Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!


Moral relativism and torture

I read an interesting opinion piece in the newspaper this week about torture. It was written by Grumpy Old Man Charles Krauthammer (and yes, that's his official title, hence the capital letters), who I often (almost always) disagree with, but who's still interesting to read.

Krauthammer begins by explaining that he wrote a column about the two exceptions to the no-torture rule. The first is the ticking-time-bomb scenario, the second is a less extreme variant, "in which a high-value terrorist refuses to divulge crucial information that could save innocent lives." He then writes that the column elicited spirited protestations. One response that he calls "stupid" came from a writer who claimed the "ticking-time-bomb scenario only exists in two places: On TV and in the dark fantasies of power-crazed and morally deficient authoritarians." Krauthammer, of course, has a real-life example to counter this, and follows up with:
One therefore has to think about what kind of transgressive interrogation might be permissible in the less pristine circumstance of the high-value terrorist who knows about less imminent attacks.

Of course, that's the crux of it. Krauthammer goes on to point out the "contemptible" hypocrisy of Nancy Pelosi. His critics, he says, reply that "her behavior does not change the truth about torture." "But it does," Krauthammer claims:
Our jurisprudence has the "reasonable man" standard. A jury is asked to consider what a reasonable man would do under urgent circumstances.

On the morality of waterboarding and other "torture," Pelosi and senior and expert members of Congress represented colleagues, and indeed the entire American people, in rendering the reasonable-person verdict.

And what did they do? They gave tacit approval. In fact, according to [then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter] Goss, they offered encouragement. Given the existing circumstances, they clearly deemed the interrogations warranted.

Krauthammer points out that the "circle of approval" was wider than even Congress. Even liberals believed torture was warranted in the aftermath of September 11th. He writes:
The reason Pelosi raised no objection to waterboarding at that time, the reason the American people (who by 2004 knew what was going on) strongly re-elected [52% of the vote is "strongly"? Krauthammer is engaging in some revisionist history, methinks] the man who ordered these interrogations, is not because she and the rest of the American people suffered from a years-long moral psychosis from which they have just now awoken.

It is because at that time they were aware of the existing conditions - our blindness to al-Qaida's plans, the urgency of the threat, the magnitude of the suffering that might be caused by a second 9/11, the likelihood that interrogation would extract intelligence that President Barack Obama's own director of national intelligence now tells us was indeed "high-value information" - and concluded that on balance it was a reasonable response to a terrible threat.

They were right.

Krauthammer concludes:
[Y]ou can believe that their personalities and moral compasses have remained steady throughout the years, but changes in circumstances (threat, knowledge, imminence) alter the moral calculus attached to any interrogation technique.

On the one hand, Krauthammer raises some interesting points. The idea of torture, in whatever form, is repellent to civilized human beings (or ought to be) until it becomes the only way to save someone you love. There's also the question of what constitutes torture. According to some reports, three people were waterboarded, and very few were psychologically traumatized by the various methods we used. I have no idea about the absolute numbers, but it doesn't really matter. The question remains: What is moral, and is torture ever okay?

Krauthammer obviously thinks it's okay sometimes, and he claims that the American people think so too, because they re-elected the man who sanctioned it. Well, I would argue that most people in 2004 still didn't know what we were doing, and if people like Nancy Pelosi knew and didn't object, I blame her as well for not making more of a big deal about it. We heard rumors, of course, but when the president of the United States stands in front of the press and says emphatically that we do not torture, we tend to believe him. So Krauthammer's argument there is dumb, but the question of whether or not torture might be okay in some circumstances is a difficult one. We would like to say that it's never okay, but what if my daughter is kidnapped and she's going to be raped or killed soon and the only way to find her is by torturing a suspect? That's the moral conundrum Krauthammer brings up, and it's a tough one. Of course I would say, "Torture away!" Then it comes back to - how could I ever teach her to have moral principles if I betray my own? But I'm sure she would say that I couldn't teach her anything if she was dead. That's why we don't like to be put in those situations.

I have argued this point with Mia's PT, who's quite a bit more conservative than I am. He accuses Barack Obama of wanting to be "nice," meaning speaking to regimes like Iran rather than pre-emptively striking them, and he disagrees with this. He's also a Christian, and this is where the moral question becomes sticky. I have no idea if Charles Krauthammer claims to be a Christian, but considering something like 90% of Americans consider themselves to be, I'll go out on a limb and say Krauthammer does as well. Even if he's not, plenty of "good Christians" are on board with torture. I've written about how hard it is to be a "real Christian" - as in strictly following the words of Jesus as represented in the Bible - because it's practically impossible in today's world, but it would seem to me that a Christian wouldn't condone torture no matter what the circumstances, even to save a loved one. After all, if you're a true Christian, this world means nothing - you're focused on the next one. I'm not about to accuse Mia's PT of being a bad Christian, because he's a wonderful therapist and a very nice man, but unfortunately, I don't feel like I'm a close enough friend to him to ask him how he reconciles these two somewhat opposing viewpoints. I can't imagine someone being a Christian and condoning anyone who tortures. But maybe I'm just being naïve.

If we continue in this vein, I like how some self-professed Christians have come out in favor of torture "in extreme circumstances," meaning morality is relative to the situation. Yet these same people (usually) consider something like gay marriage the death knell of all civilization and claim that there's no gray area when it comes to homosexual unions or, say, abortion. Moral absolutism rules there, it seems, but when it comes to defending the fatherland (yes, I'm using that word very deliberately), nothing is too horrible. This is why I try to avoid using moral absolutist terms, because it will always come back to bite you in the ass. And yes, that includes torture.

I'm certainly against the concept of torture, but again, how would I feel if it was necessary to rescue someone I loved? The biggest problem I have with the Bush Administration using torture is that they always took the moral high ground and claimed that we didn't do it and that the United States remains a shining beacon of how things ought to be done. It's bullshit, but it's fancy-sounding bullshit, and Americans love to believe that we're better than everyone else. I honestly think that "torture" might have been more effective if Bush and his cronies had come out and said they were doing it. If Bush had come out and told the terrorists that they had forfeited any rights to be treated as humans and therefore we were going to do anything to extract information, not only would the American people have been on board (especially right after 11 September) and therefore these days we wouldn't have all this moral hand-wringing, but maybe potential terrorists might have thought twice about attacking us. Even if that didn't happen, at least we the people would have known where we stood. Another columnist I read today claims that we're already complicit, as we could have figured things out in 2004. Well, that's one of the reasons I didn't vote for Bush in 2004 - I was repulsed by what he was doing, and that included locking people up for no reason other than they looked funny. Had Bush been more forthright, he might have had to deal with a brief shitstorm, but according to him, he never cared what people thought of him, so why would he have cared then?

The fact that we tortured people, even if it was just three people, depresses me. Not because we did it, but because this is what the world has come to. However, it always makes me laugh a bit bitterly when the same people who refuse to compromise to allow two men or two women to get married twist themselves into knots to justify torture. The irony, I would imagine, is lost on them.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

"..... but when the president of the United States stands in front of the press and says emphatically that we do not torture, we tend to believe him."
"In 2007, shortly after I became a candidate for president, I asked the Federal Election Commission to clear any regulatory obstacles to a publicly funded general election in 2008 with real spending limits. The commission did that. But this cannot happen without the agreement of the parties' eventual nominees. As I have said, I will aggressively pursue such an agreement if I am my party's nominee.
I will pass that test, and I hope that the Republican nominee passes his.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is seeking his party's presidential nomination."

what a tangled web we weave when first we start to deceive

25/5/09 9:06 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

Wait ... are you saying politicians, even messianic ones, lie? Yeah, I get that a president that I support also lied. Politicians from both parties lie all the time, and I accept that. I don't really equate lying about federal spending limits with lying about torture, but that's just me. If Obama gets up in front of the American people and says we don't torture (wait, he's done that) and it comes out that he authorized it, I'll be as disappointed in him as I am in Bush. Just because I support someone doesn't mean I'm blind to his or her flaws.

25/5/09 9:31 PM  
Blogger Roger Owen Green said...

One of the many problems with the time-bomb scenario is that it assumes that the person in custody actually is the perp or at least has the info.

Man, you just gave me a blog post idea...

26/5/09 7:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting points Greg. Your blog is always a good read. One of the things people don't want to readily admit is that torture - or enhanced interrogation techniques, whatever you want to call it (I will call it T/EIT) - WORKS! I know it can be difficult to believe the CIA anymore, but I have to believe unless or until I see evidence to the contrary that many American lives have been saved from the waterboarding of those 3 terrorists. This is a very uncomfortable idea for many people because it feels like an evil act to gain critical intelligence information to save American lives. There is excessive debate on the actual term to define this concept, and less so on whether it is ever justified, and if so, under what circumstances. I believe the decision to engage in T/EIT should rest with one person, and he should make the decision with all the information available from various sources: POTUS as Commander-In-Chief of the country. I would hate to see POTUS preening from the moral high ground for refraining from doing T/EIT when that decision costs hundreds or thousands of American lives. What good is that?

29/5/09 7:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


(It's still legal - and always God-honoring - to air messages like the following. See Ezekiel 3:18-19. In light of government backing of raunchy behavior (such offenders were even executed in early America!), maybe the separation we really need is the "separation of raunch and state"!)

In Luke 17 in the New Testament, Jesus said that one of the big "signs" that will happen shortly before His return to earth as Judge will be a repeat of the "days of Lot" (see Genesis 19 for details). So gays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide "sign" (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven't accomplished! Gays couldn't have accomplished this by just coming out of closets into bedrooms. Instead, they invented new architecture - you know, closets opening on to Main Streets where little kids would be able to watch naked men having sex with each other at festivals in places like San Francisco (where their underground saint - San Andreas - may soon get a big jolt out of what's going on over his head!). Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!

[If you would care to learn about the depraved human "pigpen" that regularly occurs in Nancy Pelosi's district in California, Google "Zombietime" and click on "Up Your Alley Fair" in the left column. And to think - horrors - that she is only two levels away from being President!]

29/5/09 4:15 PM  

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