Thursday, March 17, 2005

Torture: Technocracy in Action

I could go on this subject for hours. Who couldn’t? How doing so would mean privileging our side. The public opinion costs across the world. Countering pseudo-utilitarians with more personal costs. The difference between abstract theory of it and the always degrading practices. Discussions of it’s portrayal in the media. But as I said in the last post, there really isn’t anyone to argue with, no one trying rational defenses of it anyway. Two things though:

1. We do not need any law saying it’s ok to torture in certain situations. The “ticking time bomb”(TTB) and obviously right hypotheticals are just that, obviously right. If an agent knows for 100% certain that breaking laws and human rights will save hundreds of lives, do any of us imagine that this official or officer will not do so? After the lives are saved, do any of us think that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law?

Just as the government is willing to disregard the Constitution when it feels necessary and answer questions later (be it extraordinary rendition, or making Social Security), so are government officials willing to disregard military law if it will definitely save lives. And our democratic legal system, with input from juries, prosecutors, judges, and executive clemency, is not going to punish them. When they’ve been right.

So if one were to argue “well there are scenarios when we wouldn’t let them off the hook, or they believe they wouldn’t be understood, but I want the FBI to torture people nonetheless”, that might require a different law. But then this does not include the usual TTB hypothetical.

2. What does economics tell us? Well lets look at the costs and benefits.
Benefits: Preventing further death and destruction (sometimes only probabilistically)
Costs: Pain to victim (innocent or guilty), public opinion, creating a culture that dehumanizes prisoners and trains guards to be without compassion, letting blood-lust affect the decision making process, can’t be undone.

Sometimes those benefits will outweigh those costs. Unfortunately sometimes they won’t, and while our public servants are good at internalizing those benefits, they aren’t good at internalizing those costs. So make them do so. Have a $5 million torture purchase. An officer can get a warrant to torture when they’ve satisfied some warrant condition like Dershowitz suggests (although because of the immediate nature of possible threats, I’m willing to be very lenient here), and pays $5 million from their budget. Maybe it’d go to the tortured’s family, maybe it’d go to some distant charity, maybe foreign aid, who knows. Just the agency loses money in a way it really would rather not.

A lot of liberals are looking at this torture argument from such a legal hard-and-fast perspective, saying that while the TTB scenario might be tempting, it opens a slippery slope. Does TTB mean you’d torture 10 guys, 9 of whom are innocent and 1 who is guilty? Slippery slopes aren’t a problem in economics, because motives and rationales are all gradual anyway. Find out what the total cost (to society, American efforts, emotional harm to the victim, etc) is, make the torturers internalize that, and ask them if it’s still worth it. The difference between torturing 1 guy who certainly has the knowledge, and 10 guys when one of them has it, is about $45 million.


At 4:54 PM, Anonymous little_e- said...

being the somewhat morbid sort, and yet also being the somewhat soft-hearted sort, i've often thought that yes, there are situations where torture is justified, but shouldn't there be another way?

which got me thinking about the idea of torturing the person's family, which got me thinking about the idea of faking the torture. c'mon, a bit of shaky cam technique and a few lollypops to get the kids to cooperate and a few vials of fake blood, and i bet you could do a really convincing video of some guy's kids getting carved to pieces, without actually having to hurt anyone...


Post a Comment

<< Home