Reevaluating the Torture Debate

There’s a reason Congress usually takes a hands off approach to national security (well, a lot of reasons, actually, but I digress).

With respect to the recent Pelosi-CIA brouhaha, The Economist wrote last week:

…the fracas serves as a sobering reminder that Congessional oversight in the national security arena is not especially effective: It is not a defense of waterboarding if Ms Pelosi did not speak up earlier, but an indictment of the oversight system, which tends to see-saw between excessive deference and frenzies of grandstanding when some scandal finally rouses legislators to action.

Rather than bicker about whether Pelosi is lying or if Cheney needs to get out of the spotlight, wouldn’t Dems be better served by articulating why, exactly, torture is such a problem to begin with? Because if you believe The Weekly Standard (and, in this case, I do to an extent) Cheney’s winning this argument, so far as the argument has gone.

This public back-and-forth has continued unabated, and Obama, for all of his personal popularity, finds himself–along with his party–on the defensive. He is in the uncomfortable position of arguing that Cheney is wrong about the “facts” surrounding enhanced interrogation and insisting that those facts be kept from public view. The CIA last week denied Cheney’s request to declassify two CIA reports that provide details of some of the intelligence obtained in those interrogations. The agency claims that the memos cannot be released because they are the subject of pending Freedom of Information Act litigation.

Now I would hesitate to say that Democrats, especially Obama, are “on the defensive,” per say, about torture. But here’s what the public discussion on torture has boiled down to, in my mind:

Proponents typically float a utilitarian argument. It can (has?) saved lives; torturing one suspected terrorist is worth it to save dozens, hundreds, thousands of innocents. If there’s a bomb ready to go off, and by torturing one man we can prevent it, we are morally obligated to do so.

Opponents, for whatever reason, are floating a variety of criticisms. It’s unethical. The “ticking time-bomb” scenario doesn’t exist. People will confess to anything during torture to make it stop. The Geneva Convention forbids it, etc., etc.

But the only argument that Democrats need to make about torture is the one that seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Concede that torture works. Concede that it may indeed have saved lives. If, despite the benefits, torture is still reprehensible, then Dems have a case. Argue that it makes our own soldiers more vulnerable to torture abroad. Argue that it makes a mockery of international law. Argue that two wrongs don’t make a right. Argue anything except “torture is ineffective because…”

Another conservative voice, Charles Krauthammer writes:

Our jurisprudence has the “reasonable man” standard. A jury is asked to consider what a reasonable person would do under certain urgent circumstances.

On the morality of waterboarding and other “torture,” Pelosi and other senior and expert members of Congress represented their colleagues, and indeed the entire American people, in rendering the reasonable person verdict. What did they do? They gave tacit approval. In fact, according to Goss, they offered encouragement. Given the circumstances, they clearly deemed the interrogations warranted.

Though he’s using this as proof that torture was justified, the jury’s clearly still out. What this does illustrate is that that the country as a whole let fear override concern for human rights following 9/11. Because regardless of what Pelosi did or didn’t know, that’s exactly why Bush and Cheney were allowed to wiretap, detain and waterboard suspects at their discretion.

Pending truth commissions and declassifications notwithstanding, it’s time to reign in that leash a little bit. Or at least have a coherent discussion about why it is or isn’t proper to do so. Pointing fingers is probably easier though.


4 Responses to “Reevaluating the Torture Debate”

  1. 1 dan May 21, 2009 at 2:36 am

    “If, despite the benefits, torture is still reprehensible…”

    This is absolutely what the democrats should be saying. Arguing that it is ineffective is basically just position-advocacy instead of point-making or objective reasoning; it’s like starting a search for scientific truth with “First, assume that the bible is literally true; next…”

    The argument against torture is–and I’m not sure if I buy it or not, but this is it–torture is morally wrong, and as moral people we should be opposed to it as we are opposed to other things that are beneficial but also wrong. Full stop.

    Basically: I agree with you. Excellent analysis. Also, your blog’s footer has a tiny smilie face image in it.

  2. 2 Brian Eason May 21, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    Yes it does. WordPress developers are weird.

  1. 1 Torture Round-up « Two-Ring Circus Trackback on May 22, 2009 at 1:44 pm
  2. 2 The Moralist’s Catch-22 « Two-Ring Circus Trackback on September 21, 2009 at 3:47 pm

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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