Thursday, May 12, 2011

John McCain on Torture

The vast majority of screeds against torture are based on poor reasoning, ignorance and false assumptions, and usually put forth with a heavy dose of self-righteous indignation that anyone might possibly disagree. But occasionally there is a more thoughtful and reasoned argument, such as John McCain's op-ed in the Washington Post. McCain starts out by acknowledging that torture is difficult to define, and makes it clear that his opinions are based on his own definition -- an intellectually honest approach you don't see very often.
Much of this debate is a definitional one: whether any or all of these methods constitute torture. I believe some of them do, especially waterboarding, which is a mock execution and thus an exquisite form of torture. As such, they are prohibited by American laws and values, and I oppose them.
He also points out that those that ordered and carried out controversial interrogation methods did so in the service of the country.
I don’t believe anyone should be prosecuted for having used these techniques, and I agree that the administration should state definitively that they won’t be.
He's right. People who carried out methods that were deemed legal at the time, should not be hauled up on charges later in an ideological witchhunt that serves no purpose. McCain goes on to weigh-in on the debate about whether or not intelligence gained from waterboarding had a part in finding bin Laden. He says no. But his source is Leon Panetta. Sorry, Senator. A political appointee of the Obama administration heading the CIA is hardly the final word. But he also writes,
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners sometimes produces good intelligence but often produces bad intelligence because under torture a person will say anything he thinks his captors want to hear — true or false — if he believes it will relieve his suffering. Often, information provided to stop the torture is deliberately misleading.
Here is someone with first-hand knowledge of torture pointing out that it does sometimes produce accurate intelligence. Why is this important? Because despite this fact, numerous people arguing against torture claim definitively that it doesn't work -- in complete denial of reality.

Instead of denying reality, John McCain's argument rests primarily on moral grounds. He thinks the U.S. has to be better than other nations, and he personally feels that the use of torture is incompatible with his views of U.S. values.
I don’t mourn the loss of any terrorist’s life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves. Through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us.
John McCain, especially given his personal experience, makes a pretty compelling case. The main problem that I have with this sort of moral argument is that ultimately it becomes absolutist. As a general proposition it is reasonable that the U.S. shouldn't resort to torture. But general rules have exceptions, and we have recognized such exceptions in the past. Just because something is a bad idea most of the time does not mean it is a bad idea all of the time, or that doing something normally ugly and reprehensible might not be justified under certain circumstances.

1 comment:

  1. Although I neither have first-hand experience nor research to support this notion, I strongly suspect that since time immemorial, certain forces of EVERY state have used tactics which clearly constituted torture (no matter how defined) and shocked the conscience, although many (for various reasons) have chosen not to do so openly.

    However, that we live in a society capable of public introspection may be just good enough, for now, especially with other issues on our plate.
    It’s what helps form the “collective conscience” that all societies need, but do not have.