The Corner

The Torture Debate: Letters

Reader K.E. writes me, perhaps because he knows I am not always on the same page as my colleagues on these issues:

There is much that is disagreeable in today’s editorial, but I want to highlight one particular point.

Many critics of enhanced interrogation say that there is no balance to be struck, that coercive interrogation “never works.” As it happens, the CIA “effectiveness memo” detailing the benefits of the harsher techniques hasn’t been released, although it was referred to repeatedly in the legal memos. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called for the de-classification of documents describing the kind of information gained from enhanced interrogation, and he’s right. The debate over interrogation shouldn’t be unfairly tilted by selective, politically motivated disclosures.

It is one sad thing that various contributors to the Corner are open consequentialists who believe good enough ends justify evil means. Unfortunately that is to be expected on both sides of the political spectrum. Usually on the Left they are what you aptly called the “Party of Death,” people who think killing human embryos or unborn babies or various “useless eaters” is a legitimate answer to some pressing problem, be it a terrible illness, a crisis pregnancy or rising health care costs or some painful terminal illness. And to them we say: “No. Some things are intrinsically evil and must not be done, for any reason.”

But here we have NR’s institutional voice speaking. I recognize that this passage initially starts off in refutation of a pragmatic argument from those of us who oppose torture, but it then goes on to say the former vice president “is right” in his drive to release documents showing the “effectiveness” of torture. The former vice president is making a consequentialist argument. He is offering as his justification: “they work.” If he thinks the effectiveness memo is the answer, he never understood the question, at least not the most important one.

This reads like an endorsement of the former vice president’s consequentialism. Is that what you all meant to do?

I don’t agree with this line of criticism. I don’t take either my colleagues or Cheney to be denying that there are some practices so appalling that they could not be used even to generate positive consequences; instead I think that they simply don’t believe that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” under discussion fall into that category. It is a “consequentialist” argument in one sense, of course, but it is not an endorsement of consequentialism.

Reader G.A. writes:

I find it conceivable that the “enhanced interrogation” techniques were moral, just and legal.

 

But the argument that data from the military’s SERE program demonstrate these techniques didn’t create long-term mental damage is just stupid.  It’s one thing to undergo this stuff as part of a program you volunteered for, and knowing that you can withdraw any time you like.  Even if that withdrawal has a high professional and reputational cost, it is still an option and you are still in control of the situation.  And the whole experience is instrumental to the volunteer’s professional and training goals.  These are profound differences from the the situation of a prisoner, who can’t opt out, and for whom the whole experience is counter-instrumental to their goals.  Much psychological damage results not from excesses of pain or suffering, but from reactions to the loss of control and feelings of helplessness.  There is just no way the SERE experiences can recreate fully those feelings, and the data from them can’t speak to the effects of those feelings.

 

(Perhaps some might argue that prisoners do exercise control, in that they can end the experience by cooperating.  But even then they are dependent on their interrogators’ opinion of that cooperation, and I would not be surprised to learn these techniques involve creating anxiety that the prisoner has not convinced the interrogator of their full cooperation.)

 

I’m sure the SERE data tell us a great deal about the physiological effects of this stuff, and about the emotional and mental reactions of those subjected to it.  But there is a limit on what those data can tell us.

 

It does conservatives little good to criticize others for overlooking crucial facts while they are themselves exaggerating others.

The editorial acknowledged some of the differences to which G.A. points, but I agree that it downplayed them.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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