Sunday, October 16, 2005

Huffington Post, Sam Harris: "In Defense of Torture" - a response

Opening remark:

In this article, Sam Harris claims that a limit position involving acts of terror can be taken at which torture is ethical.

OK, here are a couple of counterarguments. You just can't get good torturers these days, can you? You simply can't get them trained. Sure, there are people who'd really like the work, but mostly, we don't encourage them. You see, we just can't - don't want to - keep them busy, and we mustn't allow the torturers to practice on people diagnosed with "paranoid schizophrenia", "anti-social behavior" or involved in fraud cases. Or for expressing dissent. You know what I mean - I mean, unless you need to: unless terror is the business of the state in relation to its citizens or subjects. Then Stalin finds his Beria, and Saddam has his brother Uday.

In his argument, Sam walks towards an extreme, but how would we implement his solution? Once you have accepted a Torturer in Chief, this should mean (*cough*) you've established formal procedures for determining where the boundaries for suspects to be torturable or not-torturable are, and who moves them? The Attorney General? SECDEF? Rules which apply to foreigners today apply to immigrants tomorrow, and children of immigrants the day after. The actual bomb weakens to a threat, and then a conspiracy based on an anonymous tip-off, to people who just happen to be in jail (*cough*), to someone reading about bombs in the library, to a pre-emptive strike based on faulty intelligence. When do we find we've gitmoized arrests on main street?

Let's keep that door closed. Thanks. Torture is never ethical, but at best, temporarily expedient. You cannot contain it.

Finally, as an aside, if modern warfare inevitably involves "collateral damage", this does not justify collateral damage: it damns modern warfare. Isn't it illegal?

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