Back talk on torture: is it serious?

Torture is another one of those obsessions, like the casualty numbers, that tends to illustrate just how serious some people are in considering the issues of the day. Back Talk shows how the talk on torture is tortuous in How Personal Income and CIA Interrogation Techniques are Alike

A sensible debate would ask this question:

What is the harshest method of interrogation that can be used against high-level al Qaeda detainees in a time of crisis?

That’s an excellent question, and phrasing it that way helps to avoid the moral exhibitionism that generally accompanies any discussion about this issue. However, to almost everyone (especially in the mainstream media), the real question is this:

Does waterboarding amount to torture?

This is a silly question that elicits copious amounts of holier-than-thou finger pointing.

Take note of the fact that every single moral exhibitionist on the left simply refuses to think along these lines. They actually think that the question is all about torture, and the only thinking that is required involves whether or not to declare waterboarding as amounting to torture or not. Once they and their colleagues browbeat everyone into agreeing to characterize waterboarding as torture, they think the debate is over. But whether or not to attach a verbal label to a particular technique is a side issue. Waterboarding is only one of an infinite number of techniques that could be used, and these various techniques all fall somewhere on the 1-to-100 scale. That’s why you really have to do the hard work of drawing the line, not engage in the ridiculous game of declaring waterboarding to be “torture” (thereby immediately characterizing yourself as a noble humanitarian on the cutting edge of an evolving standard of moral decency).

Very few issues of any concern are simple yes or not decisions. Everything lives in a context and a continuum. Any decision will have side effects and unforeseen consequences. This is where the idea of relativism creeps in. An honest assessment accepts neither relativism nor absolutism. Yes, torture is unacceptable but what is torture and how far should it be allowed under what circumstances?

It does not do to say all is relative and the risk of killing thousands makes it acceptable to kill one. It also does not do to say that one should be protected from all harm no matter the risk to others. What kind of harm? physical? psychological? or is it harmful to be uncomfortable? – What risk and how likely? certain and massive? tenuous and minor? property or lives?

I agree that one cannot say categorically whether or not a particular practice – as described in general terms – is torture or not. For example, a slap may not be torture, but a thousand slaps that result in “severe pain” – itself a nebulous concept – may be torture.

A warm room isn’t torture. A searing hot room that results in burns is torture. And so on. In other words, it’s a matter of degree, and highly fact-dependant. Those who pretend otherwise are deluding themselves.

Making complex issues simple is as dishonest as making simple issues complex. Neither the idea of no standards nor the idea of absolute standards will fit many the more significant issues faced by societies. There is almost always and “if” or “but” that must be weighed and considered.

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