Saturday, July 7, 2007

Debating the Ethics of Torture Is Like Debating the Ethics of Rape

There are certain acts which, once one understands their heinous nature, fall outside the boundaries of ethical debate. One can contrive classroom discussions about whether rape, say, or genocide, are always morally wrong--a madman kidnaps you and a woman you've never met. "Rape her!" he orders. "Or I'll kill her!" Or: aliens have landed on earth and given the planet a choice: voluntarily destroy every human being in Rhode Island, or the entire human species will be slaughtered--but these artificial ticking bomb scenarios have little philosophical merit and even less realworld significance. If we play around with them, we do so at our own peril, because even pretending that acts like rape or genocide are sometimes morally acceptable does damage to our deep intuitions that nothing whatsoever can make them so.
Once one understands what torture is, one clearly sees that debates as to whether it can ever be morally defended are stupid or worse. As I've argued in earlier posts,* torture is an act whose aim is to malfigure the self of the victim in the service of the power authorizing the torture. Torture isn't really about intelligence-gathering, although the latter is often a pretense. Torture is about crushing the will of an opponent, destroying her identity, stripping away who and what she is, layer by layer, until what comes out at the end of the process is either a dead corpse or a living one. If dead, no great loss. If living, the torture "survivor" serves the power structure by returning to society as a ghostly warning to all other potential dissenters. And since the living corpse never really leaves the torture chamber, there's very little danger that she'll be anything but compliant. Even after her "release," she'll remain in the hands of torturers: PTSD memories, stress-induced physical ailments, amnesia, panic disorder, and so on. The whole world, as Elaine Scarry points out, will become her torture chamber. Everything, even the simplest, most innocent event--the lighting of a cigarette, eye contact with a stranger, the sound of someone dropping a coffee cup at a bistro--can jumpstart the reliving of torture.
This destruction of the self, this disintegration of the soul, this willful disappearing of the very essence of an individual's personhood, is immoral. Debating the ethics of torture is, therefore, just as irrelevant as debating the ethics of rape or genocide. To not get this is either to misunderstand what torture is all about (stupidity), or to understand but be indifferent or cynically willing to defend torture out of self-interest (moral bankruptcy).
Some ethicists, notably Michael Walzer, Alan Dershowitz, Sam Harris, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, agree that torture is heinous but nonetheless morally justify it by appealing to what's come to be called the "dirty hands" defense. This position argues that the moral obligations of a national leader to protect her citizens may oblige her to authorize actions that are ethically wrong. She oughtn't to rationalize away their immorality. She must recognize that her hands are dirty, confess that her orders were necessary but immoral, and accept responsibility for them. This is what a good leader does: she steps up and takes care of business, even at the expense of her conscience.
But surely this is a pernicious sophistry. On the surface, it concurs with our deep moral repugnance to torture. But in actuality what it does is transform torture into something noble--a distasteful act done for the commonweal--and torturers into heroes who "sacrifice" their good conscience in order to save the rest of us. The dirtier the hands, the louder the confession of guilt, the nobler the sacrifice seems. And, as a bonus, the public confession of the torture-authorizing leader absolves the rest of us from complicity in the torture. We can know that our government is torturing without suffering from any inconvenient twinges of guilt. The President/the Prime Minister/the Generalissimo ordered it, not I! MY hands are clean...
Torture doesn't harvest reliable intelligence. There are other, better ways to gather information. Ticking bomb scenarios, almost always invoked to justify torture, are fictional, not realworld. The use of torture erodes the moral authority of the government that sanctions it, and unnecessarily creates enemies. The only purpose of torture is to destroy selves and demolish wills so that the power structure authorizing torture can maintain itself. And under what possible circumstances can this be morally defended?
Debating the ethics of torture is irrelevant, or worse.
*For example, Torture & Identity Malfiguration;
The Soul Is the Prison of the Body;
We Are the Priests of Power;
and The First Blow Changes Everything.