Torturing Ideals

In high school, I read with interest Joan Baez’s autobiographical musings Daybreak. At the time, 1968, I was quite involved with questions of non-violence and pacifism, and was constantly challenged by “what would you do if” questions that tried to force me to admit a hypothetical limit to my unwillingness to use violence. Baez, not surprisingly, had faced similar types of grilling. Unlike me, however, she didn’t fall into the trap, sidestepping the questions by showing the absurdity by turning the questions themselves into a series of laughable impossibilities.

Her point was that one cannot set up principles as absolutes, that one cannot claim that he or she will act unequivocally in one fashion or another, regardless of the details of the situation. Principles provide guidelines for the future and a means for analyzing and even judging the past. No matter how much we want them to, they do not restrict one from particular actions in the moment. They cannot, for each situation differs from every other, as universals do not.

Though I am an advocate of non-violence, I can imagine situations where I might react with violence. Sometimes the needs of a particular situation demand action completely contrary to one’s belief. That’s awkward, and should cause re-examination, but it does not mean the belief is wrong. Afterwards, the need is for a two-fold analysis: was the action, in fact, necessary, given the particulars, and what course of earlier action could have avoided landing one in that situation? The discussion need not turn on the value of the belief. As fallible humans living in a volatile world, we never completely live up to the ideals we establish. That’s no fault of the ideals, and no reason to lower them. It’s simply recognition that we, ourselves, are not ideal.

The Bush administration believes differently. In the case of torture, at least. Their argument seems to be that, if you can’t reach the ideal, abandon the ideal. Lower your standards.

We’ve all heard the “ticking bomb” “what if” about torture: What if someone had information that could stop a bomb from going off and killing many, but won’t give it up… would you torture that person as a last resort? Of course, the situation is ridiculous; it has never happened and is not likely to—outside of television. If it did, however, the fact of Geneva Conventions (or laws, or anything) is not going to stop anyone from doing whatever it takes to save lives. However, the person who does act has to be willing to face the consequences, an inquiry and (if they were wrong in the choice they made, in the eyes of the inquiring panel) accept punishment that had been established for such an act.

It’s simple: we must expect the highest level of behavior when we establish our standards. It may not be met, but a lower one can be seen (in the case of torture, certainly) as an endorsement of certain activities that should be repugnant to all of us.

In The New York Times recently was an article on new letters justifying torture by the CIA:

“The fact that an act is undertaken to prevent a threatened terrorist attack, rather than for the purpose of humiliation or abuse, would be relevant to a reasonable observer in measuring the outrageousness of the act,” said Brian A. Benczkowski, a deputy assistant attorney general, in the letter, which had not previously been made public.
Mr. Bush issued the executive order last summer to comply with restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and Congress. The order spelled out new standards for interrogation techniques, requiring that they comply with international standards for humane treatment, but it did not identify any approved techniques.
It has been clear that the order preserved at least some of the latitude that Mr. Bush has permitted the C.I.A. in using harsher interrogation techniques than those permitted by the military or other agencies. But the new documents provide more details about how the administration intends to determine whether a specific technique would be legal, depending on the circumstances involved. …

Some legal experts critical of the Justice Department interpretation said the department seemed to be arguing that the prospect of thwarting a terror attack could be used to justify interrogation methods that would otherwise be illegal.

This is an “end justifies the means” argument that really cannot be used in establishing ideals. It mixes goals with standards, two completely different things. The “interrogation methods” need to be illegal, no matter the situation. If they should be used in any instance, their illegality should trigger an investigation and trial—whether their use should prove justified or not. Sanctioning their use beforehand will only lead to their use more often, making something that should seem outrageous even when necessary become standard operating procedure. And, as people who place ideals ahead of convenience, we don’t want that.