Torturing In The Name Of Humanity

Apr 26 2011 @ 1:37pm

Jonathan (not John) Derbyshire interviews Sam Harris. Sam stands by what he has written about torture:

I think the reason to be against torture – and this is the reason to be against any patently unethical behaviour – is based on its consequences in the lives of human beings. You can make the argument that tolerating torture in any instance – even if we have a law which says, "we'll only torture someone we know to be a terrorist, who claims to be a terrorist, and who claims to have current knowledge of some coming atrocity" – even in that case, performing torture, knowing that there are people you are delegating to do this, is so corrosive of what we value in our society that it's not worth doing in any circumstance. Now, I think that the truth is that's probably untrue, given that something like nuclear terrorism is possible.

He continues later:

I say somewhere in The End of Faith that if you can't imagine any situation in which depriving someone of sleep, playing loud music, water-boarding them – doing something which leaves no lasting physical damage other than making them exquisitely uncomfortable for the moment so that they talk – if you can't imagine a situation in which you'd be willing to do that or sanction that, then you're just not thinking hard enough. There are people who are intending to destroy the lives of millions, render cities uninhabitable – that's what's scary, frankly.

I find the way Sam phrases this to be revealing. Note how he minimizes what torture is.

What the Bush administration did against mere suspects was not making anyone "uncomfortable for the moment". Try being deprived for sleep for weeks. Or subjected to deafening noise day and night where there is not even day or night. Or being waterboarded 183 times – that's a lot of "moments." Then this from later in the transcript:

If you get someone who you know is a member of al-Qaeda, and you know they have nuclear materials, and and they claim to have knowledge, then you have the perfect ticking time bomb situation. The idea there that you have a moral duty to keep this person perfectly comfortable with three meals a day and adequate sleep etc …

This is an extremly loaded piece of rhetoric. There is always the perfect case of the ticking time bomb in theory. In practice, as Derbyshire puts it, the likelihood of this never-happened scenario hapening in the future is "vanishingly small." But notice how he switched from torturing an individual to not "keeping this person perfectly comfortable with three meals a day and adequate sleep." That's a bait and switch – and a mockery of those of us committed to the principle of human dignity.

And try finding any evidence that torturing people gives us solid, actionable, reliable intelligence. Does Sam believe that John McCain really opposed America's actions in Vietnam? Why not? He said so after being tortured.