19 May 2015

Continuing to talk about unspeakable things

Torture edition

I think this view actually confuses the utilitarian argument. Or at least the consequentialist argument against torture and for a general prohibition on its use by the state (and in a related matter, the NSA dragnet). That argument goes like this:

1) Obtaining accurate information is a valuable intelligence goal in preventing heinous acts of violence.

This isn't a dispute in either the torture or the NSA dragnet debates. The problem is that it is unclear that torture or the NSA dragnet have provided this information, and that valuable intelligence was often obtained in other ways.

2) We should use those methods that quickly and verifiably provide that intelligence.

It is not disputed that torture or the NSA dragnet could provide verifiable and useful intelligence (there's some dispute on whether it has, particularly in the latter case). The big question mark is if it is the most efficient means of investigation and interrogation of sources out of the litany of options available to detect and parry aside possible threats of terrorism. Which it doesn't appear to be.

The argument is often made that KSM lied to provide information the interrogators wanted to hear rather than actual useful intelligence because of torture. This is somehow defensible in the minds of torture proponents because he or others lied under normal interrogation methods too. That is undoubtedly the case that they did but this has little persuasive use in pointing it out. If other methods allow for easier verification, or prevent interrogators from entering with an agenda of scaring out a particular story of guilt (and thus obtaining false and unverifiable "information"), those methods are superior even if they also obtain false information as they may be less prone to these systematic errors (over time). The key is whether we are  obtaining truthful and accurate intelligence, and it is far from demonstrated that torture was a reliable method on this merit. The NSA dragnet seems even less clear and a more demonstratable failure (even by their own admission, it appears its main use was to expensively and invasively demonstrate that there weren't that many people worth following as potential threats to acts of terrorism; that the threat for which it existed in the first place doesn't actually exist).

3) We should also use those methods that do so with minimal cost upon the interrogators, detainees themselves, and where these are international norms being involved upon a state of moral standing obtained by being a "good country" which conforms to, or even helped set (as in this case of torture prohibitions), those norms.

A utilitarian logic would conform to a cost-benefit analysis at some point. If there are substantial costs to doing something, then it would be reasonable to look for something that provides a similar benefit without the higher costs. In the case of torture, to our general security by agitating many people by violating norms of international human rights, or to the moral qualms of the people engaged in the acts of malicious cruelty themselves.

One plausible argument and serious problem with the terrorism mantras is that we are often confusing single (or a handful of) villainous individuals and their ideological causes and potential defeats with a defeat of the threat of danger. This is too linear and perhaps not even expansive enough (eg, "terrorism" is only terrorism if it happens because X did it, and if we can stop people like X, we win). Terrorism however is a process and tactical strategy of using asymmetric warfare and it has a multivariate set of causes. Rather than being a single cartoon villain defeated in the space of a Hollywood plot, it is inherently a long-lasting system with a variety of agents attempting to use it throughout human history (many more than just "islamo-fascists", whatever that's supposed to mean). Attempting to suppress it likewise has a number of effects. Including the possibility of creating lasting animus that inspires further attacks, such as by abusing captive prisoners with violence or physical and mental trauma in violation of our normal standards of human rights (which we ourselves as a nation have been long-time promoters and advocates). Americans haven't typically demonstrated great skill in asymmetric warfare. At least not for generations (maybe against some native tribal peoples in the 19th century and prior to that, and then of course, we have our history of violence against racial minorities). So it's not something I'd advise we undertake casually, without attempting a fuller appreciation of consequences to our preferences in actions and strategies to suppress violence and terrorism undertaken against Americans.

We are a long, long, long way away from the "ticking time bomb"/24 style scenarios that our government attempted to assure us were to be the norm for regimes of torture, even for those subjects about whom there is less sympathy for their plight (KSM for example). We are instead looking at a systematic method of abusing captives with a secondary purpose of possibly obtaining information being a norm, with an episode like Abu Ghraib being not an outlier but a standard of operation. When we have reasonable alternatives to imposing violence and cruelty upon captive human beings, about whom we may have uncertain at best standards of their guilt or complicity in any plots of violence against Americans or really anybody at all, it is reasonable to continue to use them instead.

On this topic in particular I go back principally to the high value our society places upon punishment and its confusion with severity of punishment as a method of deterrence rather than as a means of satisfaction. That appears to be the ideological preference of those favoring torture regimes or systems of un-adjudicated detention for our purported enemies and threats to national security. In so far as some methods of penalty, detention, and general safety or security are favored and needed for a prosperous society to continue to flourish in the face of dangers of crime and mayhem, I don't think this is a disputed point. In so far as the extremes being demanded and insisting that these are necessary and helpful steps (in the utilitarian sense of "it works"), this is far less clear. The "ends justify the means" logic really only works if the ends were the only way to obtain the means and then it helps if they actually obtained the means. Which is in this case, less clear.

We are seeing a similar debate (finally) cropping up surrounding the death penalty and mass incarceration policies for our more commonplace domestic criminal activities. One should expect that would be far more controversial as it pertains to millions of lives, both of criminals and victims of crime and yet there are broadly shaped ideological coalitions pushing against the systems of policing and incarceration or punishment strategies being used for their cost being excessive, both in human and fiscal terms. The cost in the form of torture is rarely discussed when placed against the purported benefits (both sides ignore the existence of the other). Which suggests that people wishing to use some variety of consequentialist logic to justify their preferred actions aren't bothering to actually try to do so.
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