The Unquestionably Un-Complicated Matter of Torture

Water-ordealApparently, at virtually the same moment that I was putting up my placeholder post on 0D30, and asserting that “[t]he unreserved condemnation of torture will on close analysis sooner or later reveal unexpected or suppressed ‘ambiguities’ in any observer’s position,” Kyle Cupp at the League of Ordinary Gentleman was writing a post under the title “Torture Isn’t Complicated.”

Co-signing criticisms by Ned Resnikoff directed against Jon Stewart – as interviewer of 0D30‘s Jessica Chastain, not as comedian – Cupp offers the following not-complicated position:

It’s a testament to our country’s moral adolescence that the ethics of torture gets unnecessarily convoluted by endless debates about degrees of pain, fantasy scenarios cooked up by moral relativists, and the high liturgical celebration of killing bad guys. Torture has an objective and morally-clear meaning: the infliction of physical or mental pain for the purpose of breaking the will.  It isn’t complicated and it shouldn’t be difficult to identify or to condemn.

Cupp is effectively insisting on the non-debatability of his premises: To admit to un-clarity on a matter of such simplicity would be to reveal defects of morality or intellect of the types he references, and thus to disqualify oneself from the start. Even to start is to disqualify oneself. It could well be that even by reading this far, you have disqualified yourself according to Cupp’s definition. One might even wonder why a position so self-evident even needs to be stated, especially in the absence of anyone theoretically qualified to take the other side.

Resnikoff’s position is similar. He asserts that those claiming to detect unresolved questions or “ambiguity” (again) are merely posturing, pretending to be “brave” about “moral difficulty” when they are merely indulging in the “cowardice” of hiding their effectively “pro-torture” or torture-enabling attitudes. The good anti-torture folk are, by contrast, straightforward:

Note that one rarely, if ever, hears opponents of torture describe the issue as complicated. For them, it’s actually pretty simple. Phrases like “complicated” only come up when the speaker is conceding that there are situations where torturing someone might be the right thing to do.

We have to halt Resnikoff’s logic train here, since he misstates the ethical question: The speaker for complications need not believe that “there are situations where torturing someone might be the right thing to do.”1 The primary ethical complications may or may not concern our own attitudes or uncertainties in regard to torture – put in ideal terms, whether the final removal of empathy for the captive can ever be justified. Even presuming that we reject torture from the bottom of our souls, a new and unique set of potential complications arises when we are asked to consider the conduct of others who, even if wrongly, may have believed that torture was justifiable, or, a different thing, that what they were doing did not rise to the level of torture. Can we extend sympathy to them? If always finally to the captives, without justifying what they have done or might allow to be done, then why not always finally to the captors, without justifying what they did? As a matter of universal justice, why is it possible to speak for the humanity of the mass killer, but not for the humanity of the water-boarder?

Such simple moral distinctions – akin to the difference between acting defensively but in error versus attacking someone maliciously – are elementary, but Resnikoff passes over them, while Cupp simply ignores them. Resnikoff proceeds with the claim that, “[b]y calling that question [of torturous interrogation] ‘difficult,’ one actually answers it” – i.e., by effectively justifying torture – but an observer able to distinguish between the truth of a matter and perceptions of that truth may not be addressing Resnikoff’s question at all, much less in any sense answering it. Stewart or the makers of Zero Dark Thirty seem to acknowledge that individuals in the past, in this case American officials and operatives, may have perceived themselves to be in moral difficulty or uncertainty. If we ask, for example, whether those operatives may have reasonably, if not necessarily correctly, believed that violent coercion might produce life-saving shortcuts to time-sensitive information, we do not necessarily rely on our own judgment as to the utility of such interrogation then or ever. We may wonder whether a reasonable and responsible individual might have experienced difficulty weighing the wrongness even of interrogation clearly torturous against other wrongs or potential very great wrongs. We are perhaps admitting uncertainty as to whether concerns of the former type must always be considered immediately and absolutely overriding, whatever the cost.

The openness to uncertainty equates with “the pro-torture position” only if the beliefs of American security operatives, of masses of American citizens, and of proponents of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” are to be deemed wholly unreasonable and therefore insincere, never tenable under any circumstances. We may beg to differ with such a conclusion: We may not yet feel able to state whether, if in the same positions, we would have known from the outset or at any later time exactly how to handle conflicting imperatives. We may not yet be able to assert that some innate moral sense would have told us that the conduct was simply wrong, and had to be opposed at all costs rather than tolerated or facilitated. We may not feel certain that insight would have informed us that the program would certainly be unable to achieve its goals by such means. We may be unsure how we would balance suspicions or even very strong feelings or conclusions along such lines against a strongly felt responsibility regarding palpable threats against people we were sworn to protect. We may even hope, and mean to say that we hope, that we would have done our best to end the interrogation program, or at a minimum have lodged a protest strengthened by the personal cost we accepted. We may simply be admitting that at some point we might have had to overcome uncertainty or fear. We might even recognize that we would have felt tortured by such a decision. We may further confess that we wonder – that we are fearfully uncertain – as to whether our admission of uncertainty indicts us, as Cupp and Resnikoff seem to believe. We may wonder whether, as citizens, then or now, we did or are doing enough to prevent or expiate the shame and our complicity, whether writing blog posts or making movies or conducting interviews about movies could possibly be enough.

Under this theory of the difficult and complicated decision, exactly what makes that decision difficult is our opposition to inflicting pain on defenseless individuals, put against our uncertainty about every other significant aspect of what was being done and what precisely might have been done about it. Under Resnikoff’s rationale, by contrast, to refrain from simply presuming, and standing upon, one’s own supposed moral superiority over individuals such as those depicted in Zero Dark Thirty is to be effectively “pro-torture.” He thinks that the complicators are just afraid to reveal what they really believe or, perhaps, objectively stand for:

But by hedging the issue and not endorsing torture outright, the speaker also satisfies a psychological requirement: He alerts you to the fact that he struggles with the issue internally, because he is disgusted by the idea of torture. He is reminding you, in other words, that he is still a good person.

On this reading, apparently, to express sympathy or the possibility of sympathy for the water-boarder is to conceal one’s sympathy for the water-boarder.

There’s something more than a little self-aggrandizing about such a posture. If the decision to support torture is “difficult,” then it must require a certain amount of moral courage and sophistication.

To say the issue is morally complicated is not only to take a position, but to pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to do so.

Apparently, to admit difficulty is a statement of strength – moral courage and sophistication – rather than an admission of failure. It’s very uncomplicated.

Now, no one in Resnikoff’s depiction has actually offered anything but negative opinions about torture. It is the failure to despise the interrogation program and those who ran or operated it with an all-overriding certitude that for Resnikoff equates with “support for torture,” because, as we have seen, the matter is just that un-complicated. The matter is so un-complicated that to acknowledge one’s failure to reach final moral judgments without hesitation, despite showing oneself “disgusted by the idea of torture,” is to advertise one’s “moral courage and sophistication” for having offered support for torture. It is so un-complicated that even to announce hatred (or disgust) for the sin tempered by uncertainty about the sinners is actually to announce support for the sin in a self-aggrandizing way, presumably much more self-aggrandizing than simply asserting oneself to be in possession of the for all time and places true and superior position sufficient to judge all others morally and finally.

It’s just that simple.

If such tacit torture-supporters really exist and really are given to such self-congratulation, they may not be the only ones who from time to time give in to the temptation. Yet such faults, if any, seem trivial in comparison to the larger subject, which, however, at least according to Cupp and Resnikoff, we are to refrain from calling “complicated.”

Notes:

  1. The liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin – Justice for Hedgehogs – seems, for instance, to be unsure about the matter, since his basic test for a universal ethic is the statement “torturing babies for fun is always wrong,” implying that torturing adults for fun or torturing babies for good reason might under some circumstances be justifiable. []

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6 comments on “The Unquestionably Un-Complicated Matter of Torture

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  1. Even if the reports of people later found to not actually be involved with al-qaeda being tortured, even murdered over the course of all this “war on terror” are for your argument set aside (I’d rather not, but you suggest you’re addressing solely those that were not innocent), does one have to sympathize with the tortured in order to condemn the torturing? What if you simply find the barbaric nature of it an inherent contradiction to the claim of moral right and justice assumed on the part of the party ordering the torturing?

    Think about the times it’s pointed out the horrific acts actual extremists engage in. There’s an implied “we’re clearly better than that”. The fear of falsifying such should be stronger than it seems to be, IMO.

    • You make some good points, and I will review this piece and future pieces on this subject for points where I may seem to have implied a presumption that everyone harmed by the interrogation program was guilty, as I did not consciously intend anything of the kind. I was focusing, in my mind, on the parts of the program claimed by EIT proponents to have done exactly what they were supposed to do – provide timely actionable intelligence.

      As for the question, I think the answer is yes: The idea of hating torture without regard to the victim seems in the final analysis contradictory, even at the furthest limit of abstraction, since you’re insisting on not treating people as abstractions. Otherwise, you could just say, “yes, I hate torture, but I hate streets filled the broken bodies of civilians and I hate wars of overkill demanded by an enraged and fearful citizenry.” To hate torture you have to be insisting on the fundamental, infinite humanity of every individual, and claiming that the violation of that humanity in torture is inherently deforming, regardless of what the victim may have done. Even if unstated, that is the presumption. Otherwise, barbarism is just another aesthetic choice.

      For someone working from a different moral concept, medically managed, minimum necessary infliction of harm might very well seem clearly “better” than flying planes full of jet fuel into skyscrapers or beheading journalists with rusty knives.

      • The most frequent rationale for torture, an end justfies the means rationale (not dismissng,only trying to describe), that is, the end is good usually ignores, usually not willing to explcitly dismiss, is the end of “breaking the will” not only of the indvidual tortured, but the people she embodies, represents. This ignoring, not willing to explictly dismiss, is the nonbarking dog, the smokng gun that implicates torture policy maker iin a barely ambiguous wrong. ABstractly maybe torture can be imagined without this dimension. Certainly torturecan be named to imply that will breaking is not a goal, only enhanced interagation is the goal. Procedures can be establshed. Findngs can be found. But I think the categorical objection and the appeal of torture is that will breaking,

        • I agree that there is such a dimension to the policy, but we can say the same thing about every aspect of war policy, and indeed about the particular violent acts committed by AQ. So, in order to know what we’re talking about specifically and what purposes it serves, we need clearer definitions. We also have to wonder to what extent the particular imputed aim is unconscious, or in what way, whether it makes a difference, whether we’re prepared to say that it is unambiguously “bad,” and, even then, whether it’s unambiguously worse than all of the other bads that warfare entails. I think in some ways its unambiguously less bad than much else we devote much less attention to. So what is it about torturous interrogation and mistreatment of captives that “gets to us”? I think it goes back to the will question and to the nature of the war and its aims on both main sides, and I hope to get to these connections in later posts, but it also goes to unexamined views on the part of certain self-styled torture opponents.

  2. So tell me Bob, how do you get information out of a Khalid SHeikh Mohammed, a supremely evil individual, as he was called upon to carry out the 9/11 plot, how to kill what they expected to be tens of thousands of civilians, and a whole host of other plots, the Capitol in flames due to Mohammed Al Quahtani, one of the templates for ‘Ammar’ the Arabian,

  3. Any tool, whether aggressive interrogation, or a drone strike, can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances,
    this is the problem with the absolutists like Glenn Greenwald, an team of operators, like those that went down in the month after Abbotabad, is perhaps the most effective, but most a most likely risk.

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  1. […] represented were in a symmetrical predicament – one that also happens to fall under a certain “objective and morally clear” definition of torture. They were more like the captive who is not physically harmed, but is threatened with harm to loved […]

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