The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Torture and the ticking time bomb lie

Posted by Bill Nance on September 18, 2008

In April of this year, John McCain voted against prohibiting the CIA to engage in acts of torture which we prosecuted at the Nurenburg War Crimes Tribunal.

The lame argument always made in favor of torture, and one which I assure you will raise it’s ugly head before this election is finished, is the “ticking bomb” scenario.

In this fantasy, the government gets ahold of a terrorist who they know to be in posession of information on the location of a nuclear (or other WMD) bomb set to go off in New York City within a matter of hours. The proponents of this fairy tale situation cry out that in such cases, torture should be allowed in order to save the people of New York City.

To call this scenario silly is to give it far more credence than it deserves. First, the likelihood that a terrorist will get their hands on a genuine WMD capable of causing mass casualties is limited. It certainly isn’t non-existent, and we need to do everything we can to prevent such a thing, including ruthless military and special ops action when needed. But the fact is that this is a remote thing, not a likely one.

Second, the notion that we would catch someone who possessed knowledge of the whereabouts of a time bomb is unlikely in the extreme.

Thirdly, Al-Qaeda has been accused of many things, but the last time I checked, utter stupidity is not one of them. Why on earth would they not set off such a device the very instant it was in place? The very notion of a time-bomb is ridiculous unless the information was caught before this imaginary bomb arrived in place.

Fourth, in the extremely unlikely event that terrorists got their hands on one of the crown jewels of a nation state’s arsenal, AND were able to get it into the U.S., AND we caught someone who knew where it was…are you seeing the improbability of these events now? These are the kind of odds we place on drawing a straight flush three times in a row: unlikely to the degree of near impossibility.

But let’s play along with the scenario. Suppose we have in place laws which prohibit torture, which place strong criminal penalties for those who violate this law and anyone who ordered said violation.

In the scenario above, where they were reasonably certain they had the guy who knew where the bomb was, can you imagine any FBI or CIA or special ops personnel who wouldn’t torture the holy Hell out of the suspect and the law be damned? I can’t.

Be honest friends, neither can you. If I were in such a position, even with all my convictions that torture is immoral under all circumstances, I’d get out the Leatherman and start cutting off fingers and toes until the SOB talked. So would you, so would anyone.

“Ahh,” the pro-torture people cry “but is it right that we prosecute those people who saved all of New York?”

The answer is an unequivocal YES.

Ethicists have studied the question of law-breaking, how best to deal with it and when it is correct to do so at least since the ancient Greeks 2,500 years ago. In the scenario above I would break the law and take my chances in court. This is why we have judges and juries. This is why we have such things as mitigating circumstances.

Let me ask you a question: If the events I described above actually occurred, do you think for one second that a jury would convict the men or women accused? Seriously, do you? And if convicted, do you actually think a judge would sentence them to prison? No, me either.

The reason we have and need laws against torture isn’t to prosecute people in the scenario above. We have those laws because we know from time immemorial that when such practices are tolerated at all, they almost instantly become routine. Events at Abu-Ghraib, Bagram Airbase and Guantanmo, events which absolutely no one disputes took place, did not occur in a vaccum or as isolated instances. They were a part of a policy to “take the gloves off.” I actually believe that Cheney and Bush did not intend for torture to become a wide-spread or routine matter. But it didn’t make any difference.

Once you open the floodgates to torture, it ALWAYS becomes widespread.

Do we want our Republic, a nation which has stood out as a shining beacon to all the world as a respecter of human rights, of the dignity of man and limits on the authority of government to be forever tainted as just another thug-ocracy? Shall we be mentioned in the same breath as the KGB or the Gestapo or the Stasi?

Nothing less than this is up for grabs this year. When Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama for “wanting to read terrorists their rights” she was (aside from telling a bald-faced lie) making a clear appeal that the gloves should be off. that is, that we should, as John McCain voted to allow, favor torture of people merely suspected of wrong-doing.

Will we allow 232 years of the history of our nation to be thrown into the dustbin in favor of fear and fanaticism? Or will we, as we have so many times before, show the courage to do the right thing even when it’s difficult?

You get to decide this November. God help us all if we decide wrong.

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