Rice Channels Nixon

April 30, 2009

Condi Rice speaking to students at Stanford:

“[T]he United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

Got that? If the president authorizes it, it’s not illegal. Because the president authorized it. Simple. Good enough for me.

Do these people even hear themselves?

One of the interesting things from the recent Obama press conference was the president’s apparent desire to reframe the torture debate away from the does-it-work question. Obama seemed to tacitly concede that torture often does work, and that in some cases it may even work better than other information-gathering techniques. Instead, he focused on the argument that torture is unethical, it’s beneath us, and it’s un-American.

This is all good and fine, however there IS a strong argument that torture is not only ineffective but counter-productive. Even in the odd circumstance when it proves to be a useful tactic, it is, overall, a losing strategy. Whatever accurate information we have gained using torture that we would not have gained using other (legal) techniques is certainly outweighed by the loss of support from our allies, the animosity generated towards the US around the world, and the recruiting boon of our adversaries caused by these practices. And that’s assuming that torture is useful even on a tactical level. The tortured will provide whatever information, be it true or false, they think will end the torture. Therefore information gleaned from torture tends to confirm our suspicions and support our preconceived narratives. If we think Iraq was involved in 9/11, we’ll torture captives to get information on that connection, and they’ll give us that information, whether it’s true or make-believe, because they know it will get us to stop.

Also, as much as the president is right to argue that torture is beneath us, independent of its efficacy, I suspect that efficacy may very well be the foremost consideration among the public (yes, I have THAT low of an opinion of the American public). I suspect that there is a significant proportion of the public that would condone torture – without whitewashing it or using euphemisms or bullshit legal cover – if they thought it would prevent terrorist attacks.

I think that a considerable portion of the public are swayed by the ticking-time-bomb argument (mind you, I have no statistical evidence to back this up, only the frequency that this argument is made on FOX or right-wing talk radio). It goes something like this: imagine that The Terrorists have a nuclear bomb hidden in Midtown Manhattan. We don’t know where. If we don’t find it, it will kill a gazillion people. We have one of the terrorists at Gitmo and he knows where the bomb is. He won’t tell us unless we torture the shit out of him. Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you torture him? Don’t you have an obligation to do so?

This argument, by the way, or at least some version of it, has been popular among torturers and indeed all authoritarians throughout history. The problem with it is that it can be used to strike down every law and justify any practice. Consider:

Same scenario – bomb in NYC – except this time instead of having a terrorist in custody we have the guy from the Saw movies on the phone, and he knows where the bomb is. He’ll tell us – and we have good reason to believe he will – provided we bring him 12 nuns from the local convent to butcher and eat for lunch with a nice chianti and some fava beans. Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you give him those nuns? Don’t you have an obligation to give him those nuns? Millions will die, for crissakes!!

Or consider this one:

You went back in time and saw baby Hitler. Shouldn’t you kill him? But wait – it’s illegal to kill babies! Under these circumstances, can you really and truly justify a law against killing babies? And since we’ve now opened the door to killing babies, we really need to reconsider the laws on this. Obviously an across-the-board ban on baby-killing is out of the question.

You can see where this is going. You can always come up with some insane situation in which a usually immoral action suddenly appears moral when it is entered into some sort of utilitarian tradeoff. Sure, killing babies is bad, but here’s this other thing that’s worse than dead babies that will happen if we don’t kill them. Under those circumstances, let’s kill some babies! It’s wrong to push the big guy out in front of the trolley. But wait! – the trolley is barreling toward 12 little kids, and if I throw the big guy out in front of it, that will save them! Yes, we all saw the Star Trek episode where Kirk and Spock go back in time to keep Bones from saving Joan Collins. The problem with these things is that while they make for good brain teasers in college ethics classes, they almost never, ever happen in real life. There is not a SINGLE case in known history of the ticking-time-bomb scenario. There ARE, however, quite a few cases of people THINKING they were in the ticking-time-bomb scenario when they WEREN’T (and as a result, torturing the shit out of people that had no useful information).

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