees or even during two-a-days during summer football practices.

Wonderfully reasoned post!

The above hissed in response by: radarbinder [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 12, 2006 11:09 PM

The following hissed in response by: Jesse Brown

The end justifies the means? In a rational and well thought out way according to your lights. With your beautiful rationalization, aren't you forgetting something?

You are sanctioning the outsourced state who is performing the admittedly immoral act of torture. But I thought that the idea was to spread democracy and the rule of law and the principles of individual liberty and justice.

So we rely on brutal rogue states that we have a pragmatic relationship with; who have no compunction in routinely practicing torture against their enemies; in order to conduct a war on terror, spread democratic principles, etc, etc.

Am I the only one who sees the contradiction here?

And John McCain didn't just get slapped. Try having your arms bound behind your back at the elbow for hours or days on end and see if that classifies as a slap. And I can tell you about Marine boot camp. It was tough but it wasn't torture.

The above hissed in response by: Jesse Brown [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 13, 2006 11:07 AM

The following hissed in response by: Roy Lofquist

Aside from the moral arguments put forth, ER is the most effective means of obtaining information. The US has no experienced torturers, so we call in the pros. They know far more about which methods are effective, know when they are being misled and can keep it up longer without killing them.

The above hissed in response by: Roy Lofquist [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 13, 2006 2:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Jesse Brown:

So we rely on brutal rogue states that we have a pragmatic relationship with; who have no compunction in routinely practicing torture against their enemies; in order to conduct a war on terror, spread democratic principles, etc, etc.

Yes. Some ends justify some means, and this is one.

This reminds me of that old, 1960s poster I used to see which read "why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?"

This is the case of the missing adjectives, and when you add 'em back in, the question answers itself: Why do we kill guilty people who kill innocent people to show that killing innocent people is wrong?

You basically ask, why should we torture people conspiring in mass murder to get information that may save thousands of lives? That's another question that pretty much contains its own answer.

War by definition is an undemocratic endeavor; armies are not governed by voice vote. Yet monarchical armies in World War II paved the way for democracy in Germany, Japan, and all the territories those empires had conquered.

See the contradiction there, too?

In the real world, there are no solutions... only trade-offs. You must weigh the benefits to liberty against the damage and decide which is larger.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 13, 2006 3:38 PM

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