Alex Massie

The Torture Party’s Desperate, Flawed Logic

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I'll say this for the Torture Advocates: they're increasingly creative in their justifications for torturing prisoners and in their attempts to suggest that anyone with any qualms about any of this secretly wants the Bad Guys to win. Granted, this leads them to some strange positions. Here, for instance, is Victor Davis Hanson:

It is time critics made the case that targeted assassinations fall within the legitimate bounds of a war in which we are properly engaged, while the water-boarding of three confessed terrorists was morally unacceptable torture of no utility and contrary to any of our own past protocols concerning apprehended and non-uniformed belligerents. Otherwise, their exercise in moral outrage is blatantly selective and reduced to a partisan belief that the evil Bush and Cheney are guilty of crimes, while the contemplative Obama is simply struggling with a moral crux.

This is absurd. It need not take too supple a mind to appreciate that the conflict - which neither Obama nor any other member of hsi national security team has denied - is both a military matter and a criminal justice affair. The problem with the drone attacks is less a matter of legitimacy or even morality but efficiency. They may well be effective in terms of eliminating suspects so the question then becomes one of weighing that against the collateral damage that's an unavoidable part of such tactics.

But it's clearly possible to think that this is a useful, perhaps necessary, military tool while also believing that even the nastiest of the nasty guys are owed a duty of care once - but only once - they've been taken into custody. After all, this has been standard practice in plenty of previous conflicts - including other part-military, part-judicial conflicts. It's also, I think, the position Ronald Reagan took.

Or so you might think. But no! Here, for instance, is Marc Thiessen arguing that we have a duty to torture* suspects:

In traditional war, when you capture an enemy soldier, once he is disarmed and taken off the battlefield he has been “rendered unable to cause harm.” But that is not true of senior terrorist leaders like KSM. They retain the power to kill many thousands by withholding information about planned attacks. A captured terrorist leader remains an unjust aggressor who actively threatens society — targeting innocent civilians in violation of the laws of war — even when he is in custody.

If I understand Thiessen correctly he, like Andy McCarthy, thinks it immoral not to torture suspects because, well, unless you're prepared to do that then a) you're not serious about national security and b) you can never be sure that you've extracted all the information that you might otherwise be able to.

And, yes, it might be the case that torturing people can produce some accurate information but since people will tend to say anything once they're being tortured - because, you know, they'd like it to stop - the accuracy of that information must always be suspect and, just as problemaically, exceedingly difficult to verify. And that's before one even considers moral and ethical and legal questions.  Or whether the same information couldn't have been uncovered by other means.

*Thiessen denies that the US has tortured anyone. This is a defence that rests upon the dubious proposition that waterboarding doesn't constitute torture. As such it also then requires one to believe that George W Bush's second term was dominated by a legalistic, back-sliding, soft-on-terror approach as many of the excesses of his first term were quietly, if haphazardly, rolled-back or declared out of bounds.

Mike Potemra had a good, and by the standards of National Review, unusual post condemning torture: as he says it isn't difficult to define what torture is, which rather renders the pinead-dancing from the likes of McCarthy and Thiessen pointless, since the question is easy: if your brother were being treated like this, would you consider it torture or not?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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Topics in this articlePoliticsterrorismtorture