Tuesday, April 06, 2004

The case for torture: Lets say that you are the head of state of a democratic nation. Your intelligence service has just apprehended a known terrorist; among his possessions they found evidence of a terrorist act in the works. They figure out that the act will occur the next day but they do not know where and when; they interrogate him but he is not talking. They come to you asking for permission to torture the terrorist. After all, they argue, if they find out more about the terrorist act thats about to go down they could prevent it; hundreds of lives would be saved. Would you accept their argument?

We tend to think of torture as morally repugnant; something a free nation simply does not do. We instinctively believe that it should never happen; that the act is morally indefensible, barbaric, something we have grown out of. It conjures out the idea of medieval torture chambers one sees in museums. This makes the choice rather difficult; we are torn between the desire to save lives and our emotional recoil.

Not to mention that your intelligence service may be wrong. The man may not be a terrorist after all. Mistakes happen. Even if he is a terrorist, the information extracted from him might be insufficient to stop the terrorist bombings. Even if it is, the bombing might be prevented by acting based on the clues alone, rather than torturing the terrorist. We live in an unpredictable world and we must make decisions under considerable uncertainly.

I'd argue that we need to adjust our morality; that we must overcome the repugnance at the idea of torture; that we must, in some ways, become more base and barbaric. Faced with a choice between saving lives and avoiding torture, its difficult for me to see how one can choose the latter. And even if the information we act upon is imperfect, as long as we believe it is reliable, the prospect of saving lives must ultimately prevail.

We are moving toward a world that looks like an extended version of the Israeli microcosm, a world where terrorism is a constant disruption that never goes away. The bombings in Madrid; the terrorist act averted in Britain last week; the more recent bombing in Spain; constant threats against the US by Al Qaeda -- this is just the past couple of weeks. We need to realize that this world has changed substantially since Sept. 10th, 2001 -- and this new world demands a substantially different morality.

We will adapt to this new world sooner or later. More terrorist acts against the US will no doubt occur at some point in the future; each act will bring about demands by the public that the government take a harder line against terrorism. Eventually, the public and the politicians will understand that terrorists must be fought by any means necessary.


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