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Last Updated: 12/16/2005The Weird Torture Debate
The current debate in the US over torture is unbelievably weird. First of all, it’s weird that there’s a debate at all. For a long time the US has prided itself on its humane treatment of people, and although at times those ideals only existed in principle, the fact that today there are serious, thoughtful people who want to change the principles themselves chills me to the bottom of my American soul.
The other weird thing is who is taking what side. For all its moral hell-raising over ostensibly black and white issues like abortion, pornography, and euthanasia (and coordinate denunciation of morally bankrupt liberals), torture seems like a strange issue for the conservative right to declare morally gray.
Right-wing commentators like Thomas Sowell and Charles Krauthammer have piled on with columns mocking liberals’ “moral exhibitionism.” And everyone is bringing up that old Philosophy 101 ethics debate question, modified for the post-9/11 world: If you have a terrorist who knows where the nuke is, is it morally wrong to beat it out of him?
I’ll deal with the conservative hypocrisy in a minute. But first, the dilemma. The problem with the dilemma is that it is based on an extremely unlikely scenario. The scenario assumes: a) We know there’s a nuke; b) we know it’s in play; c) we’ve captured a terrorist; d) we know he knows where the nuke is; e) we know if we torture him he will tell us; f) we know the information he gives us will be accurate.
As you can see, if one or more of the above conditions are not met, torture will not only be useless, it can cause more damage by creating more extremists and more propaganda points for budding young al-Qaeda film directors. And as you probably can also see (and based on the last few years of experience with extremist Islamist terrorists) the chances the torture victim will not fold or will give wrong information are probably pretty good (for more on why torture doesn’t work, read these Salon.com articles here and here).
All of that deals with the practical argument. The moral argument should be equally elementary: A country that prides itself on its strong human rights record should practice what it preaches in its State Department human rights reports. It’s that simple. And if CIA agents (or military personal, or the FBI, or the LAPD, or whoever) can’t come up with a better way to get information, fire them and hire some who can. The proverbial slippery slope should be avoided at all costs.
Which brings us back to the conservatives. Why is it that cultural conservatives who whip out the slippery slope argument for every other moral issue imaginable start but-but-but-ing when it comes to torture? Shouldn’t it be as simple as “What Would Jesus Do,” and Jesus probably wouldn’t hang some guy by the arms and threaten him with attack dogs?
Perhaps they themselves have become victims of the slippery slope. In the absolutist rhetorical world of the Axis of Evil, the Coalition of the Willing, and Mission Accomplished, cultural conservatives led by their fearless leader have traded their black-and-white moral standard for a new one: For us, or against us. Political ideology is trumping common decency and turning those famous black-and-white morals a fine shade of gray.
It’s a weird cycle that has lead us here, and a textbook example of how ideology can unintentionally lead to evil. Hopefully we can stop it before it leads to something worse.
Peter Krupa is the editor of the Peace & Conflict Monitor