Torture, Moral Philosophy and Dinosaurs

Today’s NY Times has a fascinating story about the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (“KSM”), his chief interrogator (whom the times fingers on the justification that his identity was never classified), and the CIA program of enhanced interrogation (waterboarding, etc) more broadly. The article includes the astounding fact that KSM was waterboarded about a hundred times over the course of two weeks. It draws no firm conclusions on whether the harsh treatment---I would say torture---of KSM was worthwhile, but is nonetheless a useful starting point for thinking about torture as actually practiced.

One possibility that the story suggests is that the torture of KSM did not yield any information that he would not have provided absent torture. The basic technique was for the “knuckledraggers” (paramilitary) to administer the rough treatment and then when the prisoner was willing to talk, the eggheads (like KSM’s interrogator) would be sent in. KSM developed a rapport with his interrogator and over time provided a great deal of information. Would KSM have turned over less information had he not been first softened up? We can’t be sure. Quite possibly, although it’s also possible that he would have given over more information if treated uniformly humanely. Even if the interrogator conducts himself in a courteous manner, a suspect could well come to think of the “good cop” as merely the velvet glove over the iron fist of the bad cop, which would impede rapport. That’s the view of the FBI, at least, and even if KSM himself did divulge more than he otherwise would have thanks to his rough treatment, it’s hard to know in advance whether any particular suspect is likely to “break” under the pressure of torture or decide to fake cooperation out of anger.

The story also recounts internal warnings---from both FBI and CIA personnel---about long-term damage. It was not just foreseeable but foreseen that torturing prisoners would create blowback in the form of people at the margins of rage who then become terrorists. Or, less dramatically, viewing Americans as torturers, communities that might otherwise have cooperated in capturing terrorists instead abet them.

Of course, there are deontological reasons why many people oppose torture even if used in such a way that it saves more lives than it costs. But if one is prepared to put those objections aside, the KSM story shows how difficult it is to make a utilitarian decision about whether to permit torture. (In addition to the questions of efficacy and blowback, there is the fact that torture is illegal, and so one must count the utilitarian cost of violating the law.)

In this respect, torture is not really different from anything else. Utilitarianism is just so damned hard to get right. Is it right to give a beggar a dollar? Maybe he’ll use it to buy drugs or booze. But maybe if you don’t give him the dollar, he’ll rob someone, which would be worse. Things are not much better if you move from act-utilitarianism to rule-utilitarianism. Is it morally permissible or even necessary to execute killers because of the supposed deterrent effect of the death penalty? Do the costs of race-based affirmative action outweigh its costs? The answers depend on complicated, multi-dimensional empirical arguments. Chaos theory undermines utilitarianism.

In the end, I think Jack Handey put it best: “Long ago, an asteroid hit our planet and killed our dinosaurs. But, in the future, maybe we’ll go to another planet and kill their dinosaurs.”

Posted by Mike Dorf