When I was in graduate school, I lived in a house with four other women. It was a large and lovely place, with five airy bedrooms, a living room and parlor, a pantry and a little yard.
The rent was a cool sixty-five dollars a month per person. That’s right—and it was a bargain even then. Altogether a wonderful find.
The house was owned by a couple who had emigrated from China at some unknown time in the past. Mrs. Chen could speak heavily-accented and halting English, but Mr. Chen could not. She came by every now and then to tend to landlady business and look over the place, but I only saw him once.
It was a memorable sight. His hands were deformed, the thumbs broken, dangling and useless. We surmised that he’d been subject to torture back in China.
There’s no telling whether we were correct in our supposition. But Mr. Chen’s thumbs often come to mind when I think about torture. And whether or not it’s true that interrogators purposely inflicted his terrible wounds on him in an effort to make him talk, it’s clear that if it were true, there would be no ambiguity, no hesitation whatsover, in applying the word “torture” to that process. His wounds were the terrible and permanent marks of profound suffering.
Those who call the controversial process known as waterboarding “torture” are not necessarily wrong. But it is disingenuous to pretend that the matter is as clear as thumbs made permanently useless. The boundaries of torture are not so well-defined, unless one draws the line at any coercive technique meant to make a prisoner uncomfortable enough to want to give out information to make it stop, a definition so strict as to make the obtaining of such information virtually impossible.
How far are we willing to go in order to keep our own hands squeaky clean in this matter? As I wrote in a previous post on a related subject:
As human beings making choices, I don’t see how we can ever avoid making moral judgments about relative good and evil…In the real world in which we live…moral choices are usually between the lesser of two evils…Failure to make such choices between relative goods/evils would make us into moral monsters of another sort, trapped in a rigid rules-bound way of thinking that would lead almost inevitably to tragic consequences.
Blogger Richard Fernandez has done a lot of thinking about torture and morality. He writes (and I’d recommend reading the entire piece) that those who take the position that torture can never be justified, even if it could save many innocent lives in this country, are at least acknowledging the moral complexity that flows from the fact that sometimes torture actually does work to protect innocent people.
Fernandez writes that those taking such a strict anti-torture stand are doing it from the safety of the hypothetical; it is uncertain what they would do if faced with a more clear and present danger:
But I am afraid that…one day a biological weapon or a dirty nuke might be set off in one or a number of American cities and as the scale of the suffering and carnage becomes clear, that many — including the persons who are now so willing to sit in judgment of the persons who drafted the legal memos which guided Bush administration interrogation policy — will demand the authorities do something, anything, to put a stop to it.
Although that certainly may be true, I think the more important point Fernandez makes is this one:
It is intellectually feasible to argue…that we ought not to use torture under any circumstances. In the same spirit, we could undertake not to employ Clinton-era “extraordinary rendition”, to which Guantanamo Bay was actually proposed as a more humane alternative; nor accept information from foreign intelligence agencies which use coercion as a method (any more than you would buy shoes made with child labor); and simply rely on such intelligence gathering methods as meet our moral standards and willingly endure the sacrifices implied.
Here Fernandez supplies context for the decision to waterboard. That context was not only the immediate post-9/11 mentality of urgency to discover whether other attacks were imminent, and to stop them before they were carried out (although that was part of it). The context included the alternatives to the setting up of Guantanamo, and the decision to waterboard three detainees there. These alternatives require asking ourselves whether it is okay to allow others to torture for us, and then for us to profit from the fruits of this forbidden tree? Or are we (and especially those advocating a strict “no physically coercive methods allowed” policy) really prepared to “endure the sacrifices implied,” which could be the death of many thousands of innocent Americans—in order to save one terrorist from some reversible and temporary suffering at the hands of others?
In assessing complex moral decisions in the real world, we must look not only at our acts, but at the consequences of our failures to act. Would it really have been more moral, for example, to have not waterboarded Khalid Sheik Mohammed, if the result had been a successful 9/11 type attack in Los Angeles? A person might answer “yes.” But it is disingenuous to assert that such a person is clearly and unequivocally in a position that is morally superior to that of the person who would answer “no.”
There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission. Are we morally responsible—and therefore guilty—for failing to stop an attack that might have been prevented by gaining information through a coercive technique such as waterboarding?
The people who drew up the rules about waterboarding seemed to have been cognizant of these and other moral complexities. They certainly did not intend or allow the United States to engage in the more extreme type of torture endured by Mr. Chen, for example. But they wanted to permit—and to give guidelines for the use of—something strong enough to extract vital information from terrorists, but weak enough to cause no permanent damage to them.
Here are some of the guidelines they drew up:
“The ‘waterboard,’ which is the most intense of the CIA interrogation techniques, is subject to additional limits,” explained the May 30, 2005 Justice Department memo. “It may be used on a High Value Detainee only if the CIA has ‘credible intelligence that a terrorist attack is imminent’; ‘substantial and credible indicators that the subject has actionable intelligence that can prevent, disrupt or deny this attack’; and ‘[o]ther interrogation methods have failed to elicit this information within the perceived time limit for preventing the attack.’”
This appears to be an effort to accomplish what must be done in making all moral decisions: to balance the harm done against the benefits gained. And it is by no means clear that those opposing the policies described in this memo, or the care taken to draw them up, are the ones occupying the moral high ground.
The following is particularly telling [emphasis mine]:
“In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including KSM and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques,” says the Justice Department memo. “Both KSM and Zubaydah had ‘expressed their belief that the general US population was ‘weak,’ lacked resilience, and would be unable to ‘do what was necessary’ to prevent the terrorists from succeeding in their goals.’ Indeed, before the CIA used enhanced techniques in its interrogation of KSM, KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, ‘Soon you will know.’”
Sooner or later, it appears we will know—whether the actions of the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress, and well as the release of the “torture memos” and the ACLU-demanded photos, will cause terrorists and other enemies to once again believe that we are too weak to protect ourselves.