Rationalizing Torture

I would recommend the following (audio only at the moment):  What Is Torture? Our Beliefs Depend In Part On Who’s Doing It.

The piece is about social science research on torture and notes, among other things,

1.  Humans are likely to define “torture” differently if it their group doing it versus when other groups do it (spoiler:  they give their own group a pass).

2.  Even once the reality of the torture is clear, if done by one’s own group, the effects will be minimized and/or the actions will be rationalized as necessary.

Sound familiar?

(NPR usually has a transcript up by afternoon/the next day if listening isn’t possible).

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. KM says:

    Sound familiar?

    Sadly, yes. Same $!^^% song, just a different verse. Some people have no room in their souls for anything other then themselves, others can’t see past minor issues to empathize with another human being. They will live and die with their beliefs, leaving nothing but broken people and ideals in their wake.

    … and yet, the last thing in the Chest was Hope. The best curse of mankind – we can still Hope that this delusional nonsense will fade and America will abandon the torturous path and come back to the moral side of this issue where we belong.

  2. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Yes, defining “torture” is a funny thing…

    President Bush:

    “We do not torture, …We’re working with Congress to make sure that as we go forward, we make it possible, more possible, to do our job,” Bush said. “There’s an enemy that lurks and plots and plans and wants to hurt America again. And so, you bet we will aggressively pursue them. But we will do so under the law.”

    (source http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9956644/ns/us_news-security/t/bush-we-do-not-torture-terror-suspects/#.VInJH_5ujmg )

    Vice President Cheney:
    Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked the former vice president whether the agency deliberately kept Bush in the dark about its so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.

    “Not true. Didn’t happen,” Cheney responded. “Read his book, he talks about it extensively in his memoirs. He was in fact an integral part of the program, he had to approve it before we went forward with it.”

    Asked if there was ever a point where he knew more about the CIA’s activity than the President, Cheney said

    “I think he knew everything he needed to know and wanted to know about the program.”

    Baier then asked if the former President knew about the “details” of the program. The report — which Cheney called “full of crap” — described brutal interrogation methods including waterboarding, extensive sleep deprivation, threats to harm detainees’ families and “rectal feeding.”

    “I think he knew certainly the techniques, we did discuss the techniques,” Cheney said. “There was no effort on our part to keep him from that.”

    >>> Somebody is a liar. <<<

    It's a dammed shame that people are seeing this as a right vs. left thing. It's not … it's a right vs. wrong thing.

    In 1994, we (These United States) signed the United Nations Convention against Torture. It said:

    Article 2 of the convention prohibits torture, and requires parties to take effective measures to prevent it in any territory under its jurisdiction. This prohibition is absolute and non-derogable. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever”[6] may be invoked to justify torture, including war, threat of war, internal political instability, public emergency, terrorist acts, violent crime, or any form of armed conflict.[7] Torture cannot be justified as a means to protect public safety or prevent emergencies.[7] Neither can it be justified by orders from superior officers or public officials.[8] The prohibition on torture applies to all territories under a party’s effective jurisdiction, and protects all people under its effective control, regardless of citizenship or how that control is exercised.[7] Since the convention’s entry into force, this absolute prohibition has become accepted as a principle of customary international law.[7]

    Because it is often difficult to distinguish between cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and torture, the Committee regards Article 16’s prohibition of such treatment as similarly absolute and non-derogable.[7]

    (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Nations_Convention_against_Torture)

    Vice President Cheney must have known that we were well over the agreed boundaries, as in 2005…

    Cheney is seeking to persuade Congress to exempt the Central Intelligence Agency from the proposed torture ban if one is passed by both chambers.

    (source:: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9956644/ns/us_news-security/t/bush-we-do-not-torture-terror-suspects/#.VInJH_5ujmg )

    Now consider what Vice President Cheney has recently said:

    “What I keep hearing out there is they portray this as a rogue operation and the agency was way out of bounds and then they lied about it,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think that’s all a bunch of hooey. The program was authorized. The agency did not want to proceed without authorization, and it was also reviewed legally by the Justice Department before they undertook the program.”

    Mr. Cheney said he never thought the C.I.A. was withholding information from him or the White House about the nature of the program, nor did he think the agency exaggerated the value of the intelligence gained from waterboarding and other techniques. The reported conclusion by the Senate Intelligence Committee that the C.I.A. misled the White House, he added, “is just a crock.”

    “They deserve a lot of praise,” Mr. Cheney said. “As far as I’m concerned, they ought to be decorated, not criticized.”

    He said critics had forgotten that the purpose was to prevent another Sept. 11. “When we had that program in place, we kept the country safe from any more mass casualty attacks, which was our objective,” he said.

    The program, he added, was “the right thing to do, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it.”

    (source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/09/world/dismissing-senate-report-cheney-defends-cia-interrogations.html?_r=0 )

    So, his justification is EXACLY this type that is stated that should not be grounds for torture by our agreed international convention.

    So, there is a very serious problem that will need to be addressed. We have an unrepentant torturer stating that America can do this at will.

    We have lost the moral ground that would allow us to be shocked about beheadings by ISIS.

  3. There’s three general schools of moral thought:

    1. Deontological: specific acts are good or bad depending on their nature, regardless of who is doing them or why
    2. Consequentialism: it is goals that are good or bad, and acts are good or bad depending on whether the goals they are intended to accomplish are good or bad
    3. Virtue Ethics: people are by their nature good or bad and good actions are those performed by good people.

    The results discussed here are the result of the virtue ethics crowd. The US is good people; good people don’t torture; therefore what we did is necessarily not torture.

  4. the Q says:

    In the 1950s an iconic movie was made starring William Holden called Stalag 17.

    In one scene, a Red Cross monitor visits the camp and warns the German Kommandant that if he was “torturing” an American pilot by making him stand up for hours (the Red Cross monitor doesn’t actually see the torture, but surmises it from the actions of the POW who says “i just need some sleep) that after the war, there “will me consequences for violating the Geneva Convention”.

    I remember clearly thinking at the time “thats why we beat the Nazis and why we will beat the Russians. WE DON’T DO TORTURE. And thats why we are proud to be Americans.”

    I am not kidding about that moral superiority which we always carried with us and rightfully so.

    Dick Cheney should be executed by Army firing squad plain and simple.

    He is a Nazi facist evil piece of schitt and has no place in this country.

    As for W, well, we can’t execute mental retards so he should be put in Leavenworth for the rest of his life.

    We shot Private Eddie Slovak for dessertion. Cheney deserves no less.


  5. MarkedMan says:

    Just something to remember. Both Washington, as head of the Revolutionary Army, and Lincoln, as President, were presented with the decision on whether to punish soldiers who tortured. Both chose to punish because they realized that abandoning the moral high ground would quickly lead to disgrace and eventually to ultimate destruction. And in both cases the threat to America was 1000 times greater than what the Bush/Cheney gang faced. It shouldn’t have even been a choice in their case – it was so obviously wrong. This isn’t about whether we should “move on”. They sowed the seeds of a killing cancer into our country by their actions. Moving on means ignoring the disease growing inside. Prosecuting the torturers and those who authorized them needs to be done to cut those the seeds out.

  6. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    Wow!! Didn’t see THAT comin’ 😉

  7. Joel says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m late to this, but that is an absurd caricature of virtue ethics. The point of virtue ethics is that the actions we take shape us into certain kinds of people, not that “good people” are allowed to do whatever they want.

    The last two popes have both condemned torture, and virtue ethics is a major part of Catholic theology.