Adam's letter to a torture supporter
What the supporter had written to the Philadelphia Inquirer on 11/16/07:
On the subject of torture, Gloria Gelman suggests that "our behavior is being judged by the rest of the world" (Letters, Nov. 9). The rest of the world and especially the terrorists are mocking us because we have become politically correct when it comes to terrorists. Does anyone actually believe that if we treat them with dignity they will tell us where their bombs are located? Waterboarding is a form of torture, but if it can save people from being killed or maimed, it is necessary.
Does it take another 9/11 for people to stop worrying about the welfare of terrorists? Let us be more concerned about the welfare of our children, grandchildren and all Americans who might be killed. We have to face reality when it comes to terrorists.
My reply the same day:
It seems to me that your letter rests on two false assumptions. The first one is that torturing will be more efficacious in obtaining information. At least according to the many interrogation experts I have heard or read of who have written or spoken on the subject, this isn’t true. In fact, they say that developing a rapport with the captives can often extract information from very bad people, and that torture will often yield false information. (Obviously, this is also a risk of obtaining information in other ways, but the point is that torture is not a truth serum.) The second fallacy is the assumption that the prohibitions against torture primarily relate to the welfare of terrorists. The question is not simply whether we are prepared to torture terrorists. The question is whether torturing innocent people, as will inevitably happen, is an acceptable price to pay for any information that will come from the people who are truly terrorists. (There is also a third category of people, those who are not terrorists but may be sympathetic to them and/or have information that will be useful in identifying them.) I believe we prohibit torture to protect the innocent, just as we require search warrants and trials for criminal suspects.
For myself, I believe that torturing an Osama bin Laden might be morally acceptable if it would certainly save the lives of innocent people. However, the possibility of torturing an innocent person is so abhorrent to me that I don't believe it should be allowed as a matter of policy. The experience of other countries shows that allowing torture will inevitably lead to its use among people who turn out not to know anything. (To use an American example, it is clear now that large numbers of people transferred to Guantanemo Bay were not actually involved in terrorism or even insurgency, but it would not have been clear which ones those were when they were first picked up, and when the information they had would have been most useful. Could anyone have then reliably decided who to torture?) I tend to believe the experts that torture doesn't work well, and certainly not better than other methods. I remember hearing one (sorry, forget who, but he had decades of experience) on the radio say that the “ticking time bomb” scenario used to justify torture had never occurred in his experience. Thus it’s my belief that such a situation is so rare, and the possibility of torturing the wrong person so much more likely, that any interrogator who wants to torture should be so certain of guilt, and so sure it’s the best way of obtaining valuable information, that he should be prepared to accept legal consequences if he is, in fact, incorrect.
If you truly support torture and do think it is valuable, then you should be prepared to say that torturing an unknown number of innocents is worth that value, just as I will accept that there is an unknown possibilty that a particular piece of information that could be gained by torture will not be gained, and that therefore some other innocents will suffer.
She didn’t reply.
Sunday, November 18, 2007