On Torture

So I deigned to watch Jon Stewart and Colbert Report back-to-back tonight. Both of them went on and on about torture and, in their usual offensive comic way, how ashamed we ought to be that the Bush Administration committed horrific acts of torture. And this got me thinking to what I might say to either of them had I the opportunity to do so. Three points came to mind:

  1. A lot of people on the political left – not all, but many – had a large political motivation to play up the torture angle as much as they could in order to win votes. This is because “torture” is a term that carries with it a great deal of emotional baggage. It really is no different than when some (not all) pro-lifers call Democrats “baby killers” – they do it really only to stir up emotion and not to contribute anything worthwhile.

  2. There is a huge grey area when it comes to torture. Not every act can be classified in black-or-white. For instance, I’m sure we can all agree that things like boiling oil and peeling off people’s skin constitutes torture. But what about sleep deprivation? If you call that torture, then would you say our current medical school system, which demands that residents stay on the job for 30 hours at a time, is a form of torture? This would be absurd. If we can all agree on the claims of torture that clearly belong on the “black” side, then in a time of war when lives are at stake, I for one am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the military commanders to remain squarely in the “grey” zone and trust that military rules will effectively forbid going to the dark side. But that leads to point number 3…

  3. War changes everything, and not just for the combatants involved. It changes everything for the civilians back home as well, even those like us who aren’t directly in harm’s way (at this moment). I would argue that when there is a justified war, it is the duty of the patriot to, at the very minimum, advocate for victory for his/her country. This means advocating things that a moral person normally wouldn’t advocate for in peacetime. For instance, the patriot would naturally advocate for killing, or at least incapacitating, the “bad guys” on the enemy side. But in peacetime, a moral person wouldn’t advocate killing those who hadn’t harmed them first directly. So serving as a patriot in a justified war necessarily changes an acceptance of those things that the patriot would normally find morally acceptable. In short, the standards for moral conduct for everyone are different in wartime than in peacetime. But that only really applies if you think the war is justified in the first place. What if you don’t? Then there’s no change in thinking and the same old standards apply. Which really is just a fancy way of saying that all the griping from the left about torture is just another way of them demonstrating that they don’t believe the war is justified in the first place. That is fine, but they also fail to recognize that justified war does have a moral price to pay. They fail to grasp this point entirely and instead stand on absurd absolutist statements about “torture is always wrong”. Of course it isn’t, just like killing isn’t always wrong. But in peacetime, torture would always be wrong.

So, tell me what you think. Am I justifying torture or offering a nuanced view of a complex situation?