Thursday, November 1, 2007

Is It Torture?

Is it torture if you can volunteer for it and then talk about it while you're undergoing the treatment? It hardly seems the same as having one's fingernails pulled out. The guy in this video has himself subjected to the controversial interrogation technique called waterboarding, a technique critics call torture, but he certainly seems none the worse for the experience.

Anyway, when a terrorist is subjected to waterboarding in order to extract information that might save the life of one of your children, the terrorist is in complete control of how long it lasts. All he has to do is produce the information and it's over. Opponents of this technique, however, think that terrorists should have the right to withhold information that could save your child's life and should not be subjected to unpleasant experiences to make them give it up.

Here's a question for those who might be disturbed by the video of three men holding down the subject: Imagine the scene in a Civil War field hospital where men had to hold down a wounded soldier so that the surgeon could amputate his leg without anasthesia in order to save his life. What is the moral difference between what the surgeon's assistants did in holding down a screaming soldier in order to save his life and what modern interrogators do in holding down a panicky terrorist in order to save the lives of innocent civilians?

If you go to the post at Democratic Underground the guy talks about his experience of being waterboarded. He seems to be saying that since he couldn't take the treatment for more than a few seconds it must therefore truly be torture. This is a weird argument. If we accept it then we have to say that any technique that gets a terrorist to talk is ipso facto torture and therefore should be considered banned by the Geneva Conventions.

If the terrorist spills his guts after a few minutes of listening to AC/DC that would be torture according to the guy at Democrat Underground, but this is nonsense. Whatever torture is it doesn't consist simply in being unendurable.


Weak Argument

There are lots of arguments on offer as to why we should not have gone to war in Iraq and why we should not now stay there. Some of these arguments are good, many are not, but one of the worst is an argument that a correspondent on another blog trotted out against my concern that a premature retreat would be a human rights disaster in the Middle East. The same argument recently appeared in a letter to the editor of the local paper written by a woman who used it to disparage anyone who supports the effort to bring peace and stability to the Middle East.

The argument, sometimes called the "chickenhawk argument" goes something like this: Young men and women in the military are placing their lives at terrible risk in Iraq, and many are dying or being grievously wounded. Unless a supporter of the war has placed his/her own life in jeopardy in similar fashion (or has a loved one who has) he or she has no right to urge continuation of a conflict that will result in the deaths or maimings of some of those youngsters.

This line of reasoning is of a piece with the argument that since men can't get pregnant they have no right to tell women that they shouldn't have the right to an abortion.

There are so many problems with this kind of thinking that it's difficult to know where to begin to analyse it.

Let's start with an analogy that will show the flaw in the logic. If we accept the argument above then we must also accept any other argument of the same form. So, for example, unless we are willing ourselves to become police officers we have no right to insist that the police risk their lives to fight crime. Or, if the rigors and travails of missionary work do not appeal to us we have no business supporting and encouraging those who do feel called to risk everything, like those Korean young people in Afghanistan, by doing missionary work.

These arguments, which are of the same form as the original, are absurd, but if so, so is the original argument.

We might also point out that many who serve in the military never face combat themselves. Does this mean that they have no business offering an opinion on the war? Is it only those who have actually been shot at, and their families, who have the right to engage in the public debate on the war? Or, since most who have been shot at have come through the experience unharmed, perhaps we should restrict the qualifications to speak out in support of the war to those who have actually been wounded or to the families of those who have died. In other words, how do we decide exactly where we draw the line separating those who have the right to support the war and those who don't?

Do those who make the argument that no one who hasn't served should speak in favor of the war think that those who pay the nation's bills should have no say in deciding the most important issues that face us as a nation? Every person who pays taxes has an ipso facto right to express his/her opinion on every domestic or foreign issue, whether the issue is abortion or war. The fact that a supporter of the war hasn't served in the military himself no more disqualifies him from voicing his support of our mission in Iraq than the fact that a supporter of the police hasn't ever been a policeman disqualifies him from voicing his support of the mission of our police.

To try to silence supporters of the war because they have never themselves served in the military is a sign that one has no good arguments to counter the arguments cited in favor of what we are trying to do in Iraq. It's also a sign that one is rather desperate to come up with something to discredit those who offer those supportive arguments.