Sunday, April 26, 2009

Revisiting Torture

With the CIA memos in the news, and our interrogation limits now broadcast to those who want to kill us, I thought I should dig this out. I wrote the column below a couple of years ago. A shorter version was published in the Wisconsin State Journal in February of 2007, producing much comment. Apparently, even posing the situations and asking what people would do is evil. ~Bob

When is violence justified?
Robert A. Hall

The question of when violence is justified has intrigued and stumped philosophers for millennia. With our country involved in a “war on terror,” it is unfortunately a practical question that confronts those whom we elect to represent us. And our own values will be challenged as we personally take action, even by voting, or make the choice not to take action.

Let us put aside the red state-blue state polemics which for political advantage picture the opposition as either brown-shirted neo-Nazis intent on establishing a Fourth Reich in Amerika, or as Al Qaeda sympathizers who will allow any number of Americans to be slaughtered, as long as they can score points against Bush. Let’s stipulate that decent and patriotic people can reasonably differ over these questions, depending on their values and worldview.

Let’s also stipulate that in any of the scenarios below, two unintended outcomes are within the realm of possibility. First, your action may be ineffective. You could shoot at the terrorist and miss. Second, you may be wrong. That presumed-terrorist coming at you with a blood-dripping knife, may be shouting, “God is Great” because he had an epiphany and is planning to hand you the knife and beg forgiveness.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s look at some possibilities, which 9/11 taught us are, alas, all too possible.

1. A terrorist who has just shot five people turns toward you with his gun. You also have a gun. Are you justified in killing him? Here we lose the pure pacifists, who believe violence is never justified, and may God grant their certitude is never put to this test. But most people believe that killing in self-defense is morally justified.

2. The terrorist is turning not toward you, but towards a five-year-old girl. Are you justified in killing him to save her, even though you might be wrong? Pacifists will still be of the opinion that you must let the child die, but most of us recognize that the right of self-defense extends to protecting the life of an innocent third party.

3. The terrorist has a knife rather than a gun, and is advancing on the child. You can save her by shooting him in the knee. Should you do so? Certainly anyone who said you were justified in killing him would find wounding him less objectionable than killing him. Even some of the less squeamish pacifists might be willing to make the trade off of hurting a guilty person to save an innocent person.

4. The terrorist is your prisoner. You know that he has planted a bomb in a school, which will go off in two hours, killing dozens of children, but you don’t know what school, and he refuses to talk. He may well talk, however, if you shoot him in the knee, to avoid the agony of being shot in the other knee. Should you shoot? It’s the same action as above, but now you can save a dozen children. Let’s be clear here, though—if you shoot now, you are guilty of torture in anyone’s book.

5. Suppose there is no bomb, but you know if your prisoner talks, he will lead you to other terrorists you know are plotting to murder innocent people. Do you save their lives by shooting him in the knee? How do you weigh their lives against your scruples about torture? For those who say torture doesn’t work, reportedly the information that foiled the Al Qaeda plot to blow up a dozen airliners from the Philippines was obtained from a terrorist under brutal torture by Philippine security forces. Do you wish they had not done so, at the cost of perhaps 3,000 more innocent lives?

6. Let’s say you have a terrorist prisoner, and some time. Instead of inflicting agony by shooting him in the knee, you can use what’s called “coercive interrogation,” actions short of permanent physical harm. Things like sleep deprivation, humiliation, isolation, standing for long periods, serving him food prohibited by his religion, perhaps even “water boarding,” where the sensation of drowning is created to make him talk. Some good people consider this torture, other good people do not. Would you order this, or will you accept responsibility for perhaps allowing many innocent people to die?

The administration said “yes” to this question. The opposition, free from the specter of living with the results, has said no. Remember our stipulations: you might be wrong and this prisoner actually has no useful knowledge, or your efforts to get it might fail.

Remember also that the 3,000 people who died on 9/11, including small children on those planes, all had loved ones who are devastated. And the thousands who lived because at least two plots to blow up multiple airliners were foiled also have people who cherish them.

Be very glad you are not a government official, an intelligence officer or a 22-year-old sergeant in Iraq, faced with these decisions in real life. They must make real decisions, with real consequences, in real time; it’s not a newspaper exercise where the choice doesn’t lead to agony and death for someone.

Suppose the innocent life to be saved is your son or daughter, your wife or husband, your mother or father. I have the prisoner here, who has the information that will save the life of the person you love the most. He won’t talk. What are your orders, sir?


  1. Bob, thank you for being a voice of reason in this otherwise screwed up world. It is amazing how people can be so politically correct, but so common sense stupid.

    When Obama was elected, I was in another country - that was so excited for his election, and all I could say was "Let the games begin". It is amazing that so many "smart" people have been duped by this man - and they said Jim Jones was charasmatic. We are not even through the first quarter, and the fans are getting restless. So we keep watching from the stands - waiting...........

  2. I personally would go all the way to number 6, without question, under the circumstances outlined. Any reservation I have about how these enemies may resultingly treat our servicemen and women is unfortunately diminished by the knowledge that they would not hesitate to perform truly gruesome atrocities against our military or even civilians without a second thought. The actions outlined do not constitute real torture in my book, but fall under the realm of advanced interrogation measures. I would also have no reservation in taking these actions against the enemy with my own hand if faced with that option.

  3. I cannot say I am a civilized person. While I think that violence doesn't solve every problem, I do believe that there are problems that cannot be solved in any other way.

    I believe that the Geneva Convention does not apply to these...individuals. They're clearly unlawful combatants by every definition, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Since they are unlawful combatants, the international laws of war which rule out torture do not apply, and I'd say waterboard the S.O.B.s.

    I also believe that, in the words of Joss Wheadon's _Firefly_ captain, "Somebody tries to kill you, you try to kill 'em right back."

    And the best way to make sure they don't either go back to the battlefield that they came from to take more shots at our army, or come back to try to sue us for inhumane treatment is to make each one of them a good terrorist as soon as they're wrung dry. In fact, I do believe that that is the recommended course of action in the Geneva Convention.

  4. bravo, old jarhead. well written. but with a majority of our lawmakers and media people already gone through the demoralization phase of the kgb's brainwashing while they were in school, will they be able to process this logic? there's got to be a way to kick reason into their heads!

  5. Waterboarding a couple of terrorists is a travesty; murdering thousands of civilians is a statistic.

  6. Great job Bob,

    You have expressed clearly the voice of reason and common sense. It is hard for me to understand why this is a debatable subject. It is difficult for me to even comprehend another point of view than the one you have described.



  7. I have demurred from entering the so-called debate on so-called torture for a number of reasons. The so-called debate is taking place on two fronts: moral and legal. The best legal minds in government, in my opinion, have clearly won the day on the legal front when they prepared the three top-secret legal memoranda recently made public by a feckless and reckless administration. To debate the issue on moral grounds seems to me to engaging a little in moral relativism, and one should never engage, even “a little,” in moral relativism, but here goes. We must never forget (or let anyone else forget) that we are the good guys; they are the bad guys. Our interrogation techniques, especially the so-called enhanced kind, are used for only one reason: to save innocent lives. Their “interrogation techniques” (which would probably include, in the eyes of Janet Napolitano, beheading) are also used for only one reason: to destroy innocent lives. So, on moral grounds there is no debate: We’re right; they’re wrong. What’s debatable about that? The good guys might not always win in the movies, but in real life they do – eventually. One might call that simplistic, but I think Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman’s mother had it exactly right. Reagan: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.” Harry’s Mom: “Harry, you know right from wrong. You do right and do the best you can, and that’s all there is to it.”

  8. Looking at these questions I can easily answer them wihtout any problems. I think it may be because I live in a black and white world with very few grey areas.

    1. Am I justified in killing him? Yes.

    2. Once again the terrorist is dead.

    3. Not shooting the terrorist in the knee. Two shots to the body mass. Repeat until terrorist stops moving.

    4. Yep, once again looks like the terrorist is gonna be hurt. His life is not equal to an American school child's life.

    5.I shoot him in the knee yet again. The weighing mechanism is easy. No number of terrorist lives equal one American life. Ever. Torture does work. Like take for example putting an Islamic terrorist into a pig's carcass and then explaining to them how they are now unlcean and will not get to see Allah and how you are going to kill them. Guess what? You get to find the terrorists friends.

    6. I would do whatever was necessary to save American lives.

    I spend last fall in an anti terrorism class where we analzyed terrorists and their motives and groups. At the end of the class we were posed a question of how we would deal with terrorism if we could be "King" of America long enough to deal with it. I spent a considerable amount of time debating on if terrorist should be considered enemy combatants or criminals. I favored enemy combatants. I decided this mostly because my paper was based upon the idea of Assassination of terrorist leaders and militant Immans.

  9. I posted about this question on my blog, but did not explore it in the same detail, or write anywhere near as well as you did.
    1 yes
    2 yes
    3 yes, I shoot center mass.
    4 yes
    5 yes
    6 yes

    The problem is, in reality, that you don't know what the prisoner knows or doesn't know. In your questions, you preface them with "you know that...", making it easier to say yes.

    In the real world, sometimes you are go to torture a person who is innocent, or doesn't have the information you are seeking. It can be minimized, but it cannot be completely avoided.

    This does not mean I wouldn't order it, but it is a thing to know. Humans are imperfect, and we are operating in real time with less information than we like.

  10. I was listening to a talk radio show the other day and a marine called in. He didn't say much, he just read a little from the marine handbook on how to treat/handle prisoners. It was powerful. He was getting choked up and it was obviously a source of pride that we would have such civilized and humanitarian rules for handling the enemy.

    These are rules a country can be proud of.

    We conservatives like to talk about principles a lot. If you don't hold to your principles when they are put to the test, they aren't really principles, are they.

  11. All these comments supporting torture are very sad. Even tortured McCain recognizes water boarding as torture and wrong. It lowers us to their level. I totally believe in fighting hard and winning, which we will do. But as our generals in the field keep telling us every day, we can not win these wars by force alone and in fact we must win the peace. If we torture, we just make new terrorist and we definitely do not win the war. We have the tools to win these wars without becoming as bad as the terrorist themselves.

  12. "We have the tools to win these wars without becoming as bad as the terrorist themselves."

    Nobody here is advocating "becoming as bad as the terrorist themselves." You make the same implicit (and WRONG) assumption that many others make, namely, that there are only two options: either, (1)we are a saintly nation; or, (2)we are as bad as the terrorists. Waterboarding KNOWN terrorists is NOT the same as murdering thousands of civilians and beheading people with dull knives. Life (and death) is not just a matter of making simple choices. More often than not it involves a risk/reward analysis that is more complicated than a choice between two (or even multiple) options.

  13. "The Southern Baptist Convention, the dominant religious voice of the South, has finally weighed in on the issue of waterboarding and other forms of torture.

    Under no circumstances should they be permitted in this country.

    There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence-gathering process, Richard Land said today. He also said he believes the practice known as “waterboarding” is torture and, as such, is unethical.

    Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said there is no circumstance in which torture should be permissible in interrogations by U.S. officials, even if the authorities believe a prisoner has information that might involve national security.

    “I don’t agree with the belief that we should use any means necessary to extract information,” said Land. “I believe there are absolutes. There are things we must never do under any circumstances.

    “It violates everything we believe in as a country,” Land said, reflecting on the words in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

    “There are some things you should never do to another human being, no matter how horrific the things they have done. If you do so, you demean yourself to their level,” he said.

    “Civilized countries should err on the side of caution. It does cost us something to play by different rules than our enemies, but it would cost us far more if we played by their rules,” Land concluded.


  14. “There are some things you should never do to another human being, no matter how horrific the things they have done. If you do so, you demean yourself to their level,” he said.

    The above quoted statement is an assertion masquerading as truth, something that opinionated people are wont to do. But truth is not assertion, and assertion is not proof.

  15. To shoot or not to shoot. On a snowy hillside, a potential prisoner slowly walks up a trail marked between the land mines. His hands are up, advertising surrender. Several rifles trained on him, not adticipating any tricks. After all, he looks inocient enough, and he looks very hungry. As a soldier steps out to meet him, the sargeant shouts a warning. Too late, the surrendering person suddenly explodes. Three of our men are instantly dead. The one who stepted out to take in the prisoner and two more who were just too close.

    Interestingly, the above rehersal of a few years back is going through a sergeant's memory as the scene is happening again. Bur now,it's another war, and another country. This time the sergeant does not call out. This time the sergeant shoots.

    How is our changed nation going to deal with that sergeant? No, I'll not tell how it ended. I'll just say, only one life was lost, this time.