The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Krauthammer is wrong on torture.

I like Charles, but he makes a poor argument in his most recent column, especially when he discusses the "ticking time bomb" scenario:

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion--yes, in this case even torture is permissible--is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

That is why the McCain amendment, which by mandating "torture never" refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of any moral calculus, cannot be right. There must be exceptions. The real argument should be over what constitutes a legitimate exception.

Let's Take An Example that is far from hypothetical. You capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan. He not only has already killed innocents, he is deeply involved in the planning for the present and future killing of innocents. He not only was the architect of the 9/11 attack that killed nearly three thousand people in one day, most of them dying a terrible, agonizing, indeed tortured death. But as the top al Qaeda planner and logistical expert he also knows a lot about terror attacks to come. He knows plans, identities, contacts, materials, cell locations, safe houses, cased targets, etc. What do you do with him?

It is a vast logical leap to conclude that torture should be legal simply because a scenario exists in which we may find torture useful. Sometimes it is useful, even necessary, to exceed the speed limit, but we still have speed limits.

Alex Tabarrok posted a nice rebuttal to Krauthammer's assertions two weeks before Charles even put pen to paper:

But it does not follow from the "ticking time bomb" argument that torture should be legal. The problem with making torture legal is that the government will abuse its powers. I do not trust the government, any government, to use this power responsibly. Leviathan must be heavily restrained, especially when it comes to torture.

Here is where economics can make a contribution. By making torture illegal we are raising the price of torture but we are not raising the price to infinity. If the President or the head of the CIA thinks that torture is required to stop the ticking time bomb then they ought to approve it knowing full well that they face possible prosecution. Only if the price of torture is very high can we expect that it will be used only in the most absolutely urgent of circumstances.

The torture victim faces incredible pain and perhaps death at the hands of his torturer. If these costs are to be born by the victim then we had better make damn sure that the benefits are also high and the only way we can do that is to make the torturer also bear some of the costs. Torture must not be cheap.

There are some things (many things, actually) that are too serious to leave to the whims of the government, and the ability to intentionally inflict massive amounts of pain is one of those things. McCain is absolutely right on this issue, as you would expect him to be.


  • I was at a torutre museum in Prague. One woman was accused of being a witch, and she held out for almost a week of incredible, barbaric, unmentionable torture. When her mother confessed that she was a witch, she broke down and also confessed. he claimed she was guilty of cooking and eating hundreds of childred, having sex with the devil since she was 5 years old and a whole lot of other things. I doubt these were true.

    By Anonymous Phil, at 3:32 PM  

  • I get Newsweek and that is fairly similar to what McCain himself wrote. I find his rationale very compelling:

    "What do we do if we capture a terrorist who we have sound reasons to believe possesses specific knowledge of an imminent terrorist attack?

    In such an urgent and rare instance, an interrogator might well try extreme measures to extract information that could save lives. Should he do so, and thereby save an American city or prevent another 9/11, authorities and the public would surely take this into account when judging his actions and recognize the extremely dire situation which he confronted. But I don't believe this scenario requires us to write into law an exception to our treaty and moral obligations that would permit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. To carve out legal exemptions to this basic principle of human rights risks opening the door to abuse as a matter of course, rather than a standard violated truly in extremis. It is far better to embrace a standard that might be violated in extraordinary circumstances than to lower our standards to accommodate a remote contingency, confusing personnel in the field and sending precisely the wrong message abroad about America's purposes and practices."

    By Anonymous Scott, at 3:32 PM  

  • Early last year Krauthammer was on FOX News Sunday presenting this same hypothetical situation and I remember getting a kick out of Juan Williams laughing and saying that he was cooking up "24" like scenarios to justify torture.

    And wouldn't you know that the "24" season premiere was that night after football? Wouldn't you know that torture was a central theme in "24" last season?

    *adjusting tin-foil hat*

    Perhaps this whole thing is borne out of a sick cross-promotion campaign orchestrated by FOX.

    I wouldn't put it beyond them, and 24 starts a new season in a month...

    By Anonymous Rashid Muhammad, at 9:56 AM  

  • I was talking to someone about this recently and they made a good point. They said that if this sort of scenario really did exist, the President could simply pardon the interrogators for justifiably using unorthodox techniques to save the lives of millions of people.

    By Blogger Brian Hagedorn, at 3:00 AM  

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