Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Determined Not to Win

Defying a veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted today on their plan for Iraq:

The vote, which passed 50-48, means little since the president has vowed to veto it, and there are not enough votes to override his veto. What today's vote will do, however, is guarantee that money our troops need to prepare them to face the enemy will be slower in coming and troops needed for the surge in Iraq will find their deployments delayed.

It'll be interesting to see which side caves on this. Will the president, in order to get the needed funding, eventually agree to the timeline for troop withdrawal which is attached to the funding bill, or will the Democrats, in order to avoid responsibility for insisting on withdrawal at precisely the moment when things appear to be turning around, drop their demand for a timeline?


Two Americas

Former Senator John Edwards has declared he will stay in the race for his party's presidential nomination despite his wife's illness. She suffers from a cancer which can be treated but not cured.

Mr. Edwards is a very wealthy attorney who made his fortune suing doctors. I wonder how Mrs. Edwards' physicians feel about treating her, knowing that the slightest misstep will probably cost them everything they've worked all their life to obtain.

It's interesting to compare how Edwards made his fortune with how physicians make theirs. Doctors charge us for bringing their skills to bear to improve the quality of our lives. Edwards made millions by persuading juries to take the money we pay doctors from them and give some of it to him.

And he wants to be president. Yikes!


The NAE on Torture (Pt. IV)

This post is the culmination of our series on the statement by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in which they categorically condemn any and all resort to the use of torture. Previous posts in the series can be found here: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The drafters of the NAE document state that:

The U.N. Convention Against Torture puts it this way: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification for torture."

Deterring evil ends without resorting to evil means are tasks in tension, but any democracy must face dealing with this tension.

When torture is employed by a state, that act communicates to the world and to one's own people that human lives are not sacred, that they are not reflections of the Creator, that they are expendable, exploitable, and disposable, and that their intrinsic value can be overridden by utilitarian arguments that trump that value. These are claims that no one who confesses Christ as Lord can accept.

This is a very odd assertion. Remember that the NAE, following the Geneva Convention, includes in its proscription of torture any humiliating or degrading treatment which, as we argued in part III, could include almost anything from yelling at the detainee, to employing a female to interrogate him, to placing him in prison. Even if the detainee had information that would save lives the NAE would prohibit us from obtaining that information if doing so was demeaning to the prisoner. But let's set that aside for now.

Let's talk just about inflicting physical distress. As we have said in previous posts this is a great evil when done under almost all circumstances in which it usually occurs in this fallen world, but it is simply fallacious to argue that therefore it is always a great evil.

Consider the classic scenario in which a terrorist has planted a suitcase nuke in a major city set to go off in a few hours. The authorities have captured the terrorist and he has admitted as much, but he refuses to say where the bomb is located. Tens of thousands of people will die in the blast and subsequent radiation fallout. Many more will be gravely sickened. The economy of the nation will collapse if the city is a financial hub and millions will be made destitute. The entire nation may collapse if the target city is Washington, D.C.

It is known that there is a form of physical coercion called waterboarding which actually does no harm to the subject but induces the sensation of drowning which results in panic. No one has been able to endure it for more than a minute or two without breaking and talking. The terrorist could in a matter of minutes be made to produce the location of the bomb, but the NAE would absolutely prohibit obtaining the information in that manner. They say that we would be "communicating to the world and to our own people that a human life (the terrorist's) is not sacred, that it is not a reflection of the Creator, that it is expendable, exploitable, and disposable, and that its intrinsic value can be overridden by utilitarian arguments that trump that value."

I would suggest that the NAE is communicating that exact same message by refusing to save the lives of tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children simply because it would entail subjecting their murderer to extreme discomfort until he provided the information necessary to save them. I suggest that the NAE statement places greater value on the life of the terrorist than it does on the lives of innocent Americans. It is a case of moral inversion that is so bizarre as to be literally incredible.

But let's set aside the question of the justification of torture and ask why we should think that this particular technique, waterboarding, constitutes torture. What are some possible answers to that question that the NAE might give?

Perhaps they'd say it's torture because it's painful.

But apparently there's not much pain involved, and if there were it would only be brief since people only hold out for a few seconds when subjected to it.

Perhaps it's torture because it does lasting harm to the detainee.

Evidently not. The individual is no doubt shaken but none the worse for the experience. In fact, interrogators have had it done to them just so they know what it feels like.

Perhaps it's torture because it's done to punish.

But it's not. It's done to elicit information. Once the subject cooperates the treatment ceases.

Perhaps it's torture because it's unpleasant.

Surely, though, an unpleasant experience is not ipso facto torture. If it were, then putting someone in restraints or feeding them institutional food would be torture.

Perhaps it's torture because it frightens the terrorist.

Indeed, it does frighten the terrorist, but so does the prospect of being executed for their crimes or being put in prison for the rest of their life. Should they not be threatened with these possibilities? Why must we be so squeamish that we are reluctant even to scare people who are trying to murder our children?

Perhaps it's torture because it elicits information against the detainee's will.

It certainly does motivate the terrorist to divulge information, but the fact that they don't do so willingly is hardly reason to think that the method is somehow tainted. If it were then phone taps, etc would be torture since they are means by which we obtain information from people who would not otherwise willingly give it.

Perhaps, it's torture because some men are exerting power over another.

Yes, but so is a cop who stops you for a traffic violation, and we don't consider that torture.

The fact is that the suspect has complete control over how long the process lasts or whether it will even begin. This is an important point. The terrorist is essentially in total control of what, if anything, happens to him. He's no more damaged when it's over than when it started. He experiences no sensation other than panic and though he's frightened, he knows that he really is not drowning. So why would waterboarding be considered torture but, say, lengthy imprisonment, which may do some, or even all, of the things mentioned above, is not?

I really have no answer to the question. It simply makes no sense to me to ban this technique, but if someone can point out something that I'm overlooking I'm certainly willing to reconsider. Meanwhile, the NAE should rescind their document in order to recraft a statement which is more rigorously thought out and which does justice to the complexities of the issue.