America’s Tortured Conscience

by Will Wilkinson

WaPo Torture

The Washington Post reports:

A majority of Americans believe that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By an almost 2-1 margin, or 59-to-31  percent, those interviewed support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying they produced valuable intelligence. In general, 58  percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

What to make of this? My guess is that a fair number of those who think torture can be justified are thinking of ticking nuclear time bomb scenarios, and that a lot of those same people believe the CIA when it says that that is precisely the sort of situation they were dealing with. As Rosa Brooks says in a terrific FP column, bullshit:

The ticking bomb scenario is a powerful hypothetical, and it’s one that several former CIA directors really, really hope you’ll keep in mind this week to counterbalance all those not-so-nice revelations contained in the just-released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on CIA interrogations. […] But there’s one major problem with the ticking bomb scenario: It’s entirely irrelevant — morally and legally.

First, in real life you don’t get actual ticking bomb scenarios, with their certainty, simplicity, and urgency. In real life, you get ambiguity and uncertainty. You get conflicting information about the nature, magnitude, and timing of threats, and conflicting information about the identity of planners and perpetrators. Sometimes, you get information that’s just plain wrong: As the SSCI report notes, more than two dozen people tortured by the CIA were detained in error. In some cases, they were victims of simple cases of mistaken identity.

This creates an obvious slippery slope risk: If we think torture is justifiable in the hypothetical I used above, would torture be justifiable if the bomb wasn’t a nuclear bomb? What if it was only powerful enough to kill 100 people, not millions? Ten people? One person? Would torture be justifiable if we thought the person we captured might be about to set off a bomb that might kill 10 people? What if we weren’t sure we had captured the right guy? Would it be okay to torture someone who might be innocent because torture might produce information that might save 100 people? Ten? One?

I think this helps explain what is going on in the American mind. Many of us have already gone down the slope psychologically. It’s sort of like someone asks you whether you’d sleep with a stranger for $1 billion – you know the joke – and you say, “Duh! Of course!” and then you find yourself a couple hours later in a seedy hotel room feeling a bit dehydrated after getting bargained down to $12.50. What’s your attitude toward trading sex for money now? You shrug. You think, What’s the big freaking deal? It’s sort of like that, but mostly not like that at all, because there’s not actually anything wrong with trading sex for money, but you’ve got the idea. In for a pound in for a penny.

The aversion to cognitive dissonance – the need for a sense of internal consistency – is strong. We Americans like to think that we are good people. (“We are awesome!“) Now it seems clear enough that torture is the sort of thing we Americans do. So torture must be not inconsistent with goodness, with exceptional American awesomeness. It must be okay. Is there a moral analogue to cognitive dissonance? Moral dissonance? The shocking percentage of Americans willing to endorse the CIA’s vile interrogation techniques is an index of the portion of the population who suspect but are unable to admit to themselves, who cannot stand the moral dissonance of admitting, that they are complicit in something monstrous.