Thursday, April 30, 2009

Moral Confusion At The Rightwing Nuthouse

Rick Moran at Rightwing Nuthouse does wonderfully when blogging on the Republican Party and political issues. Indeed I have learned a great deal through reading his insightful posts on political issues and I include him in my daily reads. But that said, when Rick goes off the reservation, as has been known to happen in the past and as he does now on the issue of torture, he goes off in a rocket.

His most recent was a post arguing the moral parameters of "torture" in light of the our use of waterboarding. Rick is an absolutist on the issue. Thus for him, there is that rare degree of moral clarity that we who are not of the far left are rarely if ever are able to attain. Rick is emotionally tied to the notion that no reasonable person reading the law could conclude that waterboarding fails to meet the legal standard for "torture." He never articulates why the OLC attorneys got it not merely wrong, but criminally wrong. But I am not going to rehash that issue. I posted on it here.

I also went through the legal, moral and prudential issues surrounding waterboarding in the post below. Rick went through them also in his post here, using arguments that ranged from just plain wrong to arguments that were insipid. Since one of the Watcher's Council members thought enough of Rick's post to nominate it this week, I can't help myself from pointing out some of the inconsistencies.

Rick's primary argument on the morality of waterboarding is that waterboarding is illegal, that we have a moral imperative to follow the law, and therefore, waterboarding is immoral. Somehow I don't think that Henry David Thoreau would agree with Rick's logic. Rick conflates morality and the law - but the two are hardly synonomous. To paraphrase Thoreau from his seminal essay, Civil Disobedience, morality is proactive - a truly moral person will attempt to act in conformance with his beliefs at all times, irrespective of laws or consequence. On the other hand, laws are nothing more than those rules we set to order society. Though it is beyond argument that many laws arise out of our collective morality, those laws in no way enshrine a moral code. It is quite possible to act morally and transgress the law just as it is possible to act immorally and stay within its letter.

For example, the law does not create an affirmative duty on the part of citizens to help others in need. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered on a NYC street - an act witnessed by at least twelve people, none of whom intervened. Did they act morally?

Suppose I perceive an imminent threat of serious injury or death to my daughter from her boyfriend. I kill him. If I did so when he was in the midst of attacking her, the law says that what I did was legal. But if I still believed the threat real and attacked him long before he got to my daughter's location, such a defense becomes tenuous at best. My moral imperative did not change, what changed was merely what the law accepts as a legal defense.

How about Mohamed Ali, the great boxer. He broke the law by refusing to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. He did so on grounds of his moral belief that the war was wrong and he willing accepted his punishment for breaking the law. So did he act immorally.

The long and short is that Rick's argument conflating the legal question of torture with the moral one is not a coherent or viable argument. But Rick isn't done. He has a few other similarly flawed arguments. According to Rick, we should never use waterboarding because

. . . it is an absolute impossibility to know that “using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information” that could prevent an attack. That is sophistry on a stick.

Whoa. Where did that bit of unrealistic absolutism come from? If we take Rick's logic to its natural conclusion, we could never act unless we were absolutely convinced of all particulars in the first place. If that level of surety is required, then we can close down all intelligence operations. And indeed, if we tried to live our lives with that degree of surety, we would be never be able to leave the house.

In the real world, we of necessity have to act on probabilities based on our assessment of all the information reasonably known at the time. That is the way intelligence professionals operate. Its the way our jury system operates. Indeed, that is the way most everything in this world operates. Rick's argument is utopian nonsense.

Another argument Rick makes concerns the "ticking time bomb theory." Many who justify the use of waterboarding do so on the premise that the information it is believed the terrorist possesses is, one, necessary to stop or interdict ongoing plots that may be executed in foreseeable future and, two, lesser methods of interrogation have not worked to get the terrorist to reveal this information. Rick goes off the rails on this proposition, engaging in the bizarre argument that the ticking time bomb scenario is a complete falsehood.

I won't bother to go through Rick's tortured logic on this. There is no need. Try this - reflecting back on what we know today, on September 10, 2001, how would you describe the 9-11 hijackers? Were they a ticking time bomb? In retrospect they clearly were. And the CIA knew it, they just did not know the particulars. Indeed, the CIA Director briefed Bush on an imminent attack approximately two months before 9-11, if I recall correctly. Given that scenario, if we had a high level al Qaeda agent then in custody who might have had information of the attacks, using Rick's logic, we still would have had no justification to use coercive interrogation on him because we did not know with absolute surety that an attack would occur. That's ridiculous.

But Rick goes even farther afield with the claim that not only is the "ticking time bomb" scenario a false premise, but there is no evidence of such a scenario having occurred in all of recorded history. Let's assume arguendo that Rick is correct, what Rick neglects to reflect upon is that we live in an age vastly different than all of recorded history.

Now, for the first time in history, a single person or a small group with access to nuclear or biological materials can cause the death of thousands or millions in a single act. A single individual intentionally infected with small pox could enter the U.S. and give rise to a pandemic. We know that al Qaeda has tried to gain access to such material and that they have experimented with chemical weapons. They have sought materials for a so called "dirty bomb" used to spread a highly radioactive dust over a large area, rendering a large section of a city uninhabitable or shutting down a port for years. And that doesn't even begin to consider all of the lesser mayhem that terrorists can cause with the inventive use of whatever is at hand - i.e., planes, etc.

Lastly, according to Rick, there was no need to use waterboarding because

Professional interrogators are masters of putting psychological pressure on a subject without coercive or “enhanced” interrogation techniques."

This brings up an interesting side issue regarding the law. Rick refers to a 2004 article in City Journal that discusses how military interrogators overcame the refusal of the vast majority of al Qaeda detainees to provide information. Its a great article. Many of the techniques found effective, though far below the threshold of waterboarding, none the less mimic some of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" used by the CIA, including laying on of hands, the use of stress positions, etc.

With all of that in mind, if you are going to redefine "torture" to encompass things that cause no injury and no physical pain and that do not involve anything but momentary suffering that ends when you stop the interrogation technique, then where is the clear line that we cannot cross? If, as Rick would have us do, we are now defining down "torture" to read the brief period of panic that waterboarding causes to be tantamount to "severe [mental] pain and suffering," then what in the legal definition of "torture" is there to tell me that "psychological pressure" over a period of days and weeks is not tantamount to "severe [mental] pain and suffering." Or what is there to tell me that the mere fact of confinement without knowing when I might be released does not rise to this new level of "severe [mental] pain and suffering." Inquiring minds want to know.

At any rate, Rick's arguments on the moral parameters of torture as they apply to waterboarding are absolutist and just off the rails. The jury is still out, of course, on the prudential issues - i.e., whether waterboarding as used gave us reliable information that could not timely be gotten otherwise. If you are keeping an open mind on this, then those are the bits of information you are waiting on. If you are like Rick, your mind was made up long ago on the basis of emotion. No facts are necessary on this issue.


suek said...

I wonder if Rick has had some incident in his life that makes waterboarding especially terrifying...

My husband has a picture that he thinks is outrageously's a cowboy hanging onto a rope over an immense drop (think Grand Canyon here) and the rope is tied to the saddle on his horse, which is also in a precarious position. Everything obviously can go kaflooey in an instant. As I said - he thinks it's outrageously funny. I can't even look at it (so my description may be a tad off). I have a fear of heights. Not a totally uncontrollable fear, but fear. If you were to hang me out in spece in such a fashion, I'd definitely consider it torture. Even if I were theoretically completely secure - it would be torture. So...given what we know about waterboarding, and the fact that it's use was so limited, resulted in such useful info, and apparently resulted in no harm to the prisoners (or soldiers on whom it was used)...maybe there's something else involved?

For's those photos of people jumping out of the Towers... I'd be happy to let the prisoners off to make the choice those people had - a wall of fire or some 100 floors down.

GW said...

For one, I think we did a disservice to our nation by scrubbing those 9-11 pictures of jumpers as too disturbing to show on broadcast news. Here we are, seven years on, and a large part of our nation is arguing for a potentially suicidal utopianism, forgetting the harsh realities of our world.

That said, I know of nothing in Rick's background to suggest such an underlying phobia. Further, he indicates that he supported coercive interrogation originally, but then his mind was changed by Andy Sullivan, so I suspect his utopianism is completely philosophical - in addition to being wholly misguided.

I can sympathize with your fear of heights, having suffered the same malady myself for years until circumstances caused me to overcome it. That said, my stomack still gets queasy when I peer over an edge.

suek said...'re not "over it"...but you control it. I can do that when the motivation is powerful enough, but I have to concentrate.