Thursday, 23 April 2009

Good boy, Shep

I've been listening to all these crappy justifications of torture over recent days and been feeling a low level mixture of sadness and anger. I've always liked the US, see.

 Andrew Sullivan spotted someone on Fox called Shep Smith summing things up for me here.

'Shep Smith': if you wanted to make up a name that said 'trust me' you couldn't do much better than that.

10 comments:

Hey Skipper said...

You leave the central problem untouched, though: what constitutes torture?

gaw said...

I agree that this should be the central problem. But I guess I've been a bit surprised - even shocked - when I've come across people recently who have moved on to justify out-and-out torture, the end justifying the means. I thought in the West this had been cleared up a few centuries ago!

Torture is something that inflicts severe physical pain or anguish. Waterboarding I would count as torture. Drowning is a form of dying and being half-way killed like this can't be anything but full of the most intense anguish.

However, I would have trouble writing a prescriptive formula to create a dividing line between torture and non-torture. But then it doesn't need to be done by me as suspects are interrogated everyday without resort to anything that could be described as torture, i.e. under the rule of law.

Why can't the law be relied upon? It seems reckless and worse not to.

Hey Skipper said...

... the end justifying the means. I thought in the West this had been cleared up a few centuries ago!This is the second unturned stone. All such statements are not only context-free, they are contradicted every day. I think it an easily made case that putting someone in a maximum security prison for years on end fulfills the definition of torture.

Of course, we justify that treatment as society's defense against predators: the end justifies the means.


Is there no end -- say, preventing another Spanish train bombing -- that does not justify the means of waterboarding in order to attain it?

So your, and Appleyard's, problems remain in front of you: providing a legally specific definition of torture that is not self-contradicting, and providing context to that definition.

That is why the law, as written on this subject, is unreliable. It not only fails to define, but it risks becoming monstrous in application.

NB: I do not wish to defend the Bush administration's actions; rather, I hope to point out the shortcomings of blanket denunciations.

gaw said...

Funnily enough the Roger Scruton interview referred to in the recent Thought Experiments post expressed one reason why I believe the current mix of law and convention regarding torture's inadmissability is sufficient:

“Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves.”

I happen to think that torture being wrong could be justified in abstract terms. But I'm happy to rely on the law and convention for now instead. In the UK we never made it legal to torture Nazis or the IRA and we seem to have come through.

Hey Skipper said...

What is torture? What is the context?

How much physical pain or anguish is justifiable if the anticipated end is to prevent the Brighton Bombing?

If the Bush administration, rightly or wrongly, perceived the Islamist threat as existential and pervasive -- in the year after 9/11, who knew? -- does the precautionary principle sit on their side of the argument?

As I think I have made clear, indignation is not the same as analysis; and the closer one gets to analysis, the closer one gets to saying, with the benefit if hindsight: "I wouldn't have done it that way, but I can see why they did."

gaw said...

I'm afraid I don't have anything to add to the argument beyond my previous comments.

Bunny Smedley said...

Surely that whole 'what is torture?' objection is a bit of red herring?

What's murder? What's rape, or incest? The definitions of all these things have differed considerably over different ages, different cultures, different legal jurisdictions - but that hasn't prevented various societies from creating some basic prohibition on all these activities, whatever the scope for arguments at the margins about definition, context, etc.

Personally, even if one strips away the objection that torture isn't a very good means of achieving what are generally assumed to be its ends, as well as the demoralising effect of torture on those who carry it out as well as those who suffer it, I'm happy enough with the basic tribal taboo - torture, in short, isn't the sort of thing WE do. Whether that's simply tradition, or some claim to moral exceptionalism, or a retreat into that rather elegant Burkean argument, I'll leave to someone else. But it's simply bad sixth-form sophistry to imply that one needs a completely water-tight definition of a practice in order to know that it's wrong.

This is an amazingly interesting website, by the way - congratulations on it.

Hey Skipper said...

This is a cut & paste from what I said at Appleyard's:

Without coming to terms with what torture is renders any condemnation of it emotional, not analytical.

This, for example, is pure posturing: The previous defence - that it was not really torture - is no longer viable. But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes.In other words, some things beyond some undefined degree of unpleasantness are always wrong, no matter what is at stake.

It cedes the argument to those most inclined towards hand wringing, and makes pacifism's mistaken claim to moral superiority.

Since no one asked, here is my take:

If an intrusive medical examination would be unable to detect any physical consequences of a coercive interrogation technique one day after the fact, it does not constitute torture.

(Why one day? Because I don't think sleep deprivation should ever be considered torture.)

By that definition, essentially nothing US authorities condoned qualifies as torture, and that definition clearly separates what the US did from, say, the North Vietnamese treatment of POWs.

Clearly, even accepting my definition, some coercive techniques are far more intuitively repellent than others. Stress positions or sleep deprivation are clearly not in the same class as water boarding.

Which gets to the second absolutely fundamental distraction: context.

The degree of coercion used must be proportional to the cost of failing to corroborate information. It is a complete abdication of moral judgment to simply state torture is absolutely wrong no matter what. There is no end of hypotheticals that make a mockery of that failure to appreciate the amorality of pacifism.

That such hypotheticals are exceedingly rare only means that coercion to the point of torture should also be exceedingly rare, and have a correspondingly high, and explicit, approval level.

But absolutely wrong, no matter what? Piffle.

Full disclosure: in a previous life I went through Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Evasion training. It included sleep deprivation, stress positions, hypothermia, and very close confinement.

Unpleasant? Heck yes.

Calling any of that torture, though, absolutely demeans the word.

Hey Skipper said...

Darnnit. I missed italics for The previous defence - that it was not really torture - is no longer viable. But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes.In other words, some things beyond some undefined degree of unpleasantness are always wrong, no matter what is at stake.

gaw said...

Bunny: As on your blog, you have the happy knack of expressing exactly what I'd wanted to say. You just do it with a lot more elegance, erudition and articulacy than I could! Thanks also for your kind comment.

Sorry Skip, we'll just have to agree to differ. I'm happy to rely on the law and don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel by re-thinking the wisdom and morality of the ages.

But the more I've thought about this, the more I've realised that I'm not actually taking a rigidly moral position vis-a-vis torture here, that it's absolutely wrong in every imaginable instance. It's more about using a tried and tested approach to this 'problem'. After all we should recognise that there is provision for exceptional instances in the legal system. Potentially justifiable torture might go unpunished because of the albeit contingent wisdom of juries and judges.

That's British empiricism for you! Ah, the uses of hypocrisy...