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The Torture Trade Off 

This week's letter comes from Mike Caba who continues our ongoing dialogue over interrogation practices with a nice meditation on the moral perils of state-sponsored

This week's letter comes from Mike Caba who continues our ongoing dialogue over interrogation practices with a nice meditation on the moral perils of state-sponsored torture. Thanks for the letter, Mike. You can pick up your winnings, a pound of Strictly Organic Coffee, at our offices, 704 NW Georgia.

With this business about torture our country has accomplished two bits of the devil's business, namely, we are both more evil within, and less protected from evil without. When this unfortunate practice is examined, we see that discussion surrounding the use of torture nearly always circles around two pivot points, the moral and the utilitarian, summarized as follows: is it evil and, does it work? On the first question, nary a voice is heard in opposition to the contention that torture is essentially evil at its core; and those who have practiced it in the past, or who unfortunately still practice it today, have often devalued their victims to a subhuman status in order to soothe their own moral vibes against the use of various devices (e.g. the Nazis and the untermensch).


Thus the moral question is fairly well settled in the abstract, yet the utilitarian argument seems to carry the day, that is, "it seems to work to save lives at times, so shouldn't we do it?" Indeed, at times it does save some lives, so what's the beef? If we can save some people from destruction via the application of so called "enhanced" techniques on well-known terrorists, isn't it our duty to, well, enhance them vigorously? It is generally agreed that there may be some tiny cracks in an absolutist position against torture along these lines; that maybe, just maybe, it might be useful in some very extreme cases. I grant the weight of the argument.

Yet, consider the downside on national security of a widespread practice of torture - and a widespread practice of torture is what it appears we, yes we Americans, actually have had. When you look beyond some specific instances that may save some lives, and you examine the broader national security picture, besides enraging and fostering more enemies, you see that via the use of a widespread practice of torture that America loses that ever-so-necessary strategic position, the moral high ground. America at its core is an experiment in moral vision, not simple raw tribalism, not pure survival for survival sake, and we must never lose sight of the fact that living out this moral vision on the TV screens of the world is essential to our security, both short and long term. The connection between goodness and security in a world in which the opinion of the masses matters greatly cannot be easily ignored, and those who cut the tie do so at their own peril. Thus, the utilitarian excuse for the practice of torture is fraught with great difficulties.

Thus on two counts we see that the practice of torture is very often an injustice to those who suffer from it (let alone being nearly always ineffective in its results), and it is also an injustice to smear the reputation of an entire nation thereby making it less safe. Accordingly, in their opposition to torture, goodness and the security dwell together.

Mike Caba, Bend

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