The first step is admitting you have a problem…

I was listening to KCRW’s To The Point broadcast about Guantanamo Bay in which a senior naval appointee’s views on how torturing people is antithetical to American values, and the fellow arguning the opposite position immediately began throwing up straw men and splitting legal hairs.

You know who does that?  Guilty people.

Torturing people does go against American values.  More than that, if you want to talk about those values being better than the rest of the world’s values – and I’d really like to – you have to hoild yourself to that higher standard.   And that means sometimes you do things not only the hard way, but the hardest way.

The basic truth is this: torturing people is always wrong.  There may be times that it’s the lesser of two evils, but it’s always wrong.  Any discussion of torture needs to start there.  After that we can weasel-word around about “lawful combatants” and exactly what penalties are appropriate.  The point is that if you’ve tortured someone or, worse yet, made someone to do it for you, you’ve done something that’s wrong – something that’s against the self-evident truth that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.  And you really need to admit that.

Then come issues of legality and punishment.

9 Responses to “The first step is admitting you have a problem…”

  1. Rich Says:

    But Ted, I don’t know that everyone would agree with you that all torture is bad. To go to the strawman, you have a member of <insert the group you fear here> and you know (100%) that he has information about a nuclear bomb about to be used to destroy <city/place you care about>. I think more than half of Americans would say go ahead and do what you gotta do. Not to be the devil’s advocate, since I understand your point. But I don’t think your point is universally accepted. Plus when you come down to it we have something of a history of torture (though mostly in recent history we have used proxies), see for example,

    And then perhaps think about Manzanar in WWII, Andersonville during the civil war, etc.

    Ted, we’re at war. Aren’t you patriotic? ;-)

  2. Rich Says:

    BTW, note that the US is not a signatory to the expanded definition (1977 Protocol I) of what makes a lawful combatants (its a part of the Geneva conventions). Its one of the reasons the Bushies tend to use the term terrorist fairly widely.

  3. faber Says:


    Isn’t the rhetorical question du jour: “Ted, why do you hate America?” :-)

    I’ve heard the straw man situation before, and what I’m saying about that situation is that once you’re in it, you can’t do the right thing anymore. You’re going to have to settle for doing the least bad thing. The human on the scene has to decide whether torturing someone is worse than letting innocents die, but either way that human has done something horrible and has to come to grips with it. The lesser of two evils is still evil.

    Am I just weasel-wording now? I don’t think so, and here’s why: I think if you adopt the looser position that torture is justified in that situation, or that it’s “OK” or “the right choice” you’re starting down that road to justification that leads to finding lots more justifications for it. I’d actually be less concerned if Bush & Co. were saying that they were doing horrible things (and probably asking soldiers to do horrible things), but that these horrible things were the best of a bunch of bad choices. What I hear is that this stuff is all good – the right way to defend us.

    Nothing to be ashamed of.

    I think we shouldn’t delude ourselves, or let our leaders weasel-word us about this. Torture is always wrong. It always goes against our prinicples as a nation. There may be times when doing it is the least bad choice, but it’s always a bad choice.

  4. john Says:

    The basic truth is this: torturing people is always wrong. -ted writes

    But Ted, I don’t know that everyone would agree with you that all torture is bad—some people like being tortured…and as an American you should have the right (behind closed doors) to pursue any leisure activity (fetish) your into (consenting adults). Am I off topic here??(damm adhd)

  5. faber Says:


    First: nice to hear from you. It’s really funny to say, but I was referring to non-consensual torture. What an odd modifier to have to add. :-)

  6. Rich Says:

    Hmmm … lets leave aside the notion that I suspect a fair number of people do support the idea that the ends often justifies the means and ask perhaps a more pertinent question brought on by John’s observation — what exactly is torture and how do you define it?

    Torture or not?

    – Not being allowed access to a bathroom?
    – Being kept awake to answer questions?
    – Being bombarded with offensive music (and how loud and how long constitutes bombardment)?
    – Being denied the opportunity to worship as one chooses?
    – Being lied to/manipulated?
    – Being drugged (from pep pills to laxatives to hallucinogens)?
    – Having your greatest fears realized (e.g., darkness, tight places, etc.)?
    – Being questioned by a person of an inappropriate (sex, religion, etc.)?
    – Being denied access to an adviser of your choice?

    I think we can agree on driving sticks under the fingernails, etc., but else what meets your test? I don’t think its a very easy thing to define well.

  7. faber Says:

    Hi, RIch.

    I think you’re right that people believe that ends justify means here, and I think there’s an implicit judgement that the person to be tortured is guilty, too. Even folks who are completely unsqueamish about torture get upset when they realize they’ve tortured an innocent.

    I cling to my thesis that torture is always wrong, though one can construct cases where it’s the least bad (most of which imply the complicity in evil of the torturee).

    I agree with you that torture is difficult to define. I can’t produce an algorithm. The defining characteristics seem to me to be cruelty and treating the torturee as sub-human. Even those are fuzzy: there are plenty of cases that meet those loose criteria that are only rude, not torturous. Ultimately it’s a subjective word.

    Do you really think that in Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay the problem is the absence of an objective definition of torture? I mean, when I see hooded prisoners hooked to car batteries, I don’t think to myself “if only I had an objective standard to judge this by…”

    I certainly do recognize that many of these guardsmen and soldiers are far from home in insane conditions and that they could get a little rough in questioning. I certainly don’t blame anyone for reacting as a human being to incredible stress. I understand it’s a war zone. I don’t expect prisoners of war to be treated like anything but prisoners.

    But the military is supposed to act as a team to ensure the highest level of honor and decency among a fighting force that aspires to the highest standards. Someone’s got to both act as a leader there and admit their failure when they have one.

    And when you’re the leader of the free world and considering vetoing a law penned by a former POW that says “the US military will not torture people,” well, I think that needs to be explained a lot more clearly than it has been.

  8. Rich Says:

    The UN does have a convention on torture, but it has all the problems any attempt to define the notion has:

    “For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

    Which is so vague as to be useless. You make a good point that clearly the line was crossed (by a wide margin) at Abu Graib, but Guantanamo is a much more interesting case. There have been a few things charged and some behavior involving manipulation of cultural differences that I think are reprehensible, but I am not sure they would constitute torture. Even Amnesty International has very little to say in that direction. They do have a very long discussion of the effects of holding people without access to due process — my problem with Guantanamo, and how this has led to hunger strikes, attempts at suicide, etc. But is that torture per se??

    In any case, I think (putting myself in the awkward position of trying to understand the minds of Bush and Cheney) that when they hesitated and lobbied against the wording about banning torture a big part of their problem with it was a fear of a big tent approach to what makes up torture. (But I could be wrong.) Thus Bush added the comment that his folks would define the notion.

    In any case Ted, I think I have made the case that torture is a difficult to clearly define concept. And I cringe any time anybody talks about laws based on things where “I know it when I see it.”

  9. faber Says:

    I missed a bunch of this under the gun at work.

    I understand that torture is very difficult to define, and I share your concerns with overbroad laws. For example, I think any law hinging on what one can do to “terrorists” is probably unconstitutionally vague.

    This is probably one of those cases where the fact that we seem to need some kind of law is depressing. Like laws that say things like “don’t play poker with strangers over the phone,” laws that say “don’t torture people” say something awful about us as humans.

    I understand your point that the first thing that will happen if one makes a law is that the definition of “torture” will be nibbled at by lawyers and that this quantification will not really help the big issue of inhumanity.

    Assuming that you agree that something should be done to limit this, do you have an idea other than a law?