The fact that people are seriously arguing that the US can torture prisoners is deeply troubling. It occurred to me that we can look at our own history – sending Japanese Americans to internment camps during World War Two, centuries of stealing Native American’s their land and sending them off to reservations and stealing their children and sending them to “Indian Schools” – and identify actions which are unambiguous historical and national crimes, but we can also identify far more ambiguous examples of a difficult, even horrific, moral calculus.
By 1945, it was clear that Japan was not going to emerge victorious from the war – there were simply too many factors working against them. However, it was also clear that a victory would come only after long and difficult battles. Harry Truman, thrust into the presidency unexpectedly and frankly unprepared (FDR never much cared for Truman but accepted him as VP to maintain party unity) was faced with horrible options.
The obvious option was an invasion of Japan. Despite heavy bombing, the Japanese mainland had been left relatively functional (for instance food continued to be shipped internally). In preparing for an invasion, the Allies would have stepped up attacks on transportation systems in the Japanese islands. Breaking the back of Japan’s national transportation infrastructure, would have plunged the Japanese population into mass starvation (as it was, there was widespread famine in Japan in 1946). Japan’s governing junta was prepared to put citizens on the frontlines of an invasion. An invasion of the Japanese homeland could easily have cost a million Allied soldiers and millions of Japanese citizens (I’ve read one article that estimated as much as 10% of Japan’s civilian population killed in battle – not counting those killed by starvation and bombing raids). In addition, an invasion of Japan would have almost certainly have resulted in the deaths of all POWs being held by the Japanese. Even faced with such a scenario, Japan’s leaders were convinced they could win a negotiated settlement that would leave them in power.
Truman could have informed the Japanes the US possessed atomic weapons and arranged a demonstration; I’ve never fully understood the reasons for not choosing this option but I also understand that such an option might easily have spurred the Japanese to develop nuclear weapons and then deploy them against the US (IIRC, Japan had two separate efforts to develop atomic weapons but they were hampered by bureacratic infighting).
Truman was concerned about the Soviet Union’s military and territorial ambitions in both Europe and Asia. A quick end to the war with Japan would present opportunities on that front.
Truman opted for the one scenario that seemed most likely to save the most lives: drop atomic bombs on a Japanese city. I once read a description of all the strategic reasons for choosing Hiroshima and Nagasaki but I’m not sure they matter at this point. Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb against a Japanese city, with plans to drop a second bomb a few days later if the Japanese did not surrender.
As I undersatnd it, Japan’s leaders didn’t fully realize what they were facing; initially they suspected the city had been subjected to an attack using incediary devices or some new bombing strategy and discounted reports that a single bomb could have inflicted the damage the city suffered (their belief concerning the incendiary attack made sense given the massive conflagration that consumed much of Hiroshima). After Nagasaki, Japan’s leaders realized that continued war meant not just military loss but national suicide. Internal Japanese politics – including an attempted military coup – delayed Japan’s surrender a few days. (I never really known but I suspect that the Allies were largley ignorant of Japan’s internal political struggles and circumstance.)
It’s entirely possible that Truman’s choice to use atomic weapons is not morally defensible. The generally accepted explanation seems to hold – and I agree – that the use of such weapons saved millions of lives on both sides by ending the war more quickly. The moral value is that the lost of two hundred thousand lives is preferable to the loss of millions.
The morality of using atomic weapons (and that’s not a phrase you ever expect to write) can only be established within a very specific historical context – the context of a war that had already lasted for years, that promised to last for years more and cost millions of lives and many more casualties.
I’ve chosen this scenario because it really happened and it comes as close to any real world “ticking time bomb” scenario that defenders of torture like to offer. Literally, Japan and the US were aiming guns at each other. The suffering inflicted on the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was every bit as bad as the suffering torture would inflict on an individual. Certainly, if hurting one person is bad, then hurting a hundred thousand is worse.
Torture’s proponents tell us that the use of torture would be limited to circumstances in which it would get information to save lives. Truman’s use of the atomic bomb saved lives.
So, then, you might ask, am I defending the use of torture? Not at all. Even a basic examination of the two situations reveal deep and very differences. The basic moral arguments concerning the two circumstances are radically different.
The issues of foreseeability and intention are crucial components in assessing the morality of actions.
In Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds, he explores four scenarios. The basic scenario is that there is a runaway trolley and the conductor has fainted and the trolley is going to run down five people on the track and kill them.
The first scenario, a passenger on the Trolley can flip a switch and divert the trolley onto another track.
In the second, a bystander can push a very fat man onto the track and that fat man will stop the trolley but the fat man will die.
I the third scenario, the fat man just happens to crossing the second track and he will be killed if someone diverts the trolley.
In the fourth scenario, there is a heavy object on the side track – if the trolley is diverted it will hit that object and be stopped but the same fat man from the earlier example has stepped onto the tracks just before the trolley is diverted.
(In what is sometimes called 2a, the very fat man just happens to be your arch-enemy and you realize that you’ll be saving the five lives but you also get to kill your enemy so you intend for him to die.)
Hauser summarizes the moral argument thus:
What emerges from these cases is a key insight: It is impermissible to cause an intended harm if that harm is used as a means to a greater good. In contrast, it is permissible to cause harm if that harm is only a foreseen consequence of intending to cause a greater good.
The argument for torture, at its least morally objectionable, generally turns on the notion that it is a regrettable necessity – we don’t want to torture someone, we just have no choice. Torture, in this formulation, is a desperate response to dire circumstances. The bad guy has hidden a ticking time bomb and won’t tell us where – we have to find out and must use any and all means necessary. Torture in this moral outlook is a realistic response to a person so hardened, so hostile, so resistant to interrogation that only the use of torture will make him/her give up information. It also proposes that torture be used in “extraordinary circumstances”, arguing in essence that some situations are so dire that it negates moral objections to torture – “Some maniac is going to release nerve gas in the subway at rush hour and you’re worried about hurting him?” In essence, we have to stop something horrific and there should be no limit on what we do to stop it.
Such a scenario demands we examine it further.
The proposal is simple – a bad guy or group of bad guys have engaged in some evil act. If we stop them now we prevent them doing something even worse. At some point, one of them is taken in custody – we are racing against the clock and must get information from him; he will only respond to torture so we must torture him.
The exact details vary – in some cases there’s an actual bomb, in another they might be on the verge of gang raping and slicing and dicing some innocent girl, or they might have kidnapped the president’s little daughter and are holding her hostage . . . the details don’t matter. The basic outline is always the same.
So, we have to examine the scenario.
The ticking time bomb scenario presumes that the suspected criminal is without motive. For instance, in the “rape and slice up” scenario, the person we’ve managed to arrest may only be going along with this plot to prevent the rest of the gang from doing the same thing to his daughter. Of course, that means we won’t have to torture him – if we can credibly claim we will be able to save his daughter, he will probably tell us what we need to know to save the little girl. If for instance, he has a political grievance we can find a way a way to negotiate with him. The scenario however asks us to believe that the person in question is simply and unquestionably a bad guy and is dedicated to doing bad things; it asks us to ignore that real people don’t act that way. No one acts without motivation of some sort .
The scenario imagines that the person we have in custody is the right person, that he/she is part of the plot and has valuable information. The scenario asks us to believe that somehow we know that we got the right guy – that we knew who it was, we were able to catch him before something bad happened. It’s a huge assumption. What did someone happen to notice a shifty eyed criminal and arrest him and the criminal mentioned in passing he was involved with the slice and dice plot?
It presumes that torture works – that the person being tortured will not lie, that he/she will tell us what we want to know. Of course that assumption falls apart – the history of the European witch trials which produced god knows how many “confessions.” Torture is a notoriously unreliable means of extracting accurate information. Let’s say, just for discussions sake, we have the right person and he’s dedicated to seeing the crime through to the end. He’s going to tell us all sorts of things that aren’t true to keep us chasing our tails until the bomb goes off or the little girl has been sliced and diced.
Finally, the scenario asks us to believe that the bad guy in question actually has useful information – he may be a genuine bad guy but he may not have been involved in planning this current plot or he may not have known the contingency plan that would kick in if one of the gang was arrested.
The ticking time bomb scenario is compelling for the same reason we listen to urban legends – its a good scary story. It doesn’t ask us engage in a meaningful way with the world as it is or humans as they are. The scenarios misleads us because it presumes the outcome. If you go back to Hauser’s scenarios, he poses a situation, and then asks “If you do this, and that is the outcome, is it moral?” The ticking time bomb scenario tries to limit the possible courses of action.
So to use Hauser’s approach:
We have the bad guy, we interrogate him in a nonviolent way, he tells us lies and we aren’t able to prevent the little girl from being sliced and diced.
We interrogate him and make a deal with him, which allows us to save the little girl from being sliced and diced.
We interrogate him a long time, we get no useful information, we resort to torture, he lies, we don’t prevent the little girl from being sliced and diced.
We torture him, he gives up the information and we prevent the girl from being sliced and diced.
If you go back to Hauser’s summary, the question of intent is central to the moral question – with torture, there can be no doubt about the intent to inflict suffering. As Hauser summarized it is permissible to cause harm only if that harm if a foreseeable but not intended outcome of doing acting on behalf of a greater good. The moral argument concerning torture holds that is necessary, that we must inflict harm in the name of doing good. It clearly violate the core moral notion Hauser identified in his study.
In choosing to drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities, Truman made a terrible moral choice – hundreds of thousands or millions. Truman’s choice wasn’t nobody dies or lots of people – it was lots of people die or even more people die. It was a profound and difficult choice but one rooted in the reality of the situation. Truman was forced to choose the lesser of two evils; it was still an evil choice. I believe Truman understood the nature of his choice. He didn’t try to pretend it was a good choice, only a necessary one.
Defending and justifying torture, too many Americans have dishonestly presented it as a regrettable hardheaded necessity – “We don’t want to torture anyone, but we’re being forced to” or “We just don’t have any choice – we’re dealing with people who only respond to torture. They won’t tell us any other way.” It’s a disturbing argument because it sounds convincing; it compels us by dressing up torture as a tragic and regrettable necessity; at its least morally reprehensible, the argument in favor of torture grants that torture is morally suspect but that it is a necessary response to people who cannot be reasoned with, on whom other interrogation techniques do not work. The honest proponents of torture grant that torture is morally reprehensible and pretend at hard-headed realism – we’re forced to engage in this morally reprehensible act as a result of the even more reprehensible acts of the bad guys.
Torture is morally reprehensible; it is the deliberate infliction of suffering – without any guarantee that the outcome will be positive. In Hauser’s scenarios, even the intentional act (pushing fat Fred onto the tracks to stop the runaway trolley) has a guaranteed positive outcome (stopping the trolley) but the intentional act of pushing fat Fred onto the tracks makes the act morally impermissible. Torture inflicts suffering without any assured positive outcome, making it doubly morally impermissible. Under the most optimistic circumstances, torture will produce a positive outcome (stopping the ticking time bomb) but that does not make it morally permissible.
Torture presents us with a systemic problem as well. An entity employing torture has engaged in a systemic abandonment of morality, it has lost the capacity to make moral distinctions and choices, which implicates each person within that system in moral wrongdoing. To take the example of Abu Ghraib, torture was inflicted on many people there on the basis of suspicion of guilt – in essence torture delivered the punishment in advance of a finding of guilt. Even granting the hypothetical that a person found guilty in trial would be subjected to torture, that person would have been found guilty of a crime and the torture would be his or her punishment. m Torture as an interrogation technique subjects the individual to suffering without concern for their actual guilt.
Having given up the ability to make moral distinctions, any torture regime subjects individuals to intentional, foreseeable suffering without regard to their actual innocence or guilt. A torture regime is in fact engaging in systemic terrorization of a target population. Given torture’s well documented lack of effectiveness, it seems reasonable to conclude that employing it in a systemic way serves the sole purpose of terrorizing the population and keeping them compliant. Torture is clearly a tool of oppression.
Advocates of torture would have us believe that certain circumstances demand torture – that somehow our current enemies are so depraved that they will only respond to torture, that cannot reason or negotiate with some individuals – our only option is torture. Such an argument fails a basic examination of human nature – if a person is so depraved that no other interrogation technique works, that person is so dedicated to his/her mission that you are not going to get your answers from him/her – even with torture. They will hold out or give false information.
As I bring this exploration to a close, I want to examine the potential connection between the bombing of Hiroshima and torture -namely the intentional infliction of suffering. There is simply no credible claim that Truman could not have known the results dropping an atomic bomb (although the first test had taken place only a few weeks before). Thus, it’s fair to argue that Truman’s choice was immoral – the deaths in Hiroshima were intentional and foreseeable. I think it’s safe to argue that using atomic weapons – like torture – is morally reprehensible in an of itself.
The final component of moral reasoning then is context. Truman’s immoral decision occurred within the specific context of a total war against Japan – the war in both Europe and Asia had been brutal, bloody, had involved massive attacks on military and civilian targets. Japan was preparing to defend itself against an invasion through a total mobilization of the its population to fight. Truman needed to choice between evils – the evil of an invasion versus the evil of using atomic weapons, but ultimately the choice was his and depended entirely on his moral agency. Truman knew and accepted the consequences of his choices.
The ticking time bomb scenario presents a skewed vision of moral agency – it pretends that the other person is so depraved we have no choice concerning our treatment of him, we have little or no moral agency. It attempts to absolve us of moral responsibility for our actions by limiting our moral agency; we have no other choice, therefore our action is morally permissible. By abdicating moral responsibility, defenders of torture seek to legitimize inherently illegitimate acts. “It’s not our fault, we had no other choice.”
But that does not absolve us collectively or individually for our actions. You always have a choice – even if the consequences appear horrific, you have a choice. Abu Ghraib represents a horrific, systemic failure of moral responsibility. The people engaging in the torture were told the victims deserved their mistreatment; the people authorizing the torture told everyone the victims deserved it and so on. By engaging in a systemic deception that the victims were first and foremost beyond the moral pale, that they possessed valuable information they were refusing to divulge, that the acts were justified by the extreme and extraordinary circumstances, the system failed utterly to exercise moral accountability.
The failure of torture, as a practical policy and as a moral proposition is obvious to me. It is presented to us as a necessity but the argument fails since torture is never the only option. If Truman had determined the using atomic weapons would not end the war and had done so anyway, then he would have been making the same choice the pro-torture Americans want to make today. The nightmare scenario for Truman would be deciding to use atomic weapons and having Japan refuse to surrender. Do you continue to use them? Do you devise an alternate plan? The pro-torture argument say in effect “Atomic weapons didn’t work so we ramp it up and use even more of them.”
At some point, it’s difficult not hear in arguments for torture the belief that torture is justified on the basis of inflicting suffering on accused wrong-doers. Which opens up a whole new area for exploration. One which I am unwilling to examine today.