Sunday, September 14, 2008

Torture and Americans

Andrew Sullivan has linked to several new polls demonstrating American support for torture as a policy for national security. Nearly six in ten white southern Christan evangelicals believe that torture is an okay policy. Among countries that support a general ban on all torture, the United States is towards the bottom of the nineteen surveyed, in the same group as Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan and Egypt. The number of Americans who support the torture of terror suspects is fourty-four percent. That deserves to be repeated: nearly half of Americans believe that torture is legitimate against individuals who have been accused--not proven guilty--of terrorism. I think that's crazy, but I also think that it's (partly) explainable.

Here's Andrew's diagnosis:
"The idea that torture is immoral in itself seems alien to a majority of the millions who lined up to see Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ."
And again:
"This is what America now is: a country with the moral values of countries that routinely torture and abuse prisoners, like Egypt and Iran."
Now take at a look at the groups listed with the United States: Egypt, Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan: all four are corrupt autocracies that are highly more likely to be torturing their own citizens than foreign nationals who happen to get swept up in a drag-net half-way around the world. In each of these countries an elite coalition not representative of the nation as a whole rules through an exclusionary and often precarious power-sharing agreement in which each member would happily game it to their total advantage if possible. This leads to a suspicious citizenry, wary of the state but perhaps more importantly, of other groups of citizens and non-state actors. In each case the state positively encourages this paranoia, knowing that the best way to deflect attention from itself is to play up fears of non-state groups.

Andrew's theory is that Americans have given up on a moral principle against torture. Many Americans no longer believe that torture is an absolute moral wrong. Torture is a conditional evil--'When a comparable moral evil is not at stake, torture is wrong'--whereby a negation of the antecedent entails a negation of the consequent. Andrew believes that this is a morally culpable error in moral judgment, confusing a categorical for a hypothetical injunction.

The trouble with Andrew's analysis (he has been one of the most forceful and effective critics of America's current torture policy) is that he has never given a solid argument for why torture is an absolute moral evil, and as Nagel and Bernard Williams have often pointed out, we have just as strong intuitions against moral absolutism as we do in favor of it, and there are certain moral dilemmas in which, no matter what we do, we will understand that we have violated one or the other of a fundamental moral principle. Let me propose, perhaps with much charity, that those American's in favor of torture understand it to be a true moral dilemma, as defined by Nagel, in which however one acts,
"it is possible to feel that one has acted for reasons insufficient to justify violation of the opposing principle...Given the limitations on human action, it is naive to suppose that there is a solution to every moral problem with which the world can face us. We have always known that the world is a bad place. It appears that it may be an evil place as well."*
Those Americans in favor of torture maybe recognize that it is--to use another Nagelian phrase--a 'moral blind alley.'

Now, also take a look at those countries most opposed to torture as a means of state policy. They are Spain, France, Britain and Mexico. All have had bad and recent histories on the subject of torture, as both victims (Spain, Mexico) and perpetrators (France, Britain). They are acutely aware of the moral, political and cultural corruption that a torturing regime can effect. They are strongly against the policy because they are very sensitive to the dangers. The net effect of this history is a wary and distrustful view of the governmental security apparatus and policy.

It seems to me that this is what the many American's lack, not a moral principle. Americans in favor of torture as an official policy have not necessarily abandoned a moral absolute (if Nagel's right, it may not be an absolute in any case), but believe that this absolute has, after all, some conditions in extremis, and that the government can be trusted to respect those conditions. In other words, Americans are too ready to believe that the accused are actually guilty, and that that the accused actually have actionable information that they are withholding out of dogmatic hatred and an evil ideology, and that this information may save millions of lives. They have been persuaded of the falsehoods that ticking-time-bomb scenarios actually occur, and that other means of interrogation are less effective than torture. They believe that their government would only use torture in cases of imminent, deadly threats against real bad guys, rather than for any political or strategic reasons. All of these, as I say, are false and/or confused, but IF you believe all these things, then you have not necessarily abandoned a fundamental moral principle in supporting torture.

In other words, contra Andrew's interpretation, our values may after all be the same as those of Spain, France, Germany and Mexico, while quite different from those of Iran, Egypt, Russia and Azerbaijan; the relative variable here might not be moral value, but political judgment and trust of governmental authority. If so, then it's not that Americans have lost sight of a fundamental moral principle, they have lost sight of a political one.

*Thomas Nagel. "War and Massacre" in Mortal Questions. p73.

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