On War, Torture, and Pacifism

Total Posts:  2890
Joined  02-12-2004
11 March 2005 02:56

I've just finished The End Of Faith and am still bothered by one chapter in particular.  Unless I have misunderstood, in chapter 6, A Science Of Good And Evil, Harris seems to imply that in some cases, torture is justified.  This is drawn from the idea of war as mass torture, much of it on innocent civilians ("collateral damage"); and that it would be better to track likely suspects down and torture them individually, thus sparing the general populace.  He also gives a brief look at pacifism and announces it to be a failure.  My thoughts on these conclusions are as follows:
1) I would agree that war is mass torture; however I disagree that avoiding war by capturing and torturing suspects is valid.  I don't think you would necessarily get around a war by doing this as supporters of the accused would rally and form an opposition anyway.  You could stifle the opposition with a reign of terror, but this would likely spill over onto anyone (not just terrorists) in disagreement with the government.  Who wants to live in a society based on fear? 
2) It has been shown that torture is not a viable way to get information.  Even if you had in your custody a true terrorist, he may not have the information you want, but through torture will give you false info just to stop the torture.  The same would be true if you picked up an innocent person; they may confess to anything to stop the brutilization.  You would confess also if someone was yanking your toenails out with a pair of pliars—even if you had no idea what you were admitting to.
3) Who would decide what people to pick up for torture?  And how would they come to this decision?  Even if you allowed it was neccessary to use such an action against terrorists, it is not as easy as it sounds to define who this term covers.  Obviously, if one of the hijackers had survived 9-11 he could be identified easily as such.  But who else?  Anyone in their organization?  OK, still pretty much terrorists; how about their families?  They might be accomplices, might not be.  Anyone who sat at the same table at some meeting, even if the person didn't know the one next to them was so violently inclined?  How about people who might agree on a few points but not all, and especially if they didn't believe in violent methods?  It seems that this could be used way too broadly towards who ever are deemed against those in power. 
4) Please also think of what torture does to the one performing it.  It dehumanizes both interrogater and the suspect.  I cannot believe someone can carry out such actions and not be affected negatively by it.  I wouldn't want them moving next door to me.
5) Pacifism shouldn't be arbitrarily tossed aside.  The point at which pacifism is best used is not in the middle of hostilities; but long before things have blown way out of control.  In other words, developing ways and means of communication and agreement before things escalate.  Unfortunately, if things are not "hot", no one (individuals or nations) seems to worry about how their actions affect others around them and thus the stability of people and the world.  Maybe I'm misusing the word, but to me pacifism is also the avoidance of war in the first place.  And while very difficult to follow in the midst of an actual war, it is a powerful tool if adopted by the majority.  Plus, you do not tarnish yourself with having to participate in killing anyone, and having that on your conscience.

These are very difficult things to wrestle with.  I wouldn't condemn someone that took a life in self-defense, as that is really an instinctual reaction if someone jumped you.  But massing people into groups and purposefully training them to kill—I struggle with this.  And I just
hate the term "collateral damage".  It's like you want to avoid the fact that it's human beings you are talking about

I'm not going to "rant on" any more about this; but I just wondered if anyone else is bothered by the issues of war and torture, and whether they are justified or possible to avoid.  Peace and pacifism may be idealistic, but if someone doesn't ponder ways to put them into action, they will never be achieved.

Total Posts:  278
Joined  24-02-2005
12 March 2005 02:57

I agree with you. This chapter troubles me more than any other in the book, and I suspect that what troubles me is that Harris is buying into the kind of thinking that’s become common since the mass murder committed at the World Trade Center. This brings up moral problems that have been with us since WW II and have never been completely discussed or solved, such as the mass bombing of innocent civilians. Is this really the same thing as torture? No. It’s a separate kind of moral problem we have never faced as a society. Is it ever morally justified? Obviously we haven’t reached any kind of consensus that it isn’t, or set parameters under which we consider it justified, so we continue to do it. Is torture immoral? It seems to me that we decided long ago that torture is a primitive, unnecessary kind of sadism practiced on witches and heretics that we’re better off without, so we banned it. Who is not going to confess to being a witch or heretic (or spy or terrorist) if tortured long enough?

Pacifism is yet another kind of moral problem. At its extreme, it ignores hundreds of years of moral thought about just and unjust wars. There seems to be such a thing as a just war; when attacked one fights back. It’s the same kind of logic used to justify killing in self defense. On the other hand, we were lied to and tricked into the war in Iraq, which most of the world recognizes as an unjust war. So what’s the moral way to get out of it now? Pull out and leave the country to cope with civil war and breed terrorists?

At the heart of our current dilemma is the awful problem of how to respond to “terrorism.” I live within easy walking distance of the World Trade Center, stood outside with a neighbor watching the towers fall, we were evacuated, a close friend who lived upstairs was killed, friends and relatives of my neighbors were killed, our lives were disrupted for months, for some the disruption has never ended, and vastly more damage to the surrounding buildings was done than the rest of the country realizes. The debate goes on about how to safely tear down one remaining building. We don’t know to what extent our physical health was damaged because we weren’t warned about breathing the fallout; thousands of people are still coughing and taking medication, and this is finally being studied.

So—how do we respond, and how do we prevent something like this from happening again? I think that the way we’re conducting the never likely to end “war on terrorism” is as much of a farce as the “war on drugs.” NO traditional military response is likely to succeed against this kind of determined act. A bunch of hungry, ragged citizens defeated the British in the Revolutionary War. Israel has not succeeded in stopping suicide bombings no matter how many tanks it sends out or houses it destroys. You see what I mean. This is not a conventional war which can be won by conventional methods. There is no clearly defined “enemy” to attack; at this point not even any specific geographic location to go bomb.

global village idiot
global village idiot
Total Posts:  368
Joined  07-02-2005
12 March 2005 11:41

Several thoughts come to mind reading these posts.

1) I am opposed to torture on principle, as well as for pragmatic reasons. Nonetheless, it seems to be an issue we as a society are going to have to deal with. Alan Dershowitz has proposed that torture, if it is going to be used (which it is, regardless of who admits to it), should be subject to due process and at least some degree of transparency and judicial oversight. IOW, that in the case of extreme or imminent situations such as the hypothetical terrorist-and-ticking-nuke scenario, military or law enforcement officials should have to get a court order to sanction torture in that one specific case alone, rather than being allowed to apply it as an extra-legal policy. If the proceeding is kept secret for security reasons, it should be de-classified as soon as the immediate crisis has passed, and those involved should then be subject to oversight and review (and, where appropriate, criminal prosecution). Basically, he’s saying that we should treat torture as any other police or intelligence power under the law. I’m not sure how I feel about this argument, but it does at least seem to be an honest attempt to reconcile the practice with free society principles and civil liberties, rather than sweeping it all under the rug and denying it goes on. Perhaps this would be a good basis for advancing the discussion here.

2) I haven’t read Sam’s book yet (my roommate has it currently, and won’t give it up!); does he make any sort of distinction between pacifism and nonviolent action? Gandhi and MLK both pointed out regularly that they aren’t the same thing. Organized nonviolence is a use of force, and always carries with it an implicit threat of violent action, which is one reason why it can be an effective strategy. I have found that most people rarely draw a distinction between the two philosophies and practices, and that tends to muddy the discussion.

3) On the Geneva Conventions—many people miss an important point, probably thanks to a hatred or distrust of Bush. It is true that terrorists are not subject to the Conventions, which apply only to the clearly-uniformed soldiers of either a nation-state’s official military, or paramilitary forces. So when the Bush Administration brings this up, they are merely stating a fact, well-established in international law. Terrorists are more akin to civilian criminal organizations under the Convention than they are to conventional forces (though this is a flawed analogy, too); as such, they can be treated, under Article 4, by whatever legal standard an occupying power applies to other citizens under its control. The irony here is that while Article 4 does prohibit the U.S. from torturing terrorists (because anti-torture laws we ratified are the law of our land, and thus we have to treat non-American citizens under our military control by the same standard as we’d treat our own), it does not specifically prevent things like summary execution, mass arrest and other practices of martial law. 

4) I object to MJ’s statements about mass bombing of civilians. In fact, the U.S. military has very strict rules of engagement that outlaw the direct targeting of civilians, and has had them since shortly after the Vietnam War. Of course, this does not mean that the rules are always followed, but it is not true that we haven’t set parameters for when it is justified. Officially, it never is. Military research has for many decades sought ways of making precision bombing more, well, precise, in an effort to reduce “collateral damage” as much as possible.  The Pentagon spends something like 25 billion dollars a year researching non-lethal weaponry, and asks for an increase in this research budget every year.

This isn’t to say that killing civilians is desirable, let alone to be blithely dismissed in moral calculi about war; it is merely to point out that in other moral realms, most people recognize the difference between, say, premeditated murder, manslaughter and negligent homicide. Although all are crimes, they are not the same crimes, nor are they treated that way. Yet, many people insist on treating the unintentional killing of civilians in wartime as the equivalent of deliberate mass murder or genocide, even when they wouldn’t apply the same standard to civilian law. Attacks against legitimate military targets in which civilians are killed aren’t the moral equivalent of, say, death camps or deliberate massacre of civilians because they are civilians.

Treating these two types of killing as morally equivalent does not advance moral reasoning, it cripples it. Any rational evaluation of war has to avoid this kind of equivocation, or else we will never allow ourselves to make difficult yet still necessary choices that might involve unsettling actions.