Friday, January 27, 2006

"Reason, Emotion, and Torture"

Reading Harvey Cox's When Jesus Came to Harvard, I made it to the chapter on torture last night.

Cox arranges the book roughly along the lines of the gospel narratives, starting with the opening of the gospels (the "begats" of Matthew) and proceeding through the resurrection stories. The torture chapter has no direct correlation to the gospel narratives, but the reality of crucifixion and the stories of the treatment of Jesus allow him to pause and reflect on what is, again, a live topic.

He begins by noting that we associate torture with medieval Europe, even though torture has never disappeared from the world, nor stopped being employed by governments bent on exerting their power over individuals to whatever degree they deemed necessary. He mentions the theory of Alan Dershowitz, his Harvard colleague and friend, that torture should be legalized and controlled.

Dershowitz's argument relies on the "ticking bomb" scenario, the idea that you know for a certainty that a prisoner has knowledge about a bomb about to explode, and only torture will secure the information in time to save innocent lives. To regulate this practice, Dershowitz would establish a "torture warrant," to be issued under similar circumstance as a search warrant (this book was written in 2004; one wonders how Professor Dershowitz feels about the safeguards of a "warrant" now). The torture method itself would be described in, and regulated by, the warrant; Dershowitz proposes models such as the use of sterilized needles shoved under the fingernails.

Cox presented this proposal to his Harvard classes on Moral Reasoning (his experiences in teaching the class are the basis for this book). The class split almost 50/50 on whether or not torture could be justified, even under the Dershowitz proposal. Many agreed with Martha Nussbaum's sentiment: "I don't think any sensible moral person would deny that there might be some imaginable situation in which torture [of a particular individual] is justified." (Cox, p. 240). Cox raised objections to the "ticking bomb" scenario: victims of torture will tell you anything, torture makes their statements less reliable, not more; it is a "slippery slope" toward allowing torture in less critical cases (much as the Supreme Court has allowed unwarranted searches by police in certain cirumstances); etc. Still, the class sticks, 50/50. So he introduces a few new questions.

How many in the class, he asks, would be willing to insert the sterilized needles under the fingernails?
Only a small number put up their hands. Then I asked those who favored the policy but would not do it themselves to formulate some moral justification for their action, other than mere squeamishness. A sullen silence followed. (Cox. p. 242)
Cox has already pointed out the utilitarianism behind Dershowitz' argument, a "greatest good for the greatest number" the class as a whole is quite willing to accept, secure in the knowledge that they will be among the greatest number, and that, after all, their hands are clean.

Then I posed another question. Suppose, I asked, the suspect is not talking to you but you have his two children-- aged four and seven--in the room. Would you threaten to torture them to get the information? After all, if it is mere mathematics, what is the temporary pain of two children compared to the possible deaths of five thousand people? Not a single person in the class was willing to hurt the children. (Cox, p. 242)
Torture is the last redoubt of power, the final tool of will anxious to impose itself on the world, on the other. In one of the most gripping episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Capt. Picard, a character regular viewers already sympathize with as the protagonist, is captured by enemies and tortured. It is, of course, all sleep deprivation and psychological torment: no needles, rubber hoses, electric wires. In order to "break" his will, his captor is determined to make Picard say there are four lights shining in his eyes during the interrogations, instead of three. Picard, of course, is rescued, and refuses the final command to "see" too many lights, in a dramatic ending to the story.

But it doesn't end there. In the final scene, secure back on his ship and in position as captain again, he confesses to another crew member that, just before word of his release came, he was ready to say he saw four lights. "I would have said anything," he admits. In fact, he says, I thought there were four lights.

That is all that torture is; it is the ultimate imposition of power on another, more serious and even "ultimate" than death, because as Wittgenstein noted, "Death is the only experience that is not lived through." Torture is; and lived beyond. And that is it's point: not to kill the victim, but to render them so vulnerable they refuse to contest any longer with the will of the torturer.

Cox draws a related lesson, but a different one, from his experience. After one class discussing torture, a student accosts him, angry that the professor has cheated, has introduced emotions into a debate that should be conducted solely on the basis of reason. Cox avers that reason keeps emotion from becoming mere sentimentality, but emotions prevent reason from becoming sterile and lifeless. We need both to conduct moral reasoning.

Might we also say we need both to retain our humanity? That we need both, in order to begin to see the other as human, just as we are? The New York Times reports this morning that there is "mixed support" for the use of warrantless wiretaps. The support depends largely on whether the wiretaps are conducted against "ordinary Americans" (no), or "Americans that the government is suspicious of" (yes). These are not, of course, mutually exclusive categories, but the analysis of the poll respondents, dare I say their moral reasoning, is based more on emotions (fear) than reason. We cannot remove emotions from their moral reasoning process. What could be done to change that emotion from fear to empathy, to recognition that the other is a sister or brother in God?

That is the challenge to the faithful. Not to rail against the system, which will never be corrected enough to save us from ourselves, but to begin to change ourselves, and to guide those around us to seek a similar change.

After all, so long as torture appears reasonable, how moral can we claim to be?

UPDATE: We have met the enemy:

The U.S. Army in Iraq has at least twice seized and jailed the wives of suspected insurgents in hopes of "leveraging" their husbands into surrender, U.S. military documents show.

In one case, a secretive task force locked up the young mother of a nursing baby, a U.S. intelligence officer reported. In the case of a second detainee, one American colonel suggested to another that they catch her husband by tacking a note to the family's door telling him "to come get his wife."
Is torture limited only to physical coercion? In Cox's hypothetical, are we just as bothered by the threat to harm the children? Would that alone be enough to coerce information, and if it was, would we not consider that torture?

And one other thought...

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