No small amount of writing, and plenty of writers, have made the bold claim that torture is always, irrevocably, wrong, and that those who sanction it are, by definition, moral monsters. Oddly, they take this bold stand without coming to terms with their subject, giving a nod to context, or recognizing that the sin of commission must be assessed against the sin of omission.
What they arrive at is a position with precisely the same supposed lofty superiority of pacifism, while completely failing to understand how such blanket condemnations, just like pacifism
, are completely amoral.Brian Appleyard
serves as the archetype, although Dahlia Lithwick
, GAW (here
and Andrew Sullivan
make the same mistake of arriving at a firm conclusion in the absence of premises.
Because Appleyard's position
is archetypal, I will use his name as shorthand for this position:
But the ultimate question is, of course: is torture absolutely wrong beyond all considerations of efficacy? The answer in western liberal democracies has to be yes. That answer does not require a metaphysical justification. It is just the way we are and how we define ourselves. … Torture is and will always be inevitable, it is a default human response. As John Gray has pointed out, that it should, once again have become quasi-respectable, is as clear as sign as any that ethical and moral progress is a myth. It is also as clear a sign as any that moments of respite from our fallen natures - like the moment provided by the institutions and mores of the liberal west - should be defended at all costs, not least against our own torturers.
This is facile passing of blithe moral judgment without having gone to the work of taking a stand on anything: subject, object, context, cost are all nulls. Torture is …. well, who knows, except that it includes everything that offends Appleyard. Beyond all
questions of efficacy; every one of them? Why is torture rearing its ugly head in the West now, despite having been largely a non-issue (in the West) since WWII? Is it plausible defending the institutions and mores of the liberal west will absolutely never require deciding which is the lesser of two evils? (And, to risk running off topic for a sentence, never mind the astonishment that someone old enough to have witnessed the passing of Jim Crow laws and the full emancipation of women could write "… that ethical and moral progress is a myth".)
Getting to that conclusion, though, requires slogging through some basic principles. Since I have no wish to glaze anyone's eyes to any greater extent then my writing talent demands, I am going to risk sacrificing clarity at the alter of brevity, and rely on comments to fill in the gaps.
A note on terminology. Failing to come to terms with the subject, the starting point, guts analysis from the outset. To grasp that nettle, here are my definitions:
- Torture: mistreatment of a captive that causes detectable physical injury.
- Coercion: all other forms and degrees of captive mistreatment.
At the outset, I concede torture is always wrong. Because torture obtains nothing coercion cannot, torture amounts to gratuitous violence. As I hope to make clear below, gratuitous violence is always wrong, no matter what form it takes. Pulling fingernails is always wrong. Waterboarding might be; depends.
Further, this is not about law enforcement, assessing guilt, assigning prison sentences. The context is war, which Clausewitz memorably defined as the continuation of politics by other means. War consists of acts of war, the collective point of which is to obtain the political goal obtainable only through war, then return politics to its normal means. Acts of war include blockades, sieges and every employment of deadly force. And coercion.
There are many principles of war, one of which is pertinent here: economy of force. Every bomb, bullet, ship, plane, every act of war demands the greatest possible economy. Not only does any violence or destruction beyond that required to obtain the political goal impose unnecessary suffering, wasted force means less is available to conduct other, more effective, acts of war. Moreover, since the goal of any war is resuming politics by normal means, wasting force will often create post-war conditions that run counter to the political goals the war was intended to achieve, while leaving less capability for future conflicts.
Consequently, both self-interest and morality coincide: the most effective way to conduct a War is to obtain its political goals with the fewest possible acts of war involving the least possible violence. Which also means the most effective war is the least morally offensive. Of course, that is a Platonic ideal; but it is the ideal towards which an ethically conducted war must aim.
There is further distinction to make between wasted force and gratuitous violence. Not all wasted force results in gratuitous violence, but all gratuitous violence wastes force. The former is knowable only in hindsight; the latter is obvious from the outset. (Generally) bombing civilian populations, and mistreating or killing prisoners constitute gratuitous violence because they (generally) do not advance the war towards its goal, and (generally) make the politics following the war more difficult.
That is why the laws of war "prohibit" these things: they distinguish gratuitous from necessary violence. But there are no absolutes, and no moral stands that qualify as other than platitudes without considering the alternatives. That means addressing the nature and principles of war. All acts of war are immoral: war is a complete abnegation of morality. Blowing things up and mowing people down are immoral. Always. Torture or coercion of captives is immoral. Always. However, wars excuse these acts when the failure to perform them is the worst of two evils. All acts of war are wrong in principle, but can be right in the ethical conduct of war.
Which, to repeat, is this: the continuation of politics by other means with the least possible use of force.
This puts coercion as an act of war on equal footing with all other acts of war. The ethical pursuit of war requires using coercion to the extent, and only to the extent, that it minimizes the use of force in pursuit of the war's political goals.
Elevating coercion as a completely impermissible act of war might, considering the nature of our enemy, well delay achieving our political goals and make their purchase come at a higher price, both to ourselves and our opponents. None who prefer that elevation devote so much as a keystroke to the fundamental contradiction they face: the reason we are talking about coercion at all is because it works. Its use produces results closer to the platonic ideal of war than its absence; otherwise there is no point to its use, just like any other act of war. To say coercion is ipso facto wrong amounts to a preference for more violence over less. That is the ground that Appleyard needs to defend, but never even stands upon.
The reason coercion is suddenly a point of contention is due to the nature of the enemy. War between nation states involves, to a surprising extent, information that is relatively easy to obtain, but resources that are difficult to attack. In contrast, essential elements of information about Islamists are difficult to obtain, but, provided with sufficient information, easy to attack.
This oppositional asymmetry makes our use of coercion more likely to be a useful act of war. This does not require some farfetched Jack Bauer/24 scenario. Instead, assume a captive one hand, and our possession of some information on the other. The captive does not know what we know. Under these circumstances, it is possible to coerce verifiable
information, by starting with what we know, and extending step by step towards what we don't: it is like pulling at a loose thread.
Unfortunately, the various laws of armed conflict are predicated upon nation states, where coercion would almost always be gratuitous. Compounding this problem is the fact that the laws, such as they are, repudiate all manner of things that we accept as necessary en route to arbitrary prohibition. Per Article 1 of the UNCAT (h/t to Gaw):
1. For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
So, apparently, we can put an Islamist in a maximum security prison until death do we part, but we can't threaten the same Islamist with a lifetime in a maximum security prison in order to obtain information about that which caused us to want to put him in prison in the first place.
That is schizophrenic enough. Adding insanity to delusion, though, is the consequential preference for more violence, a longer and more costly war. This is the rock upon which all laws of war founder: no party to a war observes them, nor should they, to their detriment.
Even worse, this ignores knock-on consequences. If coercion is on the table, then every time we capture an Islamist with meaningful information, then other Islamists must act as if we obtained all
that information. Disrupting their OODA loop
is just as important as tightening ours.
Taking coercion off the table, however, produces the opposite result. Our opponent can continue to function unhindered; our blanket prohibition plays to our enemy's greatest strength.
This is the problem into which we run head on without understanding precisely what it is we are talking about, and why. We are left without any defendable reason to engage in actions which we accept, en route to prohibiting things which are less violent than the alternatives. Coercion as an act of war is no different than any other. Sometimes it is the least bad alternative on offer; other times it is gratuitous violence no one should tolerate. The only meaningful criteria is whether, given what was known at the time, the intent of any act of coercion and the likelihood of its outcome contributed to obtaining the political goals for which the war is being fought in the first place.
The alternative is subjecting those upon whom these decisions are forced to ex post facto judgment -- I hold the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead as an excellent example
-- that from the outset would condemn actions the intent of which, by definition, were undertaken as the least costly way to advance the war towards its end.
Just to be clear: the preceding in no way is a justification for any actions undertaken during the Bush administration. Perhaps some, most, or all, of what that administration authorized had no "efficacy", and was patently obvious from the outset as nothing more than pointless, gratuitous torment, and richly deserves punishment. I don't know, nor does anyone reading this.
What I do know is that a sweeping assertion that coercing information is so uniquely awful that it requires blanket prohibition requires steadfast denial of what war is about, and an unknowing preference for blowing things up and mowing people down. Illegal always and everywhere, regardless of efficacy, is not some statement of the non-obvious, it is the applying of moral blinders simply because they are comfortable to wear.
Instead, as an act of war, coercion is to be judged like any other. An ethically pursued war requires condemning gratuitous violence no matter what form it takes; equally, coming to terms with war and the nature of the enemy will inevitably mean, at least on occasion, that not coercing information is far worse than doing so.