Were torture supporters “moral cretins”?


I agree with Megan McArdle about the unwisdom of making the claim that “Torture never works;” after all, “never” is a long time. Indeed, it isn’t hard to construct circumstances in which torture does work, other than the silly “ticking bomb” scenario. If the information sought is quickly checkable, such as the location of a codebook or the password of a website or the number of a Swiss bank account, then the victim can’t evade torture by making up lies, and may well provide some valuable information that he wouldn’t have given up under less emphatic interrogation.

No, as Megan says, the better argument against torture is that it is wrong, and illegal to boot. In defending those laws, one might want to make the argument that the actual damage to U.S. interests from any actual torture regime will be greater than the actual benefit from whatever information might be extracted under torture. It now seems clear that the Bush torture regime was, on balance, worse than useless, even from a purely amoral perspective. (The willingness of the very same people who tell us constantly that “government” is not to be trusted and that “politicians” and “bureaucrats” are pond scum to trust politicians and bureaucrats with the power to torture would be surprising, if one started with any respect for the moral or intellectual integrity of the American right wing.)

Megan is also right about the ethics and pragmatics of argument; pretending to care whether torture is effective when what you really care about is that no human being should have the power to do that sort of thing to any other human being is unlikely to be a sound rhetorical strategy.

But I get off the bus when Megan claims that

The people who support waterboarding, and the Bush administration, perceive themselves to be wrestling with a genuine moral dilemma: how do you weigh the suffering of suspected terrorists against the suffering of innocent victims of terror?

and criticizes those who say that, as she puts it, every torture proponent is “a big fat moral cretin.”

No, I can’t see inside Dick Cheney’s soul &#8212 if any &#8212 and therefore can’t be certain that he didn’t conceive himself to be “wresting with a genuine moral dilemma.” All I have to go on is the way he and his co-conspirators conducted their enterprise. They didn’t act as if they were wrestling with a hard problem.

They exploited their willingness to torture for maximum political advantage, sneering about how their opponents wanted to “give terrorists their Miranda rights.” They winked-and-nudged about the specifics: “The United States does not torture.” They wrote, and ordered up, hilariously inadequate legal opinions: documents that didn’t even confront the fact that the United States had historically prosecuted waterboarding as torture. They suppressed internal dissent. They fought ferociously to keep the issue away from the courts. They outsourced some of the crudest stuff to places like Syria. They lied about the identities of the torture victims &#8212 remember “the worst of the worst”? &#8212 and are still lying about the value of the information extracted. And they never flatly proposed the repeal of the statute that criminalized their conduct.

“Big fat moral cretin”? On behalf of my fellow baryatrically challenged Americans, I protest. Otherwise, the description seems just about right. I’m not sure what combination of careerism, political cynicism, racial and ethnic prejudice, locker-room jockiness, groupthink, and flat-out sadism caused Bush, Cheney, Addington, Yoo, Bybee, Tenet, Goss, and others to behave the way they behaved. But if I had to shake hands with any of them, I’d want to wash up with disinfectant soap afterwards.

It may be that in securing the passage of the Military Commissions Act the conspirators successfully immunized themselves against prosecution for their crimes. Even if that isn’t true, it’s at least possible that they will escape prosecution as a result of political calculation by the Obama Administration. But they are moral monsters, and felons to boot, and if they all died in prison it would be no more than they deserve.

Insofar as the American public can be brought to perceive this, and the natural self-protective instinct of the Washington fraternity, as reflected in the superficially calm but morally insane rantings of David Broder, it becomes more likely that our republic will partially redeem itself by doing justice to those who did injustice in its name.

No, I don’t pat myself on the back for hating torture and those who practice it, and most of all those who disgraced my country and its flag by practicing it. That doesn’t require any particular penetration or courage. But I think I’m allowed to count myself one-up, not only on the torture conspirators themselves, but on those who, for eight long years, pretended not to know what was going on, and those who now insist that it would be un-bipartisan for the President to live up to his oath of office and “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Update Steve Benen has more detail about the torturer’s fundamentally un-serious decision-making process.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com