I've written on the topic before, but a recent post by Patterico convinced me to revisit it. He hasn't finished all his thoughts on the issue, but I'll jump ahead anyway. I find him reasonable on most topics, so I thought I would throw in my thoughts. The presentation of his hypothetical is as follows:
Over the weekend, I asked a question about the morality of waterboarding. It was directed primarily at the self-righteous chest-pounders who like to pretend that the moral issues are easy and obvious — that of course we should never consider waterboarding under any circumstances, no matter how dire. The question was:
Let’s assume the following hypothetical facts are true. U.S. officials have KSM in custody. They know he planned 9/11 and therefore have a solid basis to believe he has other deadly plots in the works. They try various noncoercive techniques to learn the details of those plots. Nothing works.
They then waterboard him for two and one half minutes.
During this session KSM feels panicky and unable to breathe. Even though he can breathe, he has the sensation that he is drowning. So he gives up information — reliable information — that stops a plot involving people flying planes into buildings.
My simple question is this: based on these hypothetical facts, was the waterboarding session worth it?
Further assume that no less coercive tactic would reveal the information.
I am driving at a moral question here. What I really want to know is: do you consider the waterboarding session to have been the most moral choice under the circumstances?
Self-righteous chest-pounders like nosh, Oregonian, and Semanticleo all checked in at this blog since I put up the post. But none of them answered the question.
It wasn’t easy to get people to answer the question. The thread is over 470 comments, and it consists mostly of obfuscation and evasions. But I have gotten answers from many commenters.
I have follow-up questions for the people who answered the question. But before I get too far into the follow-ups, I want to make sure I have all the liberals here on record answering the question. Especially the self-righteous ones like those named above.
I'm sometimes self-righteous (though I try not to be) and I'm not particularly liberal, but since my overall mindset is closer to his, I thought this might be useful.
My answer to his hypothetical is 'yes, it would have been worth it'. I know that isn't everyone's answer, and it will probably cause me lots of grief here, but that is mine. In extreme situations, where you know that the person knows the information, and you need an immediate answer, IF it were effective, I wouldn't shed too many tears over 3 minutes of waterboarding. (Though I will note that you took an easy route by not positing 6 hours of off and on waterboarding, or 5 days)
That is my answer to the literal hypothetical. I think torture is wrong, but on a scale of wrongs--in that situation--I'd get over it.
My answer to what I think lies behind the hypothetical is rather different. The hypothetical has nothing to do with the discussion of whether or not we (the United States) ought to be torturing people. One of the key things that conservatives ought to remember (and which we notice all the time in liberal proposals) is that INTENTIONS DO NOT EQUAL OUTCOMES. The government is horribly incompetent at all sorts of things and we ought not abandon that insight when analyzing proposals of people who allege that they are our allies (the idea that Bush is a conservative ally is something I'd like to argue about on another day--but my short answer is that he isn't).
As with limitations on free speech, I don't trust the government to be able to fairly and nimbly navigate the rules that would be necessary to make certain that it only used a legal right to torture when it was the right choice. Sadly this is no longer a hypothetical question. In actual practice, we find that Bush's administration has tortured men who not only didn't know anything about what they were being tortured about, but weren't even affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Let me say that again. Bush's administration has tortured men who were factually innocent.
Not men who got off on technicalities. Factually Innocent.
Your hypothetical demands that the government be CERTAIN of the following things:
This man is who we think he is.
This man knows what we think he knows.
No non-torture technique will work.
Patterico, you work with the government. You know for a fact that it gets things wrong all the time. Even when we go through the huge and complicated process of a trial, it gets things wrong. And we aren't talking anything like a trial here. In reality, we are talking about torturing *suspects*. That is not a power to be given to the government.
Your hypothetical doesn't speak to the question of what the policy of our government ought to be, because no important part of the hypothetical actually has anything to do with the empirical reality of governmental torture. You pride yourself at not being distracted by stated intentions which have bad consequences in areas like rent control, housing policy, and education policy. Don't let Bush wave the national security flag and make you forget everything you know about how the government actually operates.