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November 14, 2007


This is one hell of a good thread. What's really depressing is the fact that the only reason the arguments presented by Holsclaw, Farber, "Zmulls", "Pete" and "Katherine" aren't widely recognized as elementary common sense is that a very large number of people in this country -- and in its current administration -- have completely lost their marbles through sheer panic. Which, of course, has happened in the U.S. before, invariably with disastrous consequences.


You display far too much respect for Patterico, and that causes me to lose much respect for you.

Torture does not elicit reliable information, and eliciting reliable information is not the point of torture. To assume otherwise is to ignore thousands of years of experience in favor of a few episodes of 24.

Torture should be condemned summarily along the same lines of pedophilia or genital mutilation -- there is no middle ground or equivocation allowed.

For shame.

just because some people make a different judgment than we do when considering these sorts of moral trade-offs doesn't make them monsters.

I'm not pointing a finger at Patterico or anyone else here. Just a simple question.

Where is the line between "not monster" and "monster"?

Not hypothetically, but really. Because we ain't living in a hypothetical world.

Thanks -

Well, actually, the hypo is based on a news report of a real-world event. This is what I'd like Sebastian to address next. But I'll blog about that.

Granted, the news report may be inaccurate. I'm not sure if I buy it hook, line, and sinker. But anyone who assumes I pulled the hypo out of thin air obviously didn't read my entire post, in which I link to the news report on which it's based.

Still, kenb, I think your comment is mostly on target. Part of the reason I wrote the hypo was to address the self-righteous folks who grandly announce that any torture is always wrong no matter now minor, no matter how guilty the subject, and no matter how high the consequences. I'm pushing those people to see how committed to that view they are. I have had people say they would have let 9/11 go forward even if (hypothetically speaking) it could have been prevented by waterboarding Osama bin Laden for 2 1/2 minutes.

I just can't get my head around that kind of outlook on life.


This is ridiculous. There are many answers to this set up, for that is what it is, a set up. But, for fun, let's play:

Answer A: No. Not worth it.

Answer B: The hypothetical presumes a sequence of events that have an infintesimly small probability of ocurrence, as opposed to the much larger damage done to justice and morality and the very fabric of society.

Answer C: Answer a question with a question: Is this the only time the torture is used? Yes or no. If no, what circumstances justify its use?

Answer D: The counter hypothetical. Assume the torture was successful as posited. Wouldn't it then make sense to expand its use? After all, it of proven effectiveness. The technique spreads to the criminal justice system to wring confessions. It is so effective, that trials are dispensed with. It is then used in the political sphere to determine who is and who is not lying. Under this hypothetical, is waterboarding justified?

But what really gets my goat is the astouding presumption that those who take exception to this lunatic hypothetical are "self-righteous chest pounder(s)", a statement so hubristically self-righteous that it defies credulity that a sentinet human being wrote it.

In conclusion, the whole effort is just a cheap attempt to score points, and a laughable one at that.

Answer D:

By the way, I've never seen a single episode of "24."

I think I'm going to bow out of the comments section, seductive as it is, and work on blogging a response.

"I just can't get my head around that kind of outlook on life."

You set yourself up as judge, jury, and executioner, and you "can't get your head around" the fact that somebody finds this whole line of reasoning absurd.

Are you insane, or just pretending to be a lunatic?

And please, stop the ranting that I, and others with my viewpoint, are not "addressing the question." Perhaps it is time you answered one: When did you stop beating your wife\husband\partner\whatever?

I posted something like this in the comments to Malcolm Nance's essay:

"Please consider the possibility that the President was weighing national security against the legal and moral implications and that - just maybe - he did not begin from all of the same assumptions that you begin with."

If that was the case, then not only did he disregard the oath he took upon assuming office:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

but he also failed in his constitutional duty to see that the laws be faithfully executed (such as the Convention against Torture).

Also, what many are losing sight of is the difference between personal moral agency and the function of employees of the government - namely to uphold and defend the principles upon which our nation was founded. Those employees all take a similar oath to that of the president, which is an oath to uphold the consititution. They owe no similar moral duty to my family that I do.

So while the question of what I would do if confronted with some kind of one-in-a-million situation that for example Mr. Evans refers to, where I could save my family by committing torture, I can't honestly say what I would do in that situation. Perhaps, not being of right mind, I would commit what is undeniably a wrong in the hopes of saving my family. But if I did it would be because I believed that I owed such a moral obligation to my family.

But even in that case, I would also have no reason to expect legal immunity or even leniency. Seeking legal protection strips the entire exercise of any moral profundity the hypothetical is designed to proclaim. Either you think your moral justification trumps the law or you don't. Having official and legal approval doesn't make your action a morally trenchant decision, it makes it following orders.

There is no evidence of a similar moral duty owed to citizens by employees of our government. They may believe it is so; but that does not make it so. They are acting in their capacity as our employees. If we wish to empower them with that ability, we should undo all of the laws on the books forbidding such behavior and withdraw from all treaties that do so as well. I would submit that that would represent a rejection of what it has to this day meant to be an American.

People may attempt to graft that moral obligation to MY family onto our servants in government, but that merely represents an attempt to win by visceral reaction, rather than logic. Yes, I may HOPE that some random interrogator would save my family by torturing a suspect, yet I have no legitimate reason for expecting it. In this respect the analogy to WW II Germany is apt: a German interrogator may have been able to morally justify torturing a captive in an effort to save his family (say by gaining information about a planned bombing raid in Dresden), but he should not expect to escape legal liability at Nuremberg.

As far as the practical results of torture, I would say that the use of torture could result in increase peril to our troops in battle because opposing combatants who thought they might be tortured would be more apt to fight to the death rather than surrender. There was a good reason why the understood rule among German soldiers in WW II was to run west not east if they found themselves behind enemy lines or separated from their unit.

Finally, also from a practical point of view, I would ask that people examine the case of Ahmed Ressam, the captured millenium bombing plotter:


A sample:

"Ressam confided to his lawyers that he had found the trial surprisingly fair. The judge had treated him respectfully. THE EXPERIENCE WAS NOT AT ALL WHAT HE EXPECTED OF THE COUNTRY HE HAD BEEN TAUGHT TO HATE.

Ressam also told Oliver he was unsure of the morality of his plan to massacre innocent holiday travelers. He said he needed to study the Quran to see if he had misunderstood passages.

So when Justice Department lawyers offered a deal to reduce his sentence, Ressam was ready to listen. (my emphasis) The terms were simple: His minimum sentence would be cut in half, to 27 years. In return, he had to testify against an associate, Mokhtar Haouari, and others. He had to reveal all he knew about al-Qaida — plots, training, tactics.

Ahmed Ressam became a terrorist turncoat.

On May 10, 2001, FBI Agent Fred Humphries questioned Ressam, the first of dozens of interviews. The information was invaluable — and terrifying. He explained how he was recruited in Montreal and funneled into the bin Laden camps. He talked in detail about training with Taliban-supplied weapons. He informed on Abu Zubaydah, Abu Doha and other top al-Qaida operatives. He provided the names of jihad fighters he had met in the camps. He revealed that he had contemplated blowing up an FBI office and the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C....

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam's solitude has been broken by a stream of visitors, often FBI agents such as Fred Humphries, but also investigators from Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

With federal public defender Jo Ann Oliver at his side, he is told names and shown photographs of suspected terrorists and asked if he knows them.

On several occasions, Ressam has been flown to New York City for similar questioning. There, he is held in a detention center just blocks from Ground Zero.

Ressam did not recognize any of the 19 suicide hijackers from Sept. 11. But he was able to identify student pilot Zacarias Moussaoui of Minneapolis, now in U.S. custody, as a trainee from Osama bin Laden's Khalden camp.

Ressam informed on Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian who was the brains and money behind Ressam's Los Angeles airport plot. He identified Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who ran the Khalden camp, and Abu Sulieman, who taught bomb-making at the Darunta camp.

Most importantly, Ressam named the previously little-known Abu Zubaydah as a top aide to bin Laden. That helped smash the notion that Zubaydah, also now in U.S. custody, was little more than a travel agent for terrorist wannabes making their way to the al-Qaida camps.

Ressam is expected to testify at the trials of these and other suspected terrorists.

So it is that Ahmed Ressam — the boy who loved to fish in the Mediterranean, the teenager who loved to dance at discothèques, the young man who tried and failed to get into college, who connected with fanatical Muslims in Montreal, who learned to kill in bin Laden's camps, who plotted to massacre American citizens — has become one of the U.S. government's most valuable weapons in the war against terror...

Ressam's information was given to anti-terrorism field agents around the world _ in one case, helping to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to blow up aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001"

Hey Patterico,

Here's my hypothetical: A suspected arsonist is arrested at his family home. Without other proof, should the police --

A) interrogate the arson suspect using traditional police techniques;

B) waterboard the arson suspect until he confesses his crime and gives up all of the coming arson attacks he was planning; or

C) eat the arson suspect's children and force him to watch.

For extra credit, please tell us whether 9/11 changed everything about your answer.

For more extra credit, please tell us how you would use duct tape and/or Italian seasoning in your answer.


Great answer. Now replace the word "arson" with "terror" and tell me what changed.

In the original hypothetical scenario, replace waterboarding with applying electric shocks to the genitals, using thumbscrews, or sodomizing with a broom handle. Does your answer change?


You are a monster, and I hope you die painfully in a fire.

On those facts alone, nothing changed.

Oh, please.

Great answer. Now replace the word "arson" with "terror" and tell me what changed.

Now replace the word "arson" with "heresy" and tell me what changed. I'll tell you what changed: now, God will punish us all if we tolerate the heretics living right next door. How do you answer to St. Peter on the last day, when you know in your heart you let a converso live with his family, just three doors down from yours, and there they were not eating pork? Washing themselves on Fridays? What about his wife and kids -- all condemned to the fires of hell?

Lots of conversos have already confessed to plots involving child sacrifice! And poisoning wells! They are an abiding threat to all of us, and they are clearly in league not only with Satan, but with the Turkish Sultan as well.

I say that the case is clear. If the Holy Inquisition has to moisten the face of the occasional converso, well, God bless 'em.

You are a monster, and I hope you die painfully in a fire.

Hm. Didn't I say I was going to leave this comments section and blog a response to Sebastian?

What the hell, though:

No, the waterboarding session was not worth it.

The CIA officers charged with waterboarding KSM, lacking the knowledge that everything would turn out so swimmingly, would demand assurances from their boss that they could not go to jail for this. Their boss, & his boss, would ask the Justice Department to assure them that they would not go to jail. In order to tell them that they wouldn't go to jail, the Justice Department would have to write a memo falsely concluding that: (1) terrorism suspects were not protected by any portion of the Geneva Conventions, & the war crimes act did not apply; (2) waterboarding (& such other "enhanced interrogation technqiues as the CIA would deem necessary") was not torture.

As a result of those memos, CIA agents would torture many other prisoners, and kill several of them, including some who were not high level members of Al Qaeda & whose torture & death did not save a single life. In order to justify what they had done & avoid liability, they would cover up the evidence of this. They would also make false and exaggerated claims about how the program was necessary, how many lives had been saved by torture.

The techniques would spread to the military. In some cases, it would be because the Secretary of Defense thought it would be convenient not to have the Geneva Conventions apply to terror suspects in military custody, & to have authorization to use "enhanced interrogation technqiues" to abuse prisoners. After all, were America's brave soldiers lives less valuable than civilians? In other cases it would be because members of the military stationed with the CIA saw what CIA agents could do to prisoners: a guard at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, say, might come into work one day & notice that a CIA agent had tortured a prisoner to death & left his body in the shower while higher ups fought about what to do with the evidence. The guard might conclude that if the CIA could kill a guy, he & his friends on the night shift might have a little fun. They might take some pictures.

Soldiers would torture many, many, many prisoners--in Afghanistan, in Guantananmo, in Iraq. Some of them would be tortured to death. Some of those tortured would be innocent.

The people tortured would make false confessions, which whether they were guilty or not would lead to them being detained for years without charge or trial. Their false confessions would lead to other arrests, and more torture, and more false confessions. Intelligence would be led down God knows how many blind alleys, resulting in the torture of God knows how many, the imprisonment of God knows how many more.

The results would be downright bizarre sometimes. We'd not only imprison & torture innocents--we'd imprison & torture guys we captured in a Taliban prison bearing scars from torture by high level al Qaeda members; ne of whom Osama Bin Laden had personally accused of trying to assassinate him in 1998. We'd keep one of them in prison in Guantanamo for the better part of 5 years; another for 6 and counting despite the fact that he kept trying to kill himself.

The administration wouldn't be able to admit that this happened; it would have to classify as much as the evidence as it could, for as long as it could. It would have to keep the courts from examining the legality of these techniques, & push laws through Congress immunizing itself from prosecution, & ensure that the Justice Department remained in the hands of lawyers who would continue to falsely claim that everything had been legal; who would never investigate; who would never prosecute. Members of the President's party would have to support "enhanced interrogation" & pretend it wasn't torture; otherwise they would be admitting that a President in their party had participated in a conspiracy to commit war crimes.

But they wouldn't be able to keep it all secret; the world would find out. It would destroy our reputation, & make it impossible for us to credibly pressure other countries not to torture people or detain them indefinitely based on a bare allegation that they were terrorists or national security threats. It would help drive recruiting for Al Qaeda. It would help seal the failure of our invasion of Iraq.

I suppose you could add a bunch of other stipulations to your hypothetical to prevent these things from happening: these techniques would be practiced only against the highest level suspects, in a few prisons. They would be restricted to trained, professional, carefully selected CIA agents. It would only be used to prevent attacks when there was no other possible way to stop them. We would never torture innocents. We would never torture anyone to death. You could stipulate that, but it just makes the hypothetical even more of an irrelevant fantasy. In real life, this happened. In real life, it always happens when a country experiments with torture: it always spreads, it always leads to innocents being tortured, it never saves more lives than it destroys. In real life, a government who promises that this time it will be different is either lying, or kidding itself.

You should trust a government claiming it needs to torture exactly as much as you should trust a terrorist leader explaining why it needs kill just a few civilians (or a few dozen, or a few hundred), in order to save hundreds of thousands of Muslim children from death and slavery. I could make up a hypothetical where a suicide bombing prevented more evil than it inflicted & saved more people than it killed; would that show that opponents of terrorism just don't understand the moral complexity of it all?

What is the purpose of imagining an unlikest-possible scenario as a thought exercise to justify torture?

Surely its proponents are aware that, as thought exercises go, that one's about as useful as suggesting that, because Evel Knieval can make a motorcycle jump over 50 cars, perhaps letting motorcycles jump over cars on the freeway would be a good solution to traffic congestion.

Is Patterico aware of the fact that those "self-righteous chest-pounders who like to pretend that the moral issues are easy and obvious" include people whose job it is to interrogate terrorists? (Real ones, that is, not actors on TV who are following a script.)

"I only get by here by qualifying almost every word I type. I have to be very careful. I’m tolerated here, as long as I am careful. That’s all."

This is all perfectly true of me, too, as well, you know, OCSteve.

I try to always be reasonably careful that I don't make claims that I can't support.

Any good writer or debater does.

To be sure, I've been working at exactly these sorts of frequent written back-and-forth arguments in-front-of-a-small-crowd-of-people for thirty-five years now, so I'd be pretty pitiful if I were entirely crap at it by now.

But I still have to be just as careful today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter, to not blather out something I can't point to support for, unless I want to be prepared to back down from it.

Same for any writer who wishes to actually persuade people.

Thus, for instance, Hilzoy: greatly more respected than someone who writes "OMG, I hatez Bush!!!! OKBYE LOL!"

The difference of result one can commonly get between making supportable, factual, logical, non-fallacious, clearly written, arguments, and making the other kinds, may seem unfair sometimes, but as you know, it turns out actually not.

Being careful about one's choice of almost every word is part of what we call "good writing." (Not that I'm other than quite sloppy in what I let by in my blog comments, mind.)

Congratulate yourself for your achievements in that area, I suggest, rather than suggest that being pushed to make the effort is unusual or unseemly.

What is the purpose of imagining an unlikest-possible scenario as a thought exercise to justify torture?

I'm hoping that this is a rhetorical question. The purpose is obvious - to play on people's fears to overcome (a) most people's natural horror at torture, and (b) the impossibility of articulating persuasive logical arguments in favor of the horror of torture, leaving the monstrous advocates only with contrived hypotheticals.

My fondest hope is that every American involved in torturing in even the smallest way shall be hanged by the neck until dead as a war criminal.

"You are a monster, and I hope you die painfully in a fire."

That's a clear violation of the posting rules hereabouts. If you want to engage in that kind of rhetoric, there's no lack of other places that will let you.

(why does it always happen that way? Because human beings cannot be trusted with absolute power over other human beings. Ever.)

Katherine, could you please, please, please, post your 12:19 AM as a post, rather than just a comment? Hardly anyone will read it otherwise, and it absolutely deserves to be read widely.

Trust me on this.

That's a clear violation of the posting rules hereabouts.

I disagree, and I'm not joking. I could parse each of the four rules, but the only one that I've even arguably violated is number 1, regarding reasonable civility. The key, of course, is the "term "reasonable." I simply do not believe that ANY level of civility is "reasonable" when one deals with torture advocates.

"I simply do not believe that ANY level of civility is
'reasonable' when one deals with torture advocates."

I'm just a reader here, albeit a longtime one, so my opinion is as irrelevant as yours. Either one of the blog owners will notice, and give you a warning, or not.

Another datapoint on reality (since somebody brought up 'fire'):

Maine is a liberal state. Yet Maine allows its Citizens to shoot dead anybody that the Citizen reasonably believes to be attempting to commit arson (I know these laws well, heh heh). Laws like this are always written in the wake of some tragedy. After the loss of innocent life, hand-wringing over the treatment of the perpetrators is not a consideration.

Why anybody would lose sleep over inducing a gag reflex on some murderer in an effort to safeguard innocent life is not something I understand.

The Wiggles are on in the background. Fruit salad, yummie yummie. They are making more sense than many of these comments.

The link below is one of many variations of arson in 2007.


Hey Patterico, you monster!

You probably want to make it against the law to partially deliver a live baby, then pierce the skull, suck the brains out, then crush the skull, so that the infant will be aborted.

This happens approximately 5000 times a year.

And yet you heartlessly defend the waterboarding of innocents like Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, whose only crimes were plotting 9/11, Bojinka, etc.

Between 2001 and 2003, this type of thing happened approximately 2 times a year!!!

Now, I ask you, is torturing and killing babies an ethical thing to do? I know that there was no law against it. Maybe, kind of, torturing terrorists. Why That's an Outrage!

Let's look at the outcomes in legal cases that have been discussed in many posts at Obsidian Wings:

A) The Maher Arar case WAS DISMISSED.

B) The Plame case was DISMISSED.

C) The Haditha cases were DISMISSED or declared NOT GUILTY.

Am I wrong here, or were these the results of the cases? Everybody elese seems to think Arar vs US Govt: GUILTY. Plame vs Rove: GUILTY. Murtha vs U.S. Marines: GUILTY.

It's like they still believe the opposite of the court's decision.

Maybe I'm out of touch. My opinions certainly don't coincide with others here, and perhaps I should be banished for that.

OCSteve: My family has a discussion board where I have to qualify almost everything I say because my father's a Limbaugh conservative. However, by appearing reasonable while he appeared to be ranting, a lot of opinions in my family have moved toward my view. You make the commenters who can't restrain themselves from attacking you look bad.

But it is frustrating. On our family board I eventually gave in and made an "Antagonizing Papa Thread." In that thread I can post anything I want to about torture or signing statements without having to acknowledge that they may offend some people. It's very good for my blood pressure. I guess you would have to start your own blog for that.

Maybe we could compromise and abort only Extremely Ugly babies and torture only Extremely Ugly terrorists. This might be the KSM compromise.

BTW, I have been looking for the Haditha follow-up posts, and still have not found them on ObWi or Amygladagf. Could anybody provide links (post August 2006)?

Yesterday I kept trying to post but the post button wouldn't do anything. Anyone else ever have that problem?

Patterico- Odd usually conservatives complain that liberals are moral relativists. Jesus once said that as you treat the least of these (referring to the poor and downtrodden) so also you do to me. I don't know for sure that waterboarding someone will send you to hell forever, but I think it at least puts you on difficult ground unless you would definately be ok with being waterboarded yourself. (Love your naighbor as yourself) If torture costs you your soul then it isn't worth it no matter how many lives it saves.

thanks Gary. I will tomorrow but I want to edit/proofread it first & I need to go to bed.

On the off chance that anyone is honestly confused about whether the district court's dismissal of Arar v. Ashcroft implies that the court found that Arar was a terrorist, or that he wasn't really tortured, or that the U.S. wasn't responsible for his torture: It doesn't. The Arar case was thrown out not only before trial, but before discovery: before a single document was produced, or a single deposition was taken from a single witness. When a case is thrown out that early it's because the defendants successfully argue that even if every single one of the plaintiff's factual allegations in perfectly true, he can't sue them. As I explained last year:

At this stage of a case, judges are required to assume that all of the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint are true. Arar's complaint alleged, and Judge Trager had to accept, that Arar was not a terrorist; that the U.S. government has no evidence that he was a terrorist other than confessions that a few other suspects had made under torture in a Syrian dungeon; that the U.S. government flew Arar to Syria because we wanted Syria to interrogate and torture him; and that in Syria he had been severely beaten with electrical cables for weeks and locked in a cell the size of a grave for a year.

The district court threw out the case on legal grounds--mainly the need to protect government secrets; the full explanation is too complicated & too boring to go into it here. But the ruling had nothing at all to do with the judge not believing Arar's allegations. (Also: it was a really crappy decision & will hopefully be reversed on appeal--the Second Circuit held arguments last week & based on press reports at least one of the judges sounded righteously pissed).

I simply do not believe that ANY level of civility is "reasonable" when one deals with torture advocates.

I have always said that self-righteousness is the most dangerous human emotion. This comment is a good example of why. I don't even consider myself a "torture advocate" so much as someone who thinks the issue has shades of gray. For that sin, a self-righteous fellow feels perfectly justified in wishing that I die a painful death.

In any event, I thank him, because reading his comment motivated me to stop poking around in the comments section here, and go blog my response to Sebastian, which I have done. I hope he responds. It is a pleasure to read posts like his, which are very fair and thoughtful.

DaveC: Let's look at those cases you're citing as some kind of trump proof.

Maher Ahar: The judge dismissed the case based on the government's claim of "national security" to keep things secret that were already public knowledge. The FBI and CIA sent him off to Syria, where he was tortured, after getting false information from the RCMP. the CBC has a timeline or you could just read oh, anything Katherine has ever posted about it.

B) The Plame case is completely unrelated to torture. It's related to the Bush administration revealing a covert CIA agent (and with her her entire network) who was working on counter-terrorism and nuclear proliferation. And they did it to attack her husband for showing the Bush administration was lying. Scooter Libby was tried and convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators. George W. Bush commuted his prison sentence. No one else was brought to trial, in large part because Scooter Libby succeeded in obstructing justice by lying.

C) Still not related to torture. None of it was reported until after forensic evidence was mostly gone, and strangely enough, none of the Iraqis from the town wanted to leave their town and come to the US to testify against part of the army occupying their country, so how grandparents and women and children ended up shot to death in their beds is left unsolved.

And I should repeat, only one of the cases you're waving as a flag even addresses torture at all. None are the hypothetical "ticking time bomb" that never happens, because those don't happen. You're just trolling and trying to distract from the fact the President of the United States has been authorizing and approving torture, regularly.

Oh, one last thing--Sebastian hasn't sanctioned torture, because the claim that KSM's torture stopped the Library Tower plot is provably false.

(details tomorrow.)

Patterico, what exactly is your hypothetical question supposed to prove? That under ideal circumstances that never happen, and cannot happen, it might be justifiable to torture someone? You can use the same unrealistic circumstances to justify almost anything.

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 EAT two and one half CUTE PUPPIES.

WHILE THE PUPPIES ARE EATEN, KSM feels panicky and DEPRESSED BY THE DEATH OF CUTE PUPPIES. Even though he HAS TEN OTHER PUPPIES, he has TO WATCH PUPPIES BE EATEN. 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 EATING THE DELICIOUS PUPPIES worth it?

It's just as inane that way, and proves just as little.

I don't even consider myself a "torture advocate" so much as someone who thinks the issue has shades of gray. For that sin, a self-righteous fellow feels perfectly justified in wishing that I die a painful death.

That wish could be well justified, as your reasoning sounds uncomfortably close to those of a sociopath. And a self-righteous one, at that, to my ears...

Patterico, I'd be happy to continue the conversation. But I will also be happy to elicit help from katherine on details.

Katherine, I have your Harvard address and will send a query there, but if that isn't it please let me know here and I'll find another way to contact you.

Larry M, your 12:14 comment was definitely in violation of the posting rules. We do not encourage personal attacks here. Please restrain yourself in the future so that we don't have to ban you (which we hate doing).

Oh, one last thing--Sebastian hasn't sanctioned torture, because the claim that KSM's torture stopped the Library Tower plot is provably false.

I'd be interested to read about that. I'm not really invested in the whole thing, I just like discussing it.

That wish could be well justified, as your reasoning sounds uncomfortably close to those of a sociopath. And a self-righteous one, at that, to my ears...

And with a second person suggesting my painful death might be justified, I'm slapping myself for returning. Over and out! I look forward to the posts.

And with a second person suggesting my painful death might be justified, I'm slapping myself for returning.

Slap yourself for sloppy reading, rather. Both of others' responses and how your own responses sound to others.
Either that, or you're a sloppy writer.

Patterico needs to lose his job if he doesn't fix his moral compass.

He'd defend the waterboarding of a US Citizen if the Bush administration wanted it done.

Patterico writes: " This comment is a good example of why. I don't even consider myself a "torture advocate" so much as someone who thinks the issue has shades of gray."

Gray? It has shades of the natty black of an SS uniform.

Some of these commenters Patterico is complaining about (and blaming ObWi for) are people I don't remember seeing before. Is he sure they didn't follow him (or his name) over here?


Would you have sex with Osama Bin Laden if it would prevent another 9/11? As the bottom?

Just to echo Sebastian, who got here first: "You are a monster, and I hope you die painfully in a fire" is absolutely a violation of the posting rules. The members of the hive mind get to determine what counts as reasonable civility. Half of them have now spoken.

"Some of these commenters Patterico is complaining about (and blaming ObWi for) are people I don't remember seeing before. Is he sure they didn't follow him (or his name) over here?"

I made the same observation.

Also, while it's, of course, Patterico's perfect right to choose where and when and with whom he desires to exchange views with, and it is equally perfectly reasonable to refuse to engage with people interested only in personal attack, it's not, perhaps, perfectly obvious why doing so would also require not engaging in reasonable courteous discussion here with people one may disagree with, however strongly, who aren't doing the character attack thing.

Ignoring jerks, but not treating everyone as if they were a jerk, isn't really that hard a principle to follow.

"I simply do not believe that ANY level of civility is 'reasonable' when one deals with torture advocates."

I'm just a reader here, albeit a longtime one, so my opinion is as irrelevant as yours. Either one of the blog owners will notice, and give you a warning, or not.

I should have offered to bet a nickel, though.

WTF? Almost 150 posts on crappy hypotheticals and no-one brought up Belle Waring's seminal By The Power Of Stipulation!? What have these internets fallen to?

Let me clarify, Gary. I don't blame the whole site for these commenters, and I appreciate your telling one of them off. But in recent comments I have one person wishing me a painful death, another saying "That wish could be well justified," and a third saying I need to lose my job and comparing me to a SS officer because I'm not toeing his particular ideological line.

I don't have to blame the polite commenters here to decide that it's not worth it.

Making that decision is not the same as treating everyone here like a jerk. That shouldn't be that hard to understand.

I look forward to continuing the discussion through blog posts.

...a third saying I need to lose my job and comparing me to a SS officer because I'm not toeing his particular ideological line.

No, it was because you were proferring a ludicrous hypothetical as evidence of your appreciation of moral complexities. Whether that particular brand of nonsense is sufficiently analogous to, e.g., the type of thinking elucidated by Himmler at Poznan, is a matter on which one's mileage may vary, but describing this as merely a failure to "toe a particular ideological line" is disingenuous at best.

Patterico: But in recent comments I have one person wishing me a painful death, another saying "That wish could be well justified,"

While disagreeing with the person who wishes you a painful death - I do not believe that even torturers deserve the same fate as their victims* - in endorsing torture, you are yourself wishing a painful death on many people. Those people are not commenting here, will likely never read this blog thread or your original post and discover that you were among the people wishing them pain and suffering and ultimately a lonely, horrible death among enemies - but we know that's what you're wishing them. You have no moral high ground here.

(That doesn't make those comments right. We have posting rules.)

*Not least because I think torture is wrong for its effect on the torturer, as well as on the victim

Torture is a guaranteed step onto a completely slippery slope.

Consider a soldier who captures an enemy soldier and, instead of following the Geneva Conventions, pulls out one of his eyeballs and says that she'll pull out the other eyeball unless the enemy soldier tells her what time the following morning's attack is due. Enemy soldier reveals the information, which turns out to be true, and thousands of lives are safed. Now, what should happen to that soldier?

I'd say, court-martial and at least ten years in military prison.

Because otherwise you are saying that torture is OK. If it is OK under these circumstances, under what circumstances is it definitely not OK? How can you prove that the person in your torture chamber DOESN'T have information that will save lives? It's impossible. So, torture and see. And then you get off scot-free because, after all, you really thought that the person in question might have had such information.

That applies to the military. But it also applies to the police. For instance, if you are free to torture people, it is a big problem if the following morning they step outside and write angry letters to the papers. So you have to hold them incommunicado. You can't let them contact lawyers. Hell, writing letters or contacting lawyers might include encrypted messages to the enemy!

Hence, torture automatically means the destruction of virtually all civil rights. And it usually requires impunity for the torturers, and for the torturers' military and civil leaders.

And by the way, when a US soldier or policeman walks down the street, how does it change everyone's opinion, if you know that he or she is a potential torturer, and cannot be punished if he or she is indeed a torturer?

Katherine, could you please, please, please, post your 12:19 AM as a post, rather than just a comment?


Why anybody would lose sleep over inducing a gag reflex on some murderer in an effort to safeguard innocent life is not something I understand.

A reasonable point. Please see Katherine's 12:19.

Thanks -

We had a non-hypothetical ticking-time-bomb (actually a kidnapped child expected to die in a very short time) over here some time ago. The police chief threatened the confessed kidnapper with torture (on the books) and he lead the police to the child he had killed directly after the abduction. that started a torture discussion over here. What makes this case different is that the police chief was willing to take the consequences of his actions (which he documented in detail for that purpose) and that there was no possible doubt that they got the right guy.
The police chief got off leniently (but his career was obviously over)
The kidnapper-murderer could have gotten a reduced sentence had he not be completely unrepentant.
It was made clear that this would not be a precedent and that any other person doing the same as the police chief would get no leniency.
All of this is lacking in the current torture practice in the US. Noone seems willing to take the consequences for their actions, "executive privilege and national security" try to keep it all under cover and the process of determining beforehand whether the person to be tortured is actually the "right" one is at best highly deficient.
And for the hypothetical threat of taking and killing of hostages to deter the bad guys form committing their crimes, we should remember the calls to Bush to make it US policy that any terrorist act against the US or US forces would be answered with nuking a holy city of Islam.

Hartmut, I can almost understand the actions of the police chief. However, the reason it may have worked is that the child was already dead.

In the case used by Patterico, it would be as if he confessed to the plot after the plot had been pulled off.

But you are right, there is no accountability involved in the current slide into depravity, which may actually be worse than the actual occurence of torture itself.

Apologies for the incorrect information. Yes, I am furious. Even so I should have checked before writing.
I read the post here "Are We Disappearing Children" when it was first posted and followed the link to Human Rights Watch and the six group report on unaccounted for detainees. For some reason, for which I have no explanation, my memory was that the generals family was on the list. It is not. I'll try not to get so wound up I post before checking in the future.


Great example! If torturing a suspect was "legal" do you think police chiefs (or detectives) would hesitate to use it at the first opportunity? Of course not.

It needs to be the exception, not the rule. Literally.

That police chief was sure of the situation and willing to pay the price personally for what he was about to do. He would break the law, because in his mind saving the child's life was worth the sacrifice of his career and possible freedom.

After the dust settles, he could be pardoned or even serve his time knowing that he sacrificed himself, but saved a life.


I think any interrogator who finds themself facing such a decision needs to make it with the full weight of the consequences, not with complete immunity from his actions. If torture is made legal, there is NO WAY it will not be abused, the interrogator has nothing to lose, and no reason to be discriminating in its use.


I'm not even getting into the debate about whether or not torture works, even if it had a measurable success rate (it doesn't) this still needs to be the legal position—Illegal across the board, no legislating on certain procedures, waterboarding or anythiing else.

Here's what these pro-torture people are missing when they use the Hollywood ticking time bomb scenario...

The reason Jack Bauer, or Dirty Harry, or whoever is seen as "heroic" is because he is willing to do what it takes to break the suspect regardless of the price he himself will pay. His action is "heroic" because it is over the boundary, he'll turn his badge in, he'll go to prison, he'll take the bullet for his partner, and on and on.

If torturing suspects was routine procedure and what cops did every day right after picking out a donut, it wouldn't make a very compelling movie scene would it? Harry Callahan or Jack Bauer would just be a regular old cop, and watching them beat false confessions out of suspects 99% of the time would get old fast.

That's the system they want. Have they thought about it? At all?

"I don't have to blame the polite commenters here to decide that it's not worth it."

No, of course not.

I simply urge you to make some attempt to engage with reasonable and polite commenters, within reasonable limits of time, as feedback is a useful correction mechanism, particularly when it comes from intelligent and courteous people of a different point of view, and relatively few of them have blogs of their own.

Obviously it's up to you.

I'd personally really like to hear from you about my very first comment and question on this.

Would it improve my odds of getting a response if I posted the query on my blog, and if so, why?

baskaborr: "Apologies for the incorrect information."

No need to apologize to me. And we all make mistakes, of course. Particularly when we're angry. And you certainly have good cause to be angry.

"I'll try not to get so wound up I post before checking in the future."

Always a good idea for all of us to try to remember.

Mr. Furious: "The reason Jack Bauer, or Dirty Harry, or whoever is seen as "heroic" is because he is willing to do what it takes to break the suspect regardless of the price he himself will pay.

Just for the record, the plot of the second Harry Callahan/"Dirty Harry" movie, Magnum Force (written by John Milius and Michael Cimino), revolves around Harry discovering, confronting, and putting down, a gang of rogue vigilante cops (Tim Matheson! David Soul!), who have taken the law into their hands to murder criminals who the justice system lets off. They think he's naturally going to be one of them, but he responds: "I’m afraid you've misjudged me."

Another crucial scene, as summarized by Wikipedia:

[...] Briggs reveals that he was the one who started the vigilante cops' executions of the criminals who dodged trial and explains the cause of the vigilante cops, and that there are plenty more where they (the rookie vigilantes) came from. “You’re a good cop, Harry. But you’d rather stick with the system,” Briggs adds. But Harry’s response is that although he hates the system, he will stick with it until some rules come along that make some sense. Briggs ends the repartee with the statement, “You’re about to become extinct.”
Just to clarify Dirty Harry's morals, ethics, and practices.

We already have a solution to this whole problem.

Mr. Bush and friends can go ahead and torture people to their hearts content. If done correctly and specifically and we get the results Mr. Patterico suggests then no problem.

On the other hand, if incorrect and Mr. Bush and Mr. Patterico have tortured an innocent person, they get to answer to war crimes charges.

Oh, wait, it's the SECOND part Mr. Patterico is really arguing against, isn't it?

Don't worry, Gary, I am quite familiar with Dirty Harry...

I was just tossing him in there as an example, but even so, he's had his moments...

Callahan then breaks into the stadium and searches Scorpio's room without a warrant. Callahan hears Scorpio fleeing and chases him onto the stadium's field. Frank turns on the stadium lights, which helps Callahan find Scorpio, whom he proceeds to shoot in the leg from distance. Scorpio is unwilling to reveal the location of the girl to Callahan and claiming he has the right of legal representation. In response, Callahan tortures Scorpio by standing on his wounded leg. Scorpio finally tells Callahan where he has been keeping the girl. Unfortunately, by the time the police find her, she is already dead. To make matters worse, Scorpio is released without charge because Callahan broke into his home illegally and tortured him to obtain a confession."

To his credit, "The film ends with Callahan flinging his Inspector's badge into the river in disgust at how he has lost faith in the law."


Don't forget Robert Urich is one of the vigilante cops as well...

...sex with Osama Bin Laden if it would prevent another 9/11...

It's a stupid gay taunt but the answer would have to be yes, regardless. If you are willing to live in a state that uses torture and that state makes mistakes once in a while then you are agreeing to be torture, even if the odds might seem fairly small that the state will get around to you. No? So, in a fashion, getting fucked by Osama is almost a talisman of a pro-torture position. Once you've said, bring it on, it's no fun if the other side doesn't play.

Argh. This whole thread left a full vomit in my mouth. Torture? We are talking about torture. Think, say, 10 years ago. Was _anyone_ pro-torture? Anyone? And that was a mistake? Sure, arguments can be made but torture just isn't part of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Period.

The argument can only be defended by utilitarianism - "the ends justify the means". Conservatism was created in part as a critique of utilitarianism. Defend torture if you must, but you will not do so in the name of conservatism.

The problem with Patterico’s scenario is that it is an “idiot hypothetical,” set up so that only his desired conclusion will follow. So he posits certainties, that KSM has other deadly plans in the works, that he will speak when tortured, and that his information will be reliable and timely.

But as Sebastian so astutely points out, some torture victims are factually innocent and have absolutely nothing meaningful to disclose.

Also, rather than parsing hypotheticals, we have the actual experience of French journalist, Henri Alleg, who was tortured via waterboarding by French soldiers during the Algerian war:

“A man liked General Massu, who was the chief organizer of torture in Algeria and who died about two years ago, asked about three months before his death what he thought of torture and the use of -- the general use of torture in Algeria, said that he regretted it and that the war could have been -- could have gone on without torture. In fact, torture is not the main thing in such a war. The war was against the Algerian people, and every kind of torture used against an Algerian man or woman would only help the Algerians to fight back, and that when a son knew that his father was tortured, he had only one idea, that is, join the fighters who had tortured his father. So, I don’t think this is the good question.

But to answer precisely your question, it is a terrible way of torturing a man, because you’re bringing -- you bring him next to death and then back to life. And sometimes he doesn’t come back to life. So, the use of torture, in my opinion, is a way of making all people fear that if they fight, if they join the fighters against Algeria, they would undergo such a treatment. So it’s the use of terror against the people who fight. It’s not a way of getting whatever information; sometimes they get it, but most of the time it’s useless. So it is not a way of winning a war, even if the people who lead this war say that they have -- it’s an obligation for them to use this method if they want victory at the end of the war. That’s my opinion.”

The full interview with Alleg can be read here: http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/11/05/1538212

What's to keep a someone who's being tortured by giving away bogus plots either to stop the torture or to make intelligence officials bark up the wrong tree?

Why do you think we had so many terror alerts which turned out to be bogus?

Torture might make people talk, but not tell the truth.

Authorities capture a female terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack. She happens to be pregnant. And a lesbian. The only way the CIA can find out what she knows is by aborting her fetus and then allowing her to marry her life partner.


Frankly, I'm suspicious (and dismissive) of anybody on either side of this issue who is entire certain of their position ... and who is unable to see the other side of the coin.

"Frankly, I'm suspicious (and dismissive) of anybody on either side of this issue who is entire certain of their position ... and who is unable to see the other side of the coin."

Indeed. The upside of child-testicle-crushing always needs to be seriously considered.

PB, have you always been suspicious about people not being able to look on the bright side of torture, or is it only since 9/11 changed everything?

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.

That would be worth a post. To me it is one of the great mysteries confronting any observer of the conservative persuasion. (I'm not a participant, but I am an observer.) How did real conservatives miss the fact that Bush is a radical? The only answer I have been able to come up with is pitifully inadequate, barely an explanation at all, and I'm sure it isn't the real story. Nonethless it is all I have: they were embarrassed at being duped.

I think that's actually a lot of it, Jay -- the impulse to insist on always being right is very strong in the authoritarians who run the conservative movement, and their followers apparently have a deep need for their leaders to be always right. The movement was always more radical than most of its supporters, a thing I didn't understand very well until just recently and seeing how quickly people excuse Ron Paul's many failings and strange views because he is a firm anti-war voice at a time when so few others can be heard. The movement was the only show in town for some concerns, and exploited that. The rest comes down to good liars and complicit media.

In the lenghty discussion of the 'hypotheticals' which possibly could justify torture, it has not yet been pointed out, that torture can actually prevent information being provided by a suspect; see e.g.
1- the TPM Muckraker article on the testimony by Colonel Steve Kleinman at the House Judiciary Committee hearing on torture,
"...he offered a brief explanation of that process that sheds light on why torture is counterproductive for a professional interrogator, leaving aside questions of morality and law.

It's not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues -- "clusters, groupings of behaviors," Kleinman called them -- provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he's lying, when he's being uncooperative, and when he's being truthful, or a combination of the three.

But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools." It's one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security....."
(See also Video at http://www.tpmmuckraker.com/archives/004682.php

2- Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh's Book
"Administration of Torture" (
) quoted in
also points out that
"The FBI also voiced its strong objections regarding the efficacy of a fear-based approach."

* So the experts (from government) tell us, that torture doesn't work
(and as other commenters noted, its only use is to terrorize the tortured and their kin).
...and these 'hypotheticals' are even more unlikely than anybody would think.

The whole thing breaks down right at "we know that he knows". It is beyond human power to *know* what anyone else *knows*. That would imply not only that both we and he are certain about what is going to happen, but also that we are certain about the contents of another person's mind. We are not given any such certainties, nor do we at present have any way of acquiring them.

Katherine: That's really a perfect analogy to ask people to consider.

People who go consequences (narrowly and unrealistically construed) on water boarding will go principled about terrorism. After all, what's wrong with OBL isn't merely that his calculation of the good that would have been done by killing three thousand people was wrong.

Thanks. That's something. Had not thought about that.

I think Obama has the right line on this: you can concede the point about the trade-off while arguing it misses the point since it does not reckon torture as a policy. It does not address the question of what changes when you adopt this as a principle for an organization.

I have an interesting hypothetical moral dilemma to propose as well.

Suppose the following situation: In a remote Iraqi village, the local civilians are just trying to live decent lives and stay out of trouble. They would like to see their children grow healthy and prosper like any one else. However they have found out that rival ethnic groups who would like to posses their land have falsely accused them to the American military of harboring Al Quaeda agents.

Suppose further that they have discovered that a convoy of American soldiers and Blackwater security contractors is heading towards their village. This convoy, which sped out with short notice to capture the inexistent enemy has no translator among them and there are no English speakers in the village. The villagers KNOW they will not be able to communicate an effective defense to the American troops.

In addition the villagers know that, following patterns of such visits in the region, the troops will arrest many of the men and children and will take them to secret prisons and there torture them by many ways, including water boarding. In fact, in this hypothesis the villagers also know that certain members of the Blackwater security that are coming along have killed innocent civilians in other villages and continue to operate with impunity. These security contractors will, without reasonable doubt, kill some among their neighbors and family.

In my hipothetical, the villagers know all this plus they know the convoy will reach their village in two hours... unless...

Some members of the tribe who would rather die than see their family murdered and raped volunteer to break into that warehouse the oil exploration company left behind full of explosives, load them into the single village truck and they speed off to meet the convoy halfway in a tunnel. There they KNOW they will be able to suicide bomb the tunnel while the American military and security contractors are inside and kill them all.

As good Muslims, they would rather not do this, but in this hypothetical, there is no other recourse that they can use, no other way their neighbors and family will survive.

So they do it and it works.

The question is: Is it morally right for them to die and kill the dozen American invaders in order to save an equal number of innocent civilians in this hypothesis?

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