Cathy Young & Torture

by Jonah Goldberg

Our friend Cathy Young enters the fray on torture and offers this response to me:

A question that has come up in the comments, and has also been raised by Jonah Goldberg at The Corner: Why is it so much worse to torture someone than to kill or imprison them, since loss of freedom and especially death also amount to drastic violations of human rights? It seems to me that one of Andrew Sullivan’s points — that torture uses what is animal in us to defeat what is human — is very salient here. Unlike imprisonment, torture robs the individual of all control of his or her body and mind. It’s quite possible to maintain one’s human dignity and selfhood while imprisoned; not so under torture, which reduces one’s entire being to animal sensation. Death does not do that; it simply ends the individual’s existence, in this world or altogether (depending on what your beliefs are). Of course, there are many examples of people choosing death over severe pain — not only because of the suffering involved, I suspect, but also because of the loss of dignity.

Me: I don’t have time today for a long round robin on this. But I remain unconvinced. Look: Much of this torture conversation boils down to people talking past each other. One side is explaining why they don’t like it. The other side explaining why they think it might sometimes be necessary. I find the pragmatic arguments against it vastly more persuasive than the abstract ones. It might distort our culture and our values. It hurts our image. It doesn’t get much reliable information. These sound like plausible arguments. But the arguments from principle still seem a muddle. Cathy, like Andrew, says of my objection that turning people into animals is the defining evil of torture and that death, in effect, still allows for personal autonomy.

Not to a lot of people, it doesn’t.

I would take fifty lashes and some waterboarding over the death penalty any day of the week. Indeed, I’d take fifty lashes and waterboarding over fifty years in jail. And jail, according to a great many people treats humans like animals too. “Caged like an animal” seems to be one of the more common jailhouse complaints. Ask the folks on death row if they’d take a day of waterboarding in exchange for freedom.

And don’t tell me the analogy doesn’t work because the criminals are choosing torture of their free will. The terrorists in these hypotheticals choose torture too — when they decide not to divulge inforrmation. Everyone agrees that torture or even coercion for reason not directly tied to pressing need should never be tolerated.

Young and Sullivan are imposing their aesthetic standards of their consciences, for want of a better term, to the torture debate and elevating them above everyone else’s.

Update You should read Young’s comments section. Some good points made there.

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