Sunday, April 26, 2009

Justifying torture as a way to demonstrate that torture is evil

Right-wing Fox News pundit Sean Hannity half-jokingly offers to undergo water-boarding as a test to see just how bad it really is, Huffington Post writer Jason Linkins says go for it.

My first reaction to this would be: shame on Linkins and those of his commentors who support Hannity getting the torture he asked for. Torture is evil. It is always wrong. Period. It is not something which should be done to anyone for any reason, ever, and it is interesting to see just how easy it is, even for the people on the side of the angels in the argument over whether or not to prosecute Bush era officials for their design and use of "enhanced interrogation techniques", to decide that a little bit of torture is okay if it's done for a just cause on a person naive enough to ask for it to be done on them. This is why torture must be ferociously opposed, no matter whether it works, no matter why it is done, no matter who does it, no matter who it is done to. Its evil is too seductive even for good people.

On the other hand: there is an argument made by the anti-torture side that waterboarding that can be stopped at any time by the person undergoing it isn't actually torture, and that the complete and total helplessness of the person undergoing a torture "treatment" to make it stop when they've had enough is an essential component of defining something as torture rather than a lesser moral evil like "unwarranted infliction of violence". That conceivably opens up space for Hannity to undergo water-boarding under carefully controlled conditions: if he's able to stop it at any time while undergoing it, then it doesn't cross the moral evil threshold of being torture. But it also defeats the purpose of the entire exercise: if the idea is to show that the techniques used by the Bush Administration are too horrible to use on anyone, then what's the point of putting on a demonstration that's missing a key component of what made those techniques qualify as "torture"? It would at best just show how painful and frightening water-boarding really is, but it wouldn't demonstrate just what it is about torture that makes it truly evil.

To do that without actually torturing someone seems impossible. Keeping in mind the possibility that I myself am getting seduced by the evil of torture by even suggesting that taking Hannity up on this offer to subject him to some type of water-boarding is anything other than irredeemably evil, I'm inclined to explore the idea that it might be possible.

The problem: for the experience of waterboarding to truly demonstrate to Hannity some measure of the personal experience of being tortured, it would have to be done in a way that he can't stop. But if he has no say in when it stops, then we're torturing him. A partial reproduction of the treatment may be ethically justifiable, but the mere physical experience of water-boarding, able to be stopped by Hannity at any time, is an insufficent example of what it actually is that makes torture irredeemably evil.

But, what if Sean Hannity was allowed to decide how long he would be water-boarded for, but he had to make that decision before the waterboarding started? Then, once the process starts, he cannot change that decision for any reason and must undergo waterboarding for the time he himself earlier chose. That would give an idea of what its like to be helpless to stop waterboarding while still granting him a limited control over the whole process.

In suggesting that Sean Hannity be offered a chance to undergo waterboarding under the conditions I just described, have or have I not myself just justified torturing someone as a legitimate way to demonstrate to them why torture is evil? I suspect that the only reason Hannity would accept the terms I presented would be because he's too naive about torture to understand what it is he would be signing up for. That says "yes, it's torture" to me. So yes, it is impossible to give a person a personal understanding of why torture is so evil without torturing them, and it would be better for all to stop contemplating the highly seductive, evil idea of even trying.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Seen on the Internet: a parable about torture

Top members of Mossad, MI-5, and the CIA compete in the International Intelligence Service Olympics. They are told to enter a nearby forest and return with a fox.

The Mossad agents return an hour later with a fox. Two hours later, MI-5 also returns with a fox. The two groups congratulate each other on their respective gold and silver prizes.

Hours pass. The judges begin to get restless.

Finally, the CIA agents emerge from the forest with a deer, who is battered and bleeding, with shackles on its legs, opaque goggles over its eyes, and muffled earphones on its ears. As it passes the judges’ stand they hear it saying over and over:

“I am a fox. I am a fox. I am a fox . . .”