Wednesday, June 07, 2006

To Torture or Not to Torture?

I listened to talk radio for a few minutes yesterday in the car. The host discussed the recent case of Muslim extremists arrested in Canada for a terrorist plot to blow up buildings and behead the Prime Minister unless their demands were met. He went on to talk about the Geneva Conventions and ask whether we should follow them in the way we treat people apprehended for terrorist plots and acts.

He explained that the Geneva Conventions rest on the principle that soldiers fighting for nations aren’t necessarily responsible for their actions on the battlefield because, after all, they’re just carrying out the commands of their leaders. They may even disagree with those orders, but they follow them anyway because that’s what good, loyal soldiers do. Thus, they shouldn’t be tortured or killed in captivity for following the orders of their nation’s leaders.

Yet, the host continued, terrorists are a different matter. They aren’t following the orders of leaders of nations; they’re plotting their own acts and carrying them out, often with savage hatred for all who don’t share their fanaticism. Not only that, but they haven’t agreed to follow the Geneva Conventions and most certainly don’t with the captives they torment and behead. Why should we follow the Geneva Conventions with them, especially when we might be able to coerce them into disclosing vital information that would enable us to avert future acts of terrorism?

For instance, said the host, two American citizens were arrested who appeared to have ties to the suspects in Canada. In their possession were encrypted computer files that FBI cryptologists have been unable to crack. It’s believed that those files might well contain information about terrorists and terrorist plots that law enforcement desperately needs. Should we be bound by the Geneva Conventions to abstain from using necessary means to extract from these suspects the information we need to decode those files and learn what’s in them?

I think there are compelling arguments for both sides. I worry about terrorism perpetrated by hateful religious and political extremists. But I also worry about granting our law enforcement and military the corrupting power to torture and kill people for acts they may not have even committed or planned to commit. I also worry about what this does to the psyches of the torturers and to those of an entire citizenry that condone the acts of the torturers. But, in the final analysis, I don’t yet know where I stand on this issue.

Not long ago, I would have denounced torture of any kind for any reason, and I would have blasted the Bush administration for even a hint of a suggestion that torture is ever justified. Now, I’m not so sure. The only thing I’m sure of is that we should always see torture, at best, as an occasionally necessary but nevertheless terrible evil that should be engaged in with extreme reluctance and sorrow.

Does my willingness to at least consider the use of torture under some circumstances mean that I’m letting my fears of terrorism plunge me into a state of moral devolution? Or does it mean that my morality is evolving out of a more realistic view of the world? What do you think?

2 comments:

Bithead said...

Funny you should mention this. I just posted some thoughts about all of this from a different angle. I'll toss it up here in the hopes of some discussion.

We, as a world, still can't agree on what, exactly, constitutes torture.

Before I go any further with this, I'm not being all-inclusive, here, I don't intend for this post to be an end all and be all... by no means a fully definative work.. but I do want to provoke some actual thought on this subject... so much of what we see on this topic is not thought, but knees jerking, anymore. Including, alas, by people who youd think would know better.

Anyway... For me, most rap is tourture. Paying $3/gal for fuel. Being forced by one thing or another to stay inside on a sunny day when I'd damned sure rather be out camping somewhere. Typing on a 'natural' keyboard.

This is said only partly in jest, and to make a point about a current argument we as a country are engaging in as regards to treatment of what we will call 'illegal combatants'; That's my first problem with the conventions as currently used, particularly in discussions about the Iraq and Afghan conflicts. We've defined down to an absurd level, what constitutes 'torture'. This argument is particularly absurd in terms what such people as WE hold prisoner would do to US, given the chance.

So while the definition of 'torture' gets defined down, we get complaints from those fighting us that they're being forced to listen to music, or whatever... and anyone who dares question or deride such nonsensical complaints, are told they're in support of torture, which is also absurd.

Part of the problem, here is over-relience on the law, as opposed to the morality of the situation. Now, here it is; I am for the removal of all laws as regards torture,a nd the treatment of prisoners in a wartime situation.

But before you start warming up, let me finish.

There is a major difference, between talking about removing a law about torture, and the support of it. Try it this way; There are those who will argue for the legalization of so-called 'recreational drugs", who will tell us that they don't approve of them. By the same token, then, just because I'm arguing for the removal of laws as regards the treatment of prisoners, does not constitute a blanket approval of torture.

So why would I argue against such laws? Because such laws are ineffective to the point of absurdity, thereby devaluing the very concept of law. The only time such laws get invoked is by the losers, and usually involve what constitutes the edges of such laws, which usually ends up redefining such concepts still further into absurdity.

Let's get basic, here; The very concept of war, dear reader, is one wherein there is a total lack of civility, and morality. Trying to inject morality by means of law into such situations then, is about as useful as a bicycle is, to a fish. The only way back to morality is to defeat the enemy, and then re-establish the moral and legal functions. Victory is the prerequisite.

Are such laws really effective in maintaining morality, which is the stated desire? I've said it here before; Laws are ideally the codification of morality, or at least they don't run afoul of them. Again, ideally. But perception of morality tends to vary with the culture, and the situation.
Further;Who gets to decide what is and is not moral in each given situation? Every war we have fought, since we signed onto the Conventions, has required substantial modification of the Conventions, because each new war brought with it new situations to which the old laws simply did not apply.

Further yet, unless one is prepared to argue that all laws are moral, we cannot depend upon the law to establish morality. We can, each of us, I think, come up with many examples of laws which are immoral, after all. as an extreme example, I'm sure the people running the gas chambers and the ovens at Auschwitz considered what they were doing was moral... and also, most certainly, legal. Laws, I'm afraid are not a good reinforcement for morality during times of war, particularly when those involved with the wars operate, as they usually do, under separate and far from equal perceptions of morality.

And finally, the argument that such laws protect OUR troups in wartime is patently absurd, given there has been no war we as a nation have been involved with in our history, were the Geneva conventions were actually follwed by our enemies. Not one.

So of what total effect, then, are laws proscribing some behaviors during wartime? They only limit the actions of the lawful, and diminish their chance at victory in such a war. (See also, "when guns are outlawed..." ) Usually, the limited actions are those of the people of the west. And those limitations end up costing the lives of our people, particularly when dealing with issues of information gathering, for example.

And all of this thusfar has been exclusive of the concept of illegal combatants, which is a situation we're now faced with... and the question of such laws actually applying to such individuals, which remains an open question.

So, as to what legal limits I feel should be placed on us in dealing with these illegal combatants... international renegades... the answer in the end is 'none'.

Yes, here again, it'd be nice and it would certainly be moral if we were to able to, to treat such people humanely, despite the fact that they would do nothing of the sort with US, and I would certainly encourage the US to do so, given that opportunity.... Meaning, when it won't cost American lives to do so.

But we're not under any moral obligation to do so at every turn. If those conditions are NOT true.. nor should there be any legal limits on this... because with such legal limits, we end up dealing first with the letter of the law, not the morality, (and the morality, as I've said, is far too complex a situation to write law to) When we fall into such traps, we run the greater risk of immorality as well as a greater danger to our survival..

Nagarjuna said...

Bithead, thanks for your remarks. I'd like to address them briefly.

You say, "We've defined down to an absurd level, what constitutes 'torture'." Could you elaborate or cite examples?

You say, "Part of the problem, here is over-reliance on the law, as opposed to the morality of the situation." I agree that people should ideally do good and refrain from doing evil because of morality rather than because of reflexive adherence to the imperfect "letter of the law." But how moral is it to inflict what we would all regard as torture on "enemy combatants" or suspected terrorists, and can we rely on morality unsupported by laws and formal agreements to follow these laws to guide us to do the right things and to refrain from doing the wrong things?

You say, "There is a major difference, between talking about removing a law about torture, and the support of it." I agree that there is a SEMANTIC difference, but I'm not sure how much of a PRACTICAL difference there is between them.

You say, "Because such laws are ineffective to the point of absurdity, thereby devaluing the very concept of law." I agree that if laws are violated often enough and badly enough, they devalue not only themselves but also law in general. But could you explain why you think laws or agreements against torture have reached this point and are worse than not having them?

You say, "The very concept of war, dear reader, is one wherein there is a total lack of civility, and morality. Trying to inject morality by means of law into such situations then, is about as useful as a bicycle is, to a fish. The only way back to morality is to defeat the enemy, and then re-establish the moral and legal functions. Victory is the prerequisite." Do the ends truly justify the means, no matter WHAT the means? If we abandon any semblance of morality and legality to win at any cost, will we even able to restore morality and legality after we've "won"?

You say, "And finally, the argument that such laws protect OUR troups in wartime is patently absurd, given there has been no war we as a nation have been involved with in our history, were the Geneva conventions were actually follwed by our enemies. Not one."

Have they not protected our troops AT ALL? Have no POWS been treated better because of these laws or agreements in place than they would have been without them?

You say, "So, as to what legal limits I feel should be placed on us in dealing with these illegal combatants... international renegades... the answer in the end is 'none'." So do you really mean to suggest that we should be free to do literally anything we deem necessary to interrogate or deter "illegal combatants" or "terrorists," even when we aren't certain they are guilty as charged and there are no laws in place to guide us in determining their guilt?

You say, "Yes, here again, it'd be nice and it would certainly be moral if we were to able to, to treat such people humanely, despite the fact that they would do nothing of the sort with US, and I would certainly encourage the US to do so, given that opportunity.... Meaning, when it won't cost American lives to do so." I agree that it would be nice to do this. But I think I may be more skeptical than you in believing that we WOULD do this if we had no laws, as imperfect as they may be, encouraging us to do it.

Thanks again for your comments.

Namaste,
Steve