A Torturous Debate

A few days ago, a very distinguished local academic asked me, “Can you believe where at the point where we’re having serious debates about whether torture is acceptable practice?”

Well, we are, but at least some public debate about the moral legitimacy of the Bush Administration’s endorsement of interrogation techniques generally regarded as torture is an advancement over public silence.

Today, the RTD carries two columns on the issue. In the first, Barton Hinkle very honorably makes the case against torture and chides conservatives for failing to understand what exactly is wrong about it.

 In the other column, Thomas Sowell forfeits the right to ever describe himself as a “libertarian” in a classic ends-justify-the-means argument for an “anything goes” policy towards torture. (Here’s an older version of his argument.)

There seem to me to be five fundamental arguments against the use of torture in interrogation.

The first would be a Kantian argument that torture is wrong in itself as a violation of universal human dignity. This is the argument most torture defenders reject, appealing instead to a utilitarian logic: if we can save lives through torturing one person, we should.

A second argument is simply that the U.S. has the obligation to uphold international law, whatever that law happens to be and whether or not it is in our short-term interests.

A third argument is that the use of torture, especially over an extended period of time, has a corrosive effect on our national character and sensibility, that it deadens our sense of morality and makes us a meaner, crueler people.

A fourth argument is that the use of torture damages our reputation in the world, which is far more important strategically in combatting terror than the trinkets of information that might be gained from a tortured captive.

A fifth argument is that the information “gained” from torture is itself of highly dubious value, and highly likely to be inaccurate or simply fictional, as torture victims say anything just to stop the pain. Following inaccurate leads is a waste of resources and can lead to mistaken policy decisions.

I’ll accept that reasonable people might disagree with the first, purely Kantian argument against torture. But most defenders of torture have little if any answer to the other four arguments about why the United States should not be in the business of torturing captives. Moreover, few if any of those defenders have taken seriously the perspective on this question of the people who actually have been tortured.

All of this sets the stage for what promises to be an outstanding public event on “Torture and the War on Terrorism” this Wednesday September 27 at 7:00 p.m., in the Commons Theater at VCU. Sponsored by the Richmond Peace Education Center and Amnesty International, the event will feature presentations by a former military interrogator as well as human rights advocates.

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Published in: on September 22, 2006 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

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