Torture in theory, and in practice

Jane Galt brings the torture question down to the personal level: Would you, personally, torture someone to protect one of your loved ones? Her answer, if I understand it: “Well, maybe I would, but it wouldn’t be right, or at least it would be morally dubious, and it shouldn’t be legal.” That’s a fair answer, and the hypothetical she poses — an identifiable threat of something horrible that can’t be prevented in any other way — probably reflects the thinking of the small plurality of poll respondents who endorse the use of torture against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists.

Now contrast with that what seems to be the actual practice of the United States Government — the government you and I, as citizens and voters, are morally responsible for — as recounted by Stuart Taylor in the National Journal. Someone from Egypt bought a ticket on an airplane flight on September 11, 2001 from the same computer at the same Kinko’s where one of the terrorists bought his ticket, and in order to find out whether the suspect was part of the plot we mistreated him until he completely broke down. Since, having completely broken down, he didn’t confess, we assumed that he actually wasn’t a bad guy and let him go.

Notice that everything we are reported to have done to this guy was within the rules, not “torture” at all as the government currently defines it: that is, no thumbscrews or hot irons. We merely broke his spirit. (Taylor has the details.)

I had some harsh words for Taylor the other day, based on a previous column which I thought callous with respect to the sufferings of those who are actually terrorists. But when it comes to the suffering of those who might be innocent, Taylor’s moral compass points true north.

The key point is that the case in which a known terrorist really has something to tell as a result of which an identifiable terrorist act could be prevented is the rare case. The common case is someone who might or might not know something about something. That’s the argument for Alan Dershowitz’s “torture warrants”: by giving interrogators a legal path to follow in truly exigent circumstances, you eliminate the slippery slope between the bomb-in-the-hotel hypothetical and the everyday use of “aggressive interrogation” on all the Jusef ibn-Schmos. The whole idea turns my stomach, but what I think is happening now turns it more.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: