This is NOT my substantive response to Patterico's continued discussion on the torture issue. This is my response only to some theoretical matters. I hope to have a more substantive response with concrete examples late in the day Friday. I need to consult with our resident expert so I don't get my facts wrong. But for anyone who wants to root around, we have a great archive here. I also have other writings of my own on the topic here and here. Please realize that this is a response to Patterico, and I am speaking to him as one conservative to another.
Patterico's latest post on the topic is here.
I don’t mean to insult the people here who have answered no. I just happen to think that a “no” answer to my carefully phrased hypo reveals such an incredibly ideological mindset that I can’t relate to it. It’s 2 1/2 minutes of a mild form of torture with no lasting physical effects, performed on an undoubtedly evil terrorist and mass murderer, to obtain information certain to obtain thousands of lives. When someone says that such mild torture would be morally unjustified, that answer to me lacks common sense. And when it’s coupled with a smug self-righteous attitude, — well, I find it insufferable.
This isn't the proper attitude to take on intensely difficult moral questions. I take my lead from C.S. Lewis who counseled large amounts of humility on such questions. When you are looking at balancing very important concerns against one another, you should be very careful about assuming that you have found the right balance.
To take a step back from the torture example think of free speech and political contributions. The desire for a political field which has vastly less corruption is a right and proper desire. Unfortunately, some of the methods for controlling that end up being very severe restrictions against free speech. The desire for free speech is also right and proper. When these two particular concepts come into conflict, I believe that free speech ought to win for various reasons that I'm not going to articulate again right this moment. But I recognize that the desire to reduce corruption is a strong and legitimate desire. I think supporters of McCain-Feingold are wrong, or misguided, or improperly weighing things. I do not however think that anything negative needs to be said about them on a moral plane just because they don't come to the same balance on interests that I recognize are very important. This isn't relativism, I'm not saying that if people balanced having a tuna sandwich against free speech that it would be fine. I'm recognizing that both interests are very important, and that I should be a little bit humble in my understanding of where to strike the proper balance. This is true even if my opponents are being a bit smug about where they strike the balance. Their attitude doesn't automatically make them wrong.
My first question to Sebastian is this: what do you think of the opinion of people who would answer that question “no”? What would you say to my commenter “Stace,” who said to me: “If you say yes, you disgust me.”? I bet that is not an uncommon feeling on the left. But, Sebastian, given the assumptions of my hypothetical, isn’t a “no” answer indicative of a highly ideological view of this subject — one that would alienate most of the American public?
I think they are wrong. But I acknowledge that this is a choice between EVILS and very strong evils at that. It is difficult for me to stir up much anger that in a choice between evils, not everyone would come to the same choice as me. As for 'alienate most of the American public' that just isn't relevant to me. I think that the American public doesn't have super strong views of the subject. I think that they aren't particularly worked up over torturing actual evil people, but that isn't very relevant to the actual facts. I suspect (hope?) that if they realized how many factually innocent people were being tortured, they wouldn't be thrilled.
"So if the argument is merely that waterboarding is too significant a decision to entrust to government, because government screws everything up, then I don’t think the argument ultimately prevails."
This may be too complex of an area to go into here, but in short I have a pretty strong libertarian streak and I've seen the perversions of justice that have come about from the drug war (see civil forfeiture, out of control SWAT raids, and search rules that eat away at the 4th amendment). This is not the kind of power you want the government to have over people. The ticking bomb scenario doesn't actually occur, so the justification you offer doesn't have force. We really could use other techniques, and they really have proven to be more effective at eliciting truthful information. Torture provides an incentive to scream out whatever you think your questioners want to hear. The relationship between what your questioners want to hear and the truth is tenuous at best.
Sebastian supports his argument by asserting that we have actually tortured innocent people. He doesn’t provide links to any specific cases — and I bet that if he did, it would be to cases where someone claims to have been tortured and the U.S. government denies it — but he may be right. I’m not sure he’s proved it, but he may be right. We have also imprisoned innocent people, waged wars that proved to be a mistake, and made plenty of other errors. I need a better argument than that to deprive government of a tool that might be necessary to save thousands of lives.
While imprisoning people, we go through one of the more complex social structures around. Through it all, we still make mistakes, but the process can be very exhaustive. A lack of absolute perfection is not the crux of the argument. The problem is that the kind of high pressure situation that is always used to justify torture (ticking bomb, imminent threat, near-term plot) is definitionally NOT conducive to exhaustively determining guilt before the torture begins. Since, as you say, we make mistakes about innocence EVEN AFTER THE EXHAUSTIVE CRIMINAL PROCESS, it is a certainty that torture will be employed against innocents at a much greater rate than is found in imprisoning people.
I'm going to consult with Katherine about who the clearest cases are, but it is a fact that we have already tortured and sent out for torture, innocent people.
And I find it very plausible in any case, because we know that the police sometimes torture suspects even though they know full well it isn't legal. See for example the audio of a suspect who was tortured in his home here. (Yes I know you have issues with Balko. Just listen to the audio).
In a very conservative vein, I also would like to point out the rather strong formal governmental taboo against torture that has grown up in Western civilization. Until you can firmly show why it exists, what purpose it serves, and how proposals to legitimize its use in certain situations won't undermine that, I'm not excited about just tearing it down because Bush wants to cry 'national security'. He's lost the benefit of the doubt.
Note to commenters here at ObsidianWings: I know you have strong feelings. I suspect it would be most effective to channel those feelings into factual discussions rather than nasty rants. The facts are nasty enough as it is. You don't have to give people an excuse to avoid looking at the facts by calling them names.