Thursday, April 23, 2009

Can There Be Any Benefits to Torture?

The New York Times nails the matter: It depends. If the torture of a few terrorists saves the lives of thousands of innocents (and you know they're terrorists when they divulge valuable information about terrorist activity), the case is stronger than if no actionable information is acquired. Scott Shane doesn't know if this is what happened, one way or the other, in spite of trying to find out; the public evidence is inconclusive.

The distinction is important, since it indicates that statements such as "torture is the end of democracy", being bandied about these days, are not necessarily true.

Israel calls this scenario "the ticking bomb", when you know you've got a terrorist who knows the whereabouts of a ticking bomb in a civilian area, or the identity of a suicide bomber who's already on his way. It doesn't refer to a band of terrorists with murder in their eyes but no bomb yet constructed, the assumption being that if you've got one of them, intelligent interrogation methods will extract his knowledge in time to thwart his colleagues' plans even without torture; with the ticking bomb, however, you may need to beat him up now in order to acquire the crucial information now. Which of course then begs the question when a gang of Islamists intent on destroying more tall buildings in the US become ticking bombs: when they're on their way to the airport? Earlier in the plan? When?

Since Israel has been facing these questions without respite for generations, it has had the time for the discussion now being had in the US; over time its answers have changed; there has been a steady distancing from the use of torture in favor of tricky tactics that are even more efficient. But then, if you follow that NYT article all the way to the final sentence, you'll see the advantage - if advantage it is - that Israel has over the US:

Mr. Obama paid his first visit to the agency this week, and his reference to the interrogation issue made for an awkward moment in which he sounded like a teacher gently correcting his pupils.

“Don’t be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we’ve made some mistakes,” he said. “That’s how we learn.”

The process of learning is the hallmark of democracy, far more than the measures taken during the process are the demise of it.


Anonymous said...

As a bull session argument, I've sometimes said that if I had a terrorist in my power and wanted to find a ticking bomb, fast, no lesser moralities required-

I'd tell Pamela Anderson and her wannabees it's time to serve, get a pound of bolivian marching powder, a couple pounds Mowi Wowie-

Human nature. Zipper drops, pecker rises, striped muscles of the vocal chords flex.

I'd have terrorists lining up to be interrogated.

Anonymous said...