September 2, 2009

THE SPECTACULARLY OBTUSE COLUMN OF THE DAY:

Torture's Moral Toll: If waterboarding works, The Daily Beast’s Conor Friedersdorf wonders, why is it that the U.S. keeps triumphing over nations that torture? (Conor Friedersdorf, 9/02/09, Daily Beast)

Though I cannot say definitively whether torture is or isn’t an effective utilitarian tool, I am mightily influenced Jim Manzi’s observation that “we keep beating” torturing nations. “The regimes in the modern world that have used systematic torture and directly threatened the survival of the United States—Nazi Germany, WWII-era Japan, and the Soviet Union—have been annihilated, while we are the world’s leading nation,” he writes. “The list of other torturing nations… has won no competition worth winning. The classically liberal nations of Western Europe, North America, and the Pacific that led the move away from systematic government-sponsored torture are the world’s winners.”

Hard to believe someone can get so much wrong in just one paragraph, but here are a few of the main problems with his question:

(1) Actually, opposition to torture is required to assume that it is effective in order to be internally coherent. Obviously, if torture is so easily borne that it does not even make one reveal the intelligence one is hiding then you can't also argue that torture is terrible at the same time. The opponents are forced to argue that torture is so awful that it will in fact make the reluctant speak.

(2) The wars against Nazism, Fascism and Marxism weren't existential, but volitional.

(3) We and the other liberal nations are not just torture regimes but have been the innovators of more effective and efficient torture methodologies. The difference between the West and its enemies is not whether or not torture is used but for and upon whom. In the West it is used by consensual governments to serve the purposes of the majority. Our enemies use it against their own majorities in order to preserve power in the hands of the anti-democratic few.

(4) The specific instances of torture about which the author is fretting have not been directed at other nations but, specifically, at non-state actors. It is only because these guys hide that we need inside help finding them. If al Qaeda governed somewhere we wouldn't need to torture two or three guys, we'd do what America usually does and kill a few hundred thousand locals as we brought down the regime. We torture a bit, we kill a lot.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 2, 2009 7:17 AM
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