Tuesday, March 11, 2003

From the 'Rockford' files

'Dr. James Rockford' [obviously a pseudonym] has been corresponding since I ran his post from Atrios' comments. 'Rockford' has professional reasons for maintaining his anonymity, but he confirms (as I suspected) that he is an actual PhD and ethicist. His academic work has been in psychology, philosophy (with an emphasis on epistemology and logic) and history, and he's invited to lecture to regularly at a well-known Midwestern university on ethics.

His missives again express my own thinking on the question of the use of torture, so I'll let him say it:
There is so much I want to say about torture. Support for it seems to me to be one of those things -- like slavery -- that are so obviously, axiomatically wrong as to almost defy argument. But argue we must.

It frustrates me that people think limited torture (torture within prescribed guidelines) is even effective -- the pragmatic, utilitarian argument, which was also put forward to justify slavery. They actually seem to have this almost romantic notion that a couple of electrical wires will magically make terrorists into canaries. So what's a little pain? It's just the lesser of two evils, etc.
On one hand thousands of people are saved, on the other we caused a guy a little pain. So what? It's a clear case where the ends justify the means. Right?

In fact, people can learn to withstand great physical pain and terrorists who are ready to die for a cause are likely to withstand almost any amount of physical suffering: I do have limited personal experience in the matter, but the best evidence is from the story about the terrorist who was supposedly transported to the Philippines to be tortured and ended up fessing up to a
dastardly plot to blow up some planes. It apparently took 67 days to break him. What sort of bomb would be accommodating enough to continue ticking for more than three months? Which means that if torture is to be effective, we have to be ready to inflict excruciating agony. Which brings me to the original questions I posed about involving a terrorist's family, questions so uncomfortable that none of the pro-torture people bothered to answer.

As I'm sure you know, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's young children are apparently in US custody, which makes this question less than academic. It is chilling to think that if he does talk, we will have to wonder whether his children were involved somehow.

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