Monday, May 4, 2009

Charles Krauthammer botches the torture/"ticking time bomb" hypo.

Charles Krauthammer says there's no reasonable debate over whether you should torture someone if doing so could save the life of one innocent person:

Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy....

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.
It's fine for Krauthammer to express his own view on whether you should torture in this situation. But it's not fine for him to say that no one could reasonably disagree with him, or that this is an "easy" question.

For example, I disagree. Maybe I'm wrong and Krauthammer is right — but there's a real debate to be had over who's right. On what basis does Krauthammer announce that you should always torture someone to save one innocent person's life? If you have to draw the line somewhere, why draw it there? Why not be more stringent and draw the line at 2 people -- or 10 or 100 or 1,000? (For that matter, you could be even more lenient and say you should torture to prevent just one person from being seriously injured.)

If Krauthammer had drawn the line at torturing someone to save a whole country from being destroyed by nuclear weapons, then I'd agree that there'd be no reasonable disagreement. Then Krauthammer's analogy to "conscientious objectors," whom we respect but also don't want holding top decision-making positions, would be as eloquently appropriate as he seemed to think it was in his actual column. But drawing the line at exactly one person, without providing any further argument for this position (which Krauthammer doesn't), is arbitrary.

This is all just balancing pros and cons. Plenty of people would reasonably say that the negatives of torturing outweigh the positive of saving one person's life.

Why? For one thing, there's the sheer badness of the torture itself. Torture is so awful that I have a general presumption against making exceptions to our rule against it based on a desire to save lives. If this is just a "presumption," you can argue that it should be overridden in select circumstances, but you'd need to point to something more extraordinary than saving a single life to convince me.

Everybody is going to die. That's a given. It would be pointless to try to eliminate death from the world. But it's not a given that everybody is going to be tortured. You and I are going to die someday, and we have to accept that, but there's no equivalent sense in which we need to accept being tortured someday. And I do believe we should strive for a world free of torture.

In addition to the basic moral objection focusing on the victim of torture, there are lots of pragmatic problems that apply even if you disregard that person's well-being. As this article in The Economist argues:
A pointed objection to George Bush’s policies is not just that they crossed a moral line but that they crossed it to no purpose. Mr Bush’s critics were not confined to bleeding-heart liberals who are even now making a fuss about the rights of a captured Somali pirate. They included a legion, from high-ranking commanders to military lawyers to intelligence operatives, who argued that the techniques were counterproductive.

“Enhanced interrogation” acted as a potent recruitment tool for terrorist organisations. It made it more difficult for America to co-operate with allies, particularly in Europe. It imposed personal burdens on front-line workers who found their values compromised. Dick Cheney points out that the techniques yielded some useful information. But the same information might have been obtained by less controversial means. Torin Nelson, a veteran interrogator, says the administration made a fundamental mistake in focusing on how far it could push detainees, not least because people who are tortured will often confess to anything. It would have been better off recruiting and training more skilled interrogators who knew how to win the trust of their subjects.
Krauthammer has ardently supported U.S. military operations that have predictably killed not just one innocent person, but thousands of innocent people. So he clearly believes that someone can reasonably support a policy that causes regrettable deaths. In fact, it's a lot clearer that the U.S. has caused people to die through wars supported by Krauthammer than that we've saved people's lives through torture (or have allowed people to die by refusing to torture). He can't claim that even he (let alone all reasonable people) is automatically in favor of any policy that prevents someone from dying. Unfortunately, the cost-benefit analysis that we have to engage in is more complicated than Krauthammer would like to think it is.

IN THE COMMENTS: "Jason (the commenter)" makes several important points. For instance, he highlights Krauthammer's statement that "[t]he bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life," and asks:
How does anyone know this with certainty?
My original post may have been too charitable in accepting the hypothetical. You have to factor in the rate of error, and balance that against the value of saving a person's life. Figuring out the rate of error is inherently difficult if not impossible. Yet Krauthammer calls the moral calculus "easy."

Also, he refers to the captured person as "the bad guy." Who counts as a "bad guy"? If someone has only considered committing terrorism but hasn't acted on it, is that person a "bad guy"? Is a cab driver who's driven a terrorist around a "bad guy" for aiding terrorism?

Here's my challenge to Krauthammer or those who agree with them: point to one instance in human history when there's been a "ticking time bomb" scenario along the lines that Krauthammer describes. Has this ever actually happened? If so, how often does it happen?


Jason (the commenter) said...

The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life.

How does anyone know this with certainty?

I also have a problem with Krauthammer's moral math. When a country admits to being torturers it feeds enemy propaganda. Where do the people who are killed because of his policies fit in? Nowhere, because he's only trying to rationalize what he's doing, not make an honest assessment.

And he never explains why our government shouldn't be using torture to get information from us. The math is exactly the same; do ANYTHING to POSSIBLY save one innocent life.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Agreed on all counts -- see my update at the bottom of the post.

Anonymous said...

Does torture insure truth? How do you recognize truth? Certainly not when you hear it from the bad guy you have tortured and now hates you even more.