Opposite Day: Torture is Not That Bad

Remember that killing a man is nigh the worst thing you can do to a person. Even so, the practice has broad public support. If we dig up details on controversial cases, we end up with cases like this one that Saul presented:

In 1992, he shaved his head and murdered his ex-wife’s parents.

Saul gives this as at least partial evidence that the man was mentally ill. I question this given that I did exactly one of those two things this weekend. But even if we do doubt the man’s sanity, as a utilitarian, I’m left wondering where’s the harm. Yes, you could argue that the truly insane won’t be dissuaded by capital punishment, but that’s a weak reason for this one man to live. Explain how the world is better off with an insane murderer sitting in prison rather than dead.

When it comes to fates less than death, the public seems similarly accepting of bad things happening to bad people (or at least people who have done bad things). That’s how a show about a guy who abducts, restrains, and then kills other killers can win four straight primetime Emmys. It’s how a presumably liberal New Yorkers can happily allow almost anything to be done to its prisoners, including adolescents provided the victims are sufficiently unsympathetic and the perpetrators are well represented.

The Torture Report should be considered in this context. We learn that a lot of bad things happened to a lot of bad people. And yes, we do learn that torture may have been ineffective at producing accurate intelligence, but the corrections officers at Rikers aren’t exactly abusing prisoners out of a desire to procure actionable leads. Even if torture never produced anything of value, that doesn’t by itself mean that the world would be better off had they been left alone.

We do learn that not everyone who was tortured should have been held. As Conor Friedersdorf says,

“Of the 119 known detainees,” the Senate intelligence committee report declares, “at least 26 were wrongfully held and did not meet the detention standard in the September 2001 Memorandum of Notification.” They “remained in custody for months after the CIA determined that they did not meet the standard,” and one of these improperly detained prisoners, Abu Hudhaifa, “endured 66 hours of standing sleep deprivation and ice water baths,” ABC News notes, “before being released because the CIA discovered he was likely not the person he was believed to be.”

In other words, even if you’re someone who is inclined to give the CIA a break for torturing al-Qaeda members, there is no reason to give them a moral or legal pass for that most serious of all negligent acts save homicide: carelessly torturing an innocent.

It’s worth calling out a smidgen of subterfuge here. These were not necessarily all innocents; they were merely men that did not meet the standard for detention. Even if they were innocent though, we need to appreciate that no process for determining guilt or innocence is infallible. Processes can be called “due”, but due process is not a guarantee against bad things happening. Any process will have an error rate. No controls can guarantee that all innocents will fall through at least one crack.

This might be disturbing to accept, but it’s hard to say that any innocents who may have been held by the CIA were treated more unfairly than, say, Tamir Rice, who was both an innocent and an adolescent. The CIA’s actions are not out of step with the culture that produced them, which goes a long way toward explaining why the practices were so widespread and there has been and will be no serious effort to prohibit such actions in the future.

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6 thoughts on “Opposite Day: Torture is Not That Bad

  1. O.D. is too easy. Just write a post reflecting the actual positions and arguments from Fox and, easy peasy, you’re done. A nearly perfect inversion of anything resembling thoughtful analysis or sound moral reasoning.


  2. “Explain how the world is better off with an insane murderer sitting in prison rather than dead.”

    Life is safer when the authorities have a mindset that it isn’t OK to use deadly force against citizens. Except, of course, in extremis.


  3. For an opposite day post, this post is awesome and well-written. So, as I criticize the argument, I fully realize that it’s opposite day and that the argument runs against Vikram’s views.

    I’d like to point out that the argument runs by deflection. It’s not quite the utilitarian argument that Opposite-Vikram says it is. The Opposite-OP doesn’t really do much to state what use torture serves, although it goes there a little way by suggesting, more by implication than anything, that we wouldn’t question the theory behind punishing criminals with jail time or (sometimes and for some of us) with the death penalty.

    Rather, as pointed out above, the Opposite-OP is mostly an argument for why most/many/some people support, or at least tolerate and accept, punishments that amount to what we’d call torture.


  4. That’s how a show about a guy who abducts, restrains, and then kills other killers can win four straight primetime Emmys.

    This doesn’t detract from your point, but they were nominated 4 straight times without winning once.

    They lost to Mad Men each time.


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