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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

 
Torture And National Security Are Entirely Different Subjects

by tristero

Yesterday, in making the case that the only strong argument against torture is that nearly every value system, religious or otherwise, condemns it, I criticized Matthew Yglesias for trying to argue against torture by pointing to its inutility. Despite some very intelligent objections to my postion in comments, I still hold to this view: Torture does not become acceptable if it can be shown to be useful in some real world circumstances. Torture simply is immoral. Period.

I'm happy to say that Matt, too, has come to the same conclusion. In his post on American Prospect Online, Rogue State, Matt relies on the moral argument in making his case against torture (the utility arguments he make - that torture lowers our already low world standing - depends upon the centrality of the moral argument).

However, in reading over Matt's post I realized that there is another, very different issue - national security concerns - that has become deliberately mixed up with torture by the rightwing in their bizarre effort to turn America into a torture capital. While banning torture under all circumstances is an extremely simple-to-grasp moral imperative, a serious discussion about what improves or undermines national security and law enforcement is not. Mixing the two, as the right does, creates an opportunity for them to advance an obscene moral relativism, to base the morality of torture solely on its potential utility for national security.

But these are entirely separate issues that occupy entirely different epistemological domains! Torture is a moral issue and we understand how and why torture is unacceptable by studying the moral codes most human beings live by. On the other hand, discussions of national security focus on tactical and pragmatic concerns, not primarily moral ones. We understand how to improve national security and why certain techniques succeed and fail by examining the empirical evidence, not by passing moral judgment.

Within that latter discussion - how to make us safer - Matt rightly argues you'd have to be a fool to countenance torture, let alone advocate it. Why? Because not only national security but ordinary law enforcement has been shown to dangerously deteriorate if torture is used, an assertion Matt backs up with a relevant link.

I realize that many of you will read the above and think I'm just being political. As if I'm merely trying to say that I realize I foolishly attacked an ally in the fight against Bushism but without directly apologizing. Furthermore, I suspect that some of you will think that my distinction of when the inutility of torture is appropriate is just an academic distinction. Not so.

If I felt I owed Matt an apology earlier, I would apologize, but I see no reason to apologize for a criticism that I believe was quite fair, sincerely made to sharpen both his and my ability to oppose the rightwing, and delivered without resort to ad hominem (which I've used in discussing Matt in the past and which use does deserve an apology from me. Sorry!). More to the point, I think the distinction I'm drawing is far from an academic one but a fundamental one. I believe Matt also understands it simply must be drawn in order to have a coherent discourse on either issue. It is a distinction - the moral and the pragmatic - that the incompetent, cognitively challenged pro-torture gang has deliberately blurred and the only way to fight back is to start by clearing up the confusion. In other words, and briefly:

Torture is wrong AND it makes security worse. That's a helluva lot different than saying torture is wrong BECAUSE it makes security worse.

The latter is the playing field the rightwing wants us to accept as the only valid one. But it's a false one as it confuses a moral and pragmatic issue to generate the appearance of moral relativism vis a vis torture where there simply is none at all.

Hope that's clear...

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