Sunday, April 26, 2009

Torture is Personal

Torture is personal; blood, sweat, and tears, personal. People under extreme duress vomit. They lose control of their bladder and bowels. Torture is messy. Its smell is offensive. The act leaves scars, and both actors are victims. Torture is not something to be parsed. Whatever we call it, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “harsh interrogation methods,” we all know deep in our gut what torture is. We do not require a legal opinion or a morality lesson to know that it is wrong.

And yet that is exactly what the "torture memos" prepared for the Bush White House attempted. And now the former Vice President, Dick Cheney, wants the CIA to release classified documents that he claims will show the efficacy of torture. Cheney is not apologetic. He seems to be saying, "Yes, we did it, and it worked." The ends justify the means, and legality, let alone morality, be damned.

Consider a situation in which your young child has been kidnapped. The kidnapper was captured by the FBI as he attempted to collect the ransom. But he won't reveal where he has hidden the child. After a day and a half of unsuccessful questioning, the FBI's chief agent in charge offers you an half hour alone with the kidnapper. He tells you there will be no record of what goes on in the interrogation room. What would you do?

Suppose the FBI had several men in custody, all pedophiles and all suspects in your child's kidnapping. They were fairly certain that one of the men was responsible for kidnapping your child. You were given an half hour alone with each man. What would you do?

Suppose a reliable witness had seen a man leading your child away. He took the man to be Asian. The FBI has several "Asian looking" suspects in custody. Now what?

In the situations described above, if the kidnapper has confined the child in a box in which the oxygen is being depleted minute-by-minute, we have the "ticking time bomb" scenario -- a favorite of the Fox TV series, "24."

Apologists for torture are fond of presenting to their critics a consequentialist dilemma to play against the critic's moral absolutes. In other words, for those who claim that torture is morally wrong, absolutely, they paint a scenario in which the torture of a single person results in (has the consequence of) saving a hundred, a thousand, a million lives -- or perhaps, just the life of your child. Wouldn't you condone torture under those circumstances?

But the people who perpetrate these horrific acts of terrorism are fanatics. They blow themselves up. The kidnapper of your child is a psychopath. He revels in your pain.

Suppose the man who kidnapped your child and was refusing to reveal where the child was being held was known to have a pet dog. A cute little lap dog that the man loved with all his heart. The FBI brought the dog into the interrogation room and left you there with the kidnapper, his dog, and a pair of pruning shears.

God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man (Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov).