Monday, July 30, 2007

Torture, Ticking Time Bombs, and the Part of the Report that WAS Read

A clumsy way to do ethics is to take the worst case scenario and use it as raw material from which to manufacture ethical strategies. I remember one or two (thankfully, not more) of my ethics professors doing this in my college days. Your mother is being attacked by a crazed rapist. You have a gun in your hand. What ought you to do? or You have the opportunity to assassinate Hitler. Should you go for it?

Worst case scenarios (or thought experiments, as the professional philosophers like to call them) are bad ways of doing ethics for the obvious reason that they're so unlikely. I suppose it's possible that someone could try to rape your mother in front of your eyes, or that you might have the opportunity to assassinate a meglomaniac dictator, but the chances are against it. So why use such scenarios as test cases? Far better to generate ethical principles and moral strategies from realworld scenarios.

Much of the torture debate in North America (but not so much elsewhere) either explicitly assumes or has in the back of its mind a worst case scenario: the ticking time bomb. A weapon of mass destruction has been planted in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Authorities have captured the terrorist who knows the WMD's precise location and the exact time of its detonation. May they torture him to save hundreds of thousands of lives? Put in less Hollywoodish terms, the scenario is one that stresses urgency: may we torture someone to prevent an imminent disaster from befalling innocent people?

History has shown that this is an unlikely situation. There is no known actual ticking bomb torture case. These sorts of things may happen on shows like "24," but not in real life. The intelligence that interrogatory torture obtains is generally (a) unreliable, (2) small change of little importance, or (3) already known for the most part by the torturers. And as this blog has documented over and over, most torture isn't interrogatory anyway. Its purpose is to punish, to intimidate, and to assert authority. It's these types of situations, not improbable ticking bomb scenarios, that ought to be the test cases when debating the ethics of torture.

Now, I raise this obvious point because the 2004 Schlesinger Report on torture, which I introduced in an earlier post, discusses torture and morality exclusively in terms of the ticking bomb scenario in a brief Appendix H. The analysis is astoundingly simplistic. "Most cases for permitting harsh treatment of detainees on moral grounds begins with variants of the 'ticking time bomb' scenario," write the Report's authors. The reader's expectation is that this is a preliminary to taking a different, more fruitful approach. But the expectation is quickly disappointed, because the authors slide right into a strangely coy justification of torture from a ticking bomb perspective--as if no other torture scenarios either exist or are worth considering.

In a stressful ticking bomb scenario, the Report continues, it's understandable that military personnel would be tempted to use torture. But "a morally consistent approach...would be recognize there are occasions when violating norms is understandable but not necessarily correct." So if a soldier indeed does step over the line, he or she must do the honorable thing and turn themselves in to their superiors.

Huh? What this amounts to is: if you torture, be sure to do the right thing afterwards. What about doing the torture itself?! Here it is: military professionals much "accept the reality" that in some situations "morally appropriate methods to preserve...lives may not be obvious." "The tension between military necessity and our values will remain."

So, it appears that the prevention of torture isn't a priority for the Schlesinger Report, perhaps because it thinks of torture only as a desperate attempt to forestall absolute calamity. The problem, of course, is that "absolute calamity" is a relative term, and what seems calamitous to one interrogator may not at all seem so to another. The give-away is the Report's use of the term "military necessity." This is a weasel expression that can be used to justify nearly anything.

Perhaps the most ominous line in the whole Report is this: "National security is an obligation of the state, and therefore the work of interrogators carries a moral justification." But it's not entirely clear if this means that interrogators ought not to torture because such behavior would reflect badly on the state, or if torture is ethically permissible because interrogators are working to preserve the state. Given that the Report identifies the necessity for torture with ticking bomb scenarios, thereby implying that torture only occurs in situations of immediate and horrible urgency, the latter interpretation seems most appropriate.