Comment of the Day: Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.”

How did we end up discussing torture on Christmas Eve?

Sorry about that.

timebombHere is a stimulating comment by Zoebrain in the “Zero Dark Thirty” torture thread. I’m especially fond of it, because as theoretical and probably impossible as her resolution would be in practice, it neatly addresses the central problem conflict in the “torture is an absolute wrong but you might have to use it to save the world” scenarios, like the familiar “ticking bomb” hypothetical.  In her analysis. one violates the absolute rule, but accepts a proportional penalty for doing so.

I advocate a similar approach in legal ethics in situations where a lawyer decides as a matter of personal conscience that he or she must violate core legal ethics values, like keeping the confidences of a client, in furtherance of a higher objective not recognized be the Rules of Professional Conduct, such as keeping a serial killer from going free.

Here is Zoebrain’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.”

“Taking the “ticking bomb” scenario – and torture alas does work sometimes in getting time-critical information…Torturers should be subject to condign punishment.

“If the only way to stop a nuke going off, killing millions, was for me to torture someone, I’d do it. I’d then insist that I be executed. Only by such drastic punishment can we be certain that we are acting in the least unethical manner possible. If it’s not worth dying for, doing it is more wrong than not doing it.”

I’m pretty sure Jack Bauer (“24”) would not agree.

24 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: Ethics Bob Asks: “Did Torture Lead Us To Bin Laden”? My Answer: “So What If It Did? It Was Still Wrong.”

  1. What? Executed for torture? Crime it is… But capital?

    How is the evil man with information of the location of the ticking time bomb not morally equivalent to the man actively attacking you and a legitimate target of all physical measures necessary to stop?

    I think the ticking time bomb model is too overly simplified to be analogous to combatants captured on the field of battle or even by night arrest.

  2. The biblical Israelites had an interesting parallel. When the men returned from war or a particular battle in which less than ethical actions occurred they perhaps for the greater good, they knew punishment would not work, but being nonchalant would not work either. They instituted a custom of cleaning for a period consisting of isolation from the community and their wives and families.

    • Intentionally applied stimuli designed around extreme emptional or physical trauma in order to gather information that a captured individual may or may not have?

      Not torture?

      • “Emotional” is the key here, Tex. The subject FEARS for his life through the inherent human response to perceived drowning. But it’s not really drowning. I’d suggest this comes under a similar heading as conducting a mock lynching of one prisoner in order to “encourage” the others into talking. I understand where you’re coming from, but I see waterboarding more as a means of emotional duress rather than actual torture. However, as I said, it walks the ragged line.

            • Except that the individuals to whom waterboarding was applied didn’t just “Think” they were drowning. They actually were. Water often goes into the lungs with prisoners often passing out in the early stages of asphyxiation (and would die, if their lungs were suctioned out). There’s nothing that is merely “Scaring the Crap out of them”. That is physical trauma, that is extreme emotional trauma, that IS torture.

    • Water boarding has been recognized as torture by the United States military for century. We executed Japanse soldiers who performed it during WWII and tried and convicted out own military personal who performed it.

        • I’m loathe to use Wikipedia as a source, but it is a nice summary of topics.

          Scroll down to the instances relating to the United States. Waterboarding has been historically used in our nation, each time considered torture, and each time outside of official policy (which is molded around our values) and subsequently receiving severe censure from constituted authorities.

          I disregard the causes of our enemies as vehemently as you, but I feel I’d be sick to my stomach knowing we became a monster to fight the monster.

          We must pursue Right aggressively and prosecute our Enemies to their complete destruction or complete capitulation, but we cannot do so in a wrong manner– we cannot pursue Right Wrongly.

          I’m reminded of my most favorite quote from the movie Munich, when the one Mossad agent who believed in the cause but lost his zeal due to the methods employed:

          ”We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.”

        • An editorial in the Washington Post by a former JAG officer.

          Courts Martial in the United States Army in the Philippines in the early 20th century for using it.

          The charge sheet of the Military War Crimes Commission in Japan dealing with the trial of Yukio Asano for water boarding.

          Click to access asano_case.pdf

          I can find no first person reference for where we executed Japanese soldiers for water boarding. All I can find is second hand accounts so that’s no good.

          As to it being illegal for the military to use see the example above plus Google Vietnam and water boarding and you will see the references to a photo of soldiers, although they may be Marines as it was around DaNang, doing it that was ran in the Washington post during the war and the subsequent courts martial of the soldiers who did it.

  3. Guys; I understand how you are loathing the concept of torture- which I share. I would only point out that, in the case of waterboarding, what’s involved is the irrational fear of the subject that he’s in jeopardy of being drowned. Does it walk the line? Yes. Is it on the level of flogging, red hot pokers and the Arkansas Telephone? Hardly. Did it produce life saving results when, in a rare application, it was performed on Salid, a top terrorist operative? Yes. Am I, therefore, sorry that it was done in that particular case? No. While I realize that this is a slippery slope, ethics-wise, I also understand that when you’re dealing with murderous savages of the worst order and when innocent lives are in peril, actions must sometimes be taken beyond the usual guidelines. Terrorists understand no Law of War. It’s what makes them the ultimate outlaws in the first place.

    • Sorry but it’s not an irrational fear of being drowned . You are being drowned. You do get water down your nostrils and in your lungs through your mouth. The cloth over the face only slows it down. It allows the person doing the interigation to drag out the experience and the fear. Ask anyone who went through SERES when they use to do it to the students to prepare them for being tortured.

    • We believed it was torture for years. This wasn’t up for discussion until a republican president did it, and then republicans generally lined up behind him. I suspect that if instead of a republican president waterboarding muslims, a democratic president waterboarded christians, you’d have a very different take on the matter.

    • I think the maxim “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” applies here. I’m using it because I think it’s a strong position, not because of who said it (Ben Franklin).

      • I see where you are going with that, but I think Nietzsche’s handles it best “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”

        By analogy, we really aren’t surrendering Essential Liberties when torturing captured combatants. We are surrendering our decency, and what spurred this debate even appearing on this blog: our ethics. Just as wrong, just better to accurately identify what it is we are giving up.

        • I think tgt is right. Nietzsche, whose concept of ethics was warped at best, is really making a non-ethical argument: torturers risk becoming what they hate. We do give up essential values, and ultimately the presumption of our own liberties, by torturing others: we reject the essential dignity and autonomy of mankind,by denying them to others. In so doing, we have adopted the position that rights are not “inalienable,” but merely a matter of who has the greater power

  4. Zoebrain hasn’t solved anything with her argument. Justifying an evil act on the grounds that you are willing to accept the penalty for that act does nothing to justify the behavior in question. If anything, her argument loans undeserved validity to terrorists who are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the course of murdering innocent people.

    • It doesn’t justify the act—it makes a statement that the actor believes the act is the best and most ethical alternative, and is willing to accept the penalty to show that the required conduct is wrong, but that he or she accepts the authority nonetheless. It’s called integrity.

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