Monday, January 4, 2010

Truth and Torture

Matt Yglesias asks:

At any rate, I would be interested to know how far the public—or how torture-loving conservative elites—would be willing to go on this. In a lot of ways terrorism cases strike me as unusually unpromising venues for torture. Something more banal like trying to get a low-level drug dealer to spill the beans on his supplier could really work. My view is that routinized deployment of brutality by government officials isn’t going to produce any systematic gains, so it doesn’t make sense to uncork this kind of treatment on Abdulmuttalab or Generic Drug Dealer X. But for torture enthusiasts is there anything special about terrorism suspects?

I've followed a similar logic with the support of torture. If any form of it is acceptable policy then there are surely plenty of applications. Every single argument I've heard for it could easily be applied to local law enforcement - gangs and drug cartels come to mind, not to mention kidnappers, murderers, etc.

And it could be done quite efficiently, with no lasting physical harm. I'm sure there are all manner of horrifically painful things you could do to a body. And we haven't even begun to study it properly. We could start running sophisticated tests on pain thresholds and procedural classifications.

In a recent New Yorker article on the conservative CEO of Whole Foods, Nick Paumgarten writes of:

a tendency, common among smart people, to presume that everyone in the world either does or should think as he does—to take for granted that people can (or want to) strike his patented balance of enlightenment and self-interest. It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform.

I think this beautifully describes the mindset behind pro-torture policy. Under the right circumstances (say, the ticking time-bomb) the right people (say, the patriotic armed forces) will do the right thing. While torture may in perfect circumstances be ethical, the world is not perfect. We will not always (ever?) know for certain whether a ticking time bomb really exists - or whether a suspect has information on an impending drug deal - or where a missing girl might be located.

This sort of black and white, reductionist thinking is, to use a favored word of the right, "evil". It distorts truth by redefining reality and erecting shadows. It makes rational debate impossible by changing the rules to fix broken logic. The rule of law and due process are thrown away because "these people are terrorists", yet how could they be defined as such without due process, unless one invokes a sort of alternate reality where circumstances are always perfect, where Lynddie England and her superiors do not exist.

There are rules of logic to dispatch this absurdity. The most basic is the axiom:
All x are z.
Y is an z.
Therefore, y is z.

And its negative:

All x are z.
Z is x.
This does not mean z is x.


All terrorists are suspects.
Mister A. is a suspect.
This does not mean Mister A. is a terrorist.

Now, having already made this error in calculation, the modern conservative returns to reason and makes the following logical determination:

Liberals want to treat suspects as if they are not terrorists.

This is a perfectly reasonable conclusion, ladled as it is upon a heaping pile of defecated sense. It would be as if I truly believed all dogs were vicious predators and accused you of unwise leniency in proposing they be allowed to roam freely in parks. This is a common error on the right. The starting assumption is incorrect, and yet logic is subsequently applied. So if all gays are dangerous & mentally ill, then accepting their lifestyle is surely unwise. If abortion is murder, than doctors who perform them are murderers. If every man makes his own lot in life, then the state should not interfere at the expense of others.

Unfortunately we as a society spend precious little time examining first assumptions. Instead, we argue past one another, infuriating each other in taking positions that seem highly illogical and thus incoherent. Yet what to do when so much of our wisdom is simply inherited and accepted with little understanding of historical context or philosophical underpinning? The degree to which one makes a critical examination of one's beliefs is the degree to which one comes in danger of being labeled an "elitist", defined of course in contrast to the populist, who in turn is defined by what is popular, not necessarily what is true.

The great American irony is that while we loathe authority because of its limiting of our natural freedoms, we find ourselves endlessly caught in a reactionary anti-authoritarianism that results in the limitation we seek to avoid. Our populism, fed by a media-political-complex, becomes itself an authoritarian limit on freedom. Current conservatism - a truest expression of this sort of populism - disdains the very authority that would seek to free us from ourselves. It disdains the government that might guarantee or freedom of opportunity. It disdains the university which might guarantee our freedom of thought. It disdains the media, which might guarantee our freedom of inquiry.

One might forgiven for wondering whether it disdains the very concept of truth itself. Recently, as part of an effort to debunk Darwinism on college campuses, Kurt Cameron (former television star and current evangelical figure) compared Darwinism to Nazism,

If you take Darwin’s theory and extend it to its logical end, it can be used to justify all number of very horrendous things.

What does this have to do with whether it is true or not? You can't decide when and when not to believe in truth. It just is, in all its ugly beauty. It may seem easier to believe that because it says being gay is wrong in the bible, that it actually is. Or that if you believe that a fetus has the right to life it does. Or that if you succeeded despite all odds than everyone can. Or that if a person is a terrorist suspect they are a terrorist.

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