Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Terror War and the Justification for Torture

Jerome Slater's a university research scholar at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He's published an important article, "Tragic Choices in the War on Terrorism: Should We Try to Regulate Torture?," in the summer 2006 issue of Political Science Quarterly.

Examining the controversy surrounding the use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, he uses moral philosophy to argue -- in defense of national security -- that the ongoing global terror conflict creates a threat environment so grave it warrants permanent exclusion from norms prohibiting torture, according to just war doctrines, and that the goal for the United States should be to create a legal and institutional regime for the use and control of torture practices.

Slater lays out a careful review of the debate on torture, for example, discussing theoretical and philosophical positions favoring an absolute prohibition on torture, as well as just war theory's position that torture may be justified as an "exceptional circumstance" overriding moral norms against the use of violent coercion to attain political and military intelligence. After an exhaustive analysis of the debate, Slater makes the case that the use of torture is morally allowable.

Here's the core of his main argument, drawn from the article's conclusion:

If we are to succeed in the war against terrorism, we surely must do much more than defend ourselves against terrorist attacks. The broader task is to do whatever can be reasonably and legitimately done to address the causes of terrorism, as well as the motivations of terrorists to target the United States. In my view, such measures must include great changes in American foreign policy—a far more balanced policy in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, for example, as well as a general policy of military noninterventionism, except in those few cases in which truly vital national interests are at stake. Meanwhile, though, we need to prevent attacks on American cities.

In attempting to do so, we confront a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, of course torture violates a central moral command of any civilized society; as a number of recent writers have emphasized—as if there were contrary views that needed refuting—torture is evil, antithetical to the values for which America stands, and destructive of the souls of the torturer as well as the ortured. Similarly, it has often been said that the war on terrorism is a war to preserve American values, so that if we resort to torture “the terrorists will have won,” and the like.

On the other hand, the rhetoric does not do justice to the complexity of the problem and it will not do to simply dwell on the undoubted horrors of torture without consideration of the even greater horrors entailed in the mass murder of innocents. The crisis is unprecedented, the stakes are catastrophically high, and values are in conflict. Self-defense and the protection of innocent lives are also important values, and the terrorists will have “won” even more decisively if they succeed in destroying cities, the national economy, and possibly, the entire fabric of liberal democracy. Indeed, it should be regarded as instructive that it is not merely the United States but also some of the most civilized European liberal democracies that have evidently found it necessary to sometimes effectively condone or at least acquiesce in the torture of terrorist suspects.

Put differently, so long as the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks against innocents is taken seriously, as it must be, it is neither practicable nor morally persuasive to absolutely prohibit the physical coercion or even outright torture of captured terrorist plotters—undoubtedly evils, but lesser evils than preventable mass murder. In any case, although the torture issue is still debatable today, assuredly the next major attack on the United States—or perhaps Europe—will make it moot. At that point, the only room for practical choice will be between controlled and uncontrolled torture—if we are lucky. Far better, then, to avoid easy rhetoric and think through the issue while we still have the luxury of doing so.

Needless to say, Slater's argument, no matter how well defended analytically, will be anathema to
human rights and civil liberties groups, and even more so to those America-bashers who view the United States as the source of evil in the world.

1 comment:

a.k.a. Blandly Urbane said...

Food for thought...

"Far better, then, to avoid easy rhetoric and think through the issue while we still have the luxury of doing so."

I was thinking the very same thing as I was reading this post. Better now than in the heat of battle/msm frenzy/contests of rhetoric.

I wish you had a trackback feature here. If you care, give Haloscan a look see; if you're not that familiar with your template and all that garbage, Haloscan will push the code into your template for you - it also handles your comments.

Anyway, I'm going to steal this from you and post it partially leading readers to the whole post.

Not that I have too many readers...I don't even read my crap.

I often see your comments at Eternity Road. Francis has quite the way with the English language and logic, no?