Sunday, December 14, 2014

Adrian Wooldridge on Torture (Sunday Times)

Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist’s management editor and Schumpeter columnist. Today he wrote an op-ed in The Sunday Times entitled  "Dick Cheney is wrong about torture, but for all the right reasons".
"Since the Senate committee published its torture report last Tuesday, Washington has been engaged in a full-scale civil war, which has pitted Democrats against Republicans and the CIA against liberal institutions such as The New York Times.
"But the most interesting battle is not partisan or institutional but philosophical: the battle between soft hearts, who think that torture is an offence against fundamental moral principles, and the hard heads, who think that it is justified if it saves lives. The soft hearts say that good people don’t torture, full stop. The hard heads say that that is self-indulgent pap."
Good to hear someone taking the issue seriously.
"Is this distinction between hard heads and soft hearts correct? The torture report poked some holes in it. On the basis of a detailed study of 20 cases, the report argues that enhanced interrogation played no role in disrupting terrorism plots, capturing terrorist leaders or finding bin Laden.

"But the more I reflected on the report, the more it struck me that conventional wisdom is upside down. Hard heads such as Cheney were motivated by a mixture of outrage over what happened on September 11 and fear of something worse: Cheney’s friends have repeatedly argued that 9/11 changed him fundamentally and transformed a measured figure into a warrior. But there is also a hard-headed case against torture.

"The classic hard-headed argument in favour of torture — the ticking timebomb — is less convincing than it sounds. Imagine that a nuclear bomb has been placed in the heart of London and you have half an hour to extract the necessary information from a jihadist before the device goes off. Will he really give you the right information as you apply the electrodes? Or will he waste your time by giving the wrong leads and then rejoice as you are all blown to smithereens?"
This is sophistry - the specious argument of the inutility of torture. Any interrogation of the nuclear-bomb jihadist is going to be met with initial silence or obfuscation. Suppose torture is the only way to make the jihadist say anything? Suppose you can rapidly check answers and persist until you get the truth? Suppose you have a scanner which can reliably detect the act of lying (so keep applying the current until the subject gives the right leads)?

In other words, suppose torture does in fact work - does that make it OK, Mr Wooldridge?
"Public opinion has been so thoroughly focused on the CIA report that the revelation that last month alone jihadists killed more than 5,000 people passed almost without comment.

"It is precisely because the stakes in this war are so high that we should avoid using torture. The war is fought on the home front: you have to keep the people on your side in a world where patience is limited and the enemy can disappear for long periods of time. Torture divides serious people and gives succour to the frivolous looking for an excuse to argue that “we” are not so wonderful and “they” are merely misunderstood."
"Torture divides serious people ...". Of course it's not alone in that, you could make the same case against drone attacks.
"The most interesting thing about the terrorism report is what it reveals about the internal state of the CIA. Torture took a toll on morale: in August 2002 some officers in a black facility in Thailand found torture so harrowing that they petitioned for a transfer. It created internal divisions: in January 2003 the CIA’s chief of interrogations sent an email to colleagues saying that “enhanced interrogation” was a wreck “waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens”. It forced the agency to engage in endless lies and cover-ups — not just to Congress but even to the more sympathetic Bush White House."
Again, there are many cases where military exigencies clash with liberal ideals. Pacifism and unilateral disarmament have durable and vocal constituencies. Not a slam-dunk reason to desist from doing what states sometimes have to do, even against their own public opinion.

But Wooldridge has a final argument.
"Democracies that have given in to the use of torture — Britain in the Cyprus emergency in the 1950s, the French in the Algerian War and the Americans in Vietnam — have always come to regret it deeply not just because they lost the moral high ground but also because torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions.

"It is easy for people who take the war on terror seriously to dismiss the terrorism report as a charade. The Democrats who are baying for the CIA’s blood this week were as one in demanding tough action in the wake of 9/11. They will be as one in condemning the CIA for negligence if jihadists mount another attack on the West.

"But this temptation should be resisted: the West must do what it can to ensure that the dubious decisions taken in the wake of 9/11 are not repeated — for hard-headed reasons rather than soft-hearted ones. Eschewing torture is not just the right thing to do morally. It is the right thing strategically as well."
What it comes down to, I think, is Wooldridge's statement that "torture has a peculiarly corrosive effect on democratic institutions". There is something uniquely unpleasant about torture, not just that it's horribly painful (many battlefield injuries are also agonising), but that the pain is inflicted with intent.

As social and moral creatures we have always made the most profound distinction between bad outcomes which just happen, and those carried through with full forethought and intent. It's the difference between manslaughter and murder. We have a horror of the psychopath, the malevolent person who literally doesn't care about the welfare of others - no conscience and no remorse; pretty much our definition of evil.

I think that for populations with a high degree of empathy, (arguably European populations), there is a profound disinclination to write a blank cheque for the application of unbearable pain by state employees. As a consequence, torture cannot be legitimised in policy or law.

That is not to say (as 'Andy McNab' wrote in The Times last week) that torture isn't (or shouldn't be?) used tactically by troops in battlefield situations (they keep quiet about it). Equally, other cultures which displayed less empathy seem to have had less angst about their states using torture (I recall few protests in the Roman Empire).

So while Adrian Wooldridge's article is full of logical flaws, in the end our inbuilt sense of empathy prevents us from ever legitimising torture, while we should be aware that it's a tool which may never be completely dispensed with in practice due to its sheer utility.


I'm sorry if this seems a cop-out, but you've got two principles in contradiction with each other, each with its own domain of compelling applicability. Some degree of hypocrisy is inevitable. Ask the Christian church if it agrees with killing people.