Torture: A Bad Idea

Brett Marston has a rebuttal to Paul Mirengoff‘s defense of torture with which I mostly concur.

This strikes me as quite right:

An unstated assumption of the argument is that torture is good because it shows resolve, an appropriate moral toughness and the manly willingness to cast aside constraints when necessary. A corollary is that those who express moral unease with torture are themselves morally suspect, weak, untrustworthy, and probably traitorous when push comes to shove. Even if the argument isn’t always expressed, I think that what I’ve said here safely describes the phenomenon of the argument.

I take some exception to this, though:

This argument is the product of deep cultural shifts on the right. On the intellectual side, the right’s assimilation of Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean critiques of liberal democracy has probably helped. In addition, there is always a tension between inward looking, Polemarchan moral codes, if you will, and enlightenment and post-enlightenment liberal versions. Whatever the cause, though, attempts to divide people of good will on this issue are misguided.

The split here is less liberal-conservative than elite-nonelite (although, as always, there are intellectual elites on both sides of the debate with Mirengoff and Alan Derschowitz obvious examples). Elites tend to to think in abstract terms whereas the general public tends to focus on results.

The nature of terrorism, like that of organized crime, frustrates the public and those charged with protecting its safety. In both cases, there is substantial pressure to “bend the rules” in order to ensure justice. The promulgation of extraconstitutional means for targetting gangsters, RICO as an obvious example, and the advocacy of torture to extract intelligence from terrorists differ only in degree.

I am able to maintain my opposition to torture not only on philosophical grounds at least partly because of my practical sense that it is ineffectual–indeed, harmful–on public policy grounds. Those who believe that torture works may, understandably, be willing to rationalize away their moral objections.

It’s the Torture, Stupid
Senate Compromise on Detainee Rights, Torture
Canadian Court Allows Bush Torture Prosecution
U.K. to Deport Islamist Radicals, Possibly Even Citizens
Another Prison Torture Scandal
Guantanamo: Torture or No Torture?
Gitmo Analogies
Truth Extraction: Honey Beats Vinegar
In Defense of Rendition
Outsourcing Torture

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, National Security, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.