May 29, 2009
On torture-11: Invoking the extreme hypothetical
(For previous posts on torture, see here.)
Let's look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists.
Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is: If your children were being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if that would save your child?
Before I directly address this question, let me make one thing clear. My unequivocal opposition to torture is based on the principle that I will not approve of any measures against other people that I would not accept if it were done to my own loved ones. There is no circumstance under which I would EVER consent to have my own child tortured. My opposition to torture is on the same grounds as my opposition to corporal punishment of children and the death penalty, that whatever I find objectionable when applied to my loved ones is also objectionable when applied to the loved ones of other people whom I don't know personally.
Not only am I opposed to torture on principle, I also oppose it because governments and security services have no compunction about lying about what evidence they have or have obtained that justifies torture, and will try and justify their contemptible actions using such lies. Read this appalling account of how the FBI coerces confessions from the innocent and how the courts help them cover it up.
Furthermore, we should never specify in advance the conditions when things like torture, murder, and corporal punishment are acceptable because doing so inevitably leads to abuse.
To explain, let's take murder, since that case is the easiest to understand but the action itself is the most extreme. We all say that killing someone is bad but we do excuse some people who do it. The mitigating factors may be self-defense or insanity. But such a judgment is always made on a case-by-case basis AFTER the fact of the killing. We should not specify in advance the conditions under which murder will be excused by saying, for example, that you can kill with impunity someone who enters your house. To do so would be to invite people to escape a murder conviction by creating the conditions under which he/she knows it will be excused. We want the system to be such that any person who kills another is never sure if they will be found guilty of murder and will thus hesitate before taking such an extreme step. Of course, psychopaths will kill anyway, as will those who cannot control their raging impulses, and such people will not be deterred by any laws from doing damage. But what we seek to do is to deter cold-blooded killers who try to calculate what they can get away with.
The danger of specifying the conditions under which you are allowed to kill someone leads to things like the tragedy in Texas where a couple shot and killed a seven-year old child who had apparently unwittingly trespassed on their property, though even the fact of trespassing is in doubt. Apparently Texas has a so-called 'Castle Doctrine' law that provides "civil immunity for a person who lawfully uses deadly force in any of the circumstances spelled out in the bill.". The couple seemed to take delight in using that license to shoot and kill the child even though they had to know that the child was not a threat to them in any way.
The only time we issue an almost blanket advance immunity for killing is for soldiers during wars (which can be argued are a form of collective insanity). But since we know that even this license can open the door to the committing of atrocities, we have instituted conventions that regulate even war time killings, setting out limits in conventions and treaties, so that stepping over those boundaries can result in charges of war crimes, though in practice only the losers get charged with those crimes. In World War II, Germans and Japanese were tried and executed for war crimes but not the Allied forces, although the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the blanket bombing of Dresden should have been tried as war crimes too.
It is the same thing with corporal punishment. I am opposed to it under every circumstance. Under extreme circumstances some parents will do extreme things like hitting a child. We may judge that such an action was excusable under the circumstances, but only after the fact. But we should never give categories of people (whether parents or teachers or priests or school administrators) advance blanket immunity to administer such punishment or let them know in advance the conditions under which they will escape punishment, by specifying which acts are justifiable and which are not. Doing so inevitably leads to abuse as sadistic people invoke their 'rights' to viciously attack helpless children.
The revelations of the long-term and systematic severe abuse of children by Catholic institutions in Ireland is an example of what happens when people think they have the right to discipline children using force, because they are parents or clergy or teachers. Another example is where people think it is allowed to subject others to humiliation during the process of ritualized hazing, and where some take this license to resort to cruelty.
There should always be a blanket prohibition against corporal punishment and hazing, like there is against killing. People who commit such acts must always have to justify their actions after the fact, aware that they may be found guilty of abuse. Without that restraint, we let loose those sadists who will exploit the conditions.
Next: What if my own child could be saved using only torture?
POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on politics and religion and torture
From February 2008: