Monday, May 18, 2009


I've been slow in the blogging department of late and I'm trying to finally post some of these "big topic" posts I've had kicking around for awhile. This one's on torture, a topic that just doesn't seem to go away and yet another issue where both sides seem to be talking passed each other. The "liberal" argument against torture is that it's illegal, it's morally wrong, and that a nation that tortures falls short of meeting the high moral standards we should should ourselves to. The "conservative" argument for torture usually involves ticking time bombs, Jack Bauer, and the basic idea that waterboarding a terrorist should be acceptable in rare circumstances if it is the only way to save innocent lives.

I've yo-yo'd so much on the torture question and only recently realized it's because both sides are essentially right. If we just use a little common sense, yes torture is a morally honorific act, but at the same time, it was be stupid to avoid using torture to save innocent lives in a situation you know it would be effective. Similarly, yes it's wrong to kill, but wouldn't it be worth it to kill the guilty to save innocent lives?

The talk of moral absolutes makes even less sense in the real world. Like any instance in which moral boundaries are crossed, the specifics are very important. Conservatives who turn a blind eye and seek to excuse any and all torture committed by our government are also missing the boat. Making the moral case for torture in very limited circumstances is not the same as saying that the use of such tactics should not be subject to oversight. Whatever your moral stand on torture I think it's clear from the numerous reports that have emerged and have continued to emerge that torture- waterboarding in particular- was used far too often during the Bush years. Even without the entire story, there are too many innocents and too many instances of these practices in totality to meet the limited moral standard supporters of torture have maintained.

As I was saying, circumstances matter and specifics matter. That some instances of torture may be defensible does not mean that all instances of torture are defensible. The real political issues- or what they should be- are not the grand moral statements we see time and time again on cable news. The real political issues are about transparency and accountability, which we had little of during the Bush years and still seem to have little of now that Obama's in office.


Anonymous rose said...

Very well put, especially because Libertarians are also prone to making "grand moral statements" when it comes to issues like this and wiretapping and basically a bunch of other civil rights stuff that I have trouble understanding sometimes. I'm probably a libertarian minus the civil rights extremism, but anyway.

Don't we need to acknowledge that there are levels of torture? Cutting fingers and gouging eyes IS different than waterboarding, which is different than sleep deprivation etc. There are times that we're going to need to do more than is in the army field manual in order to gain life saving information. Yet politicians want to draw an absolute line- something either is torture, or is not. Getting hot under these lights isn't it SEINFELD!

One other thing- didn't we only waterboard three really bad dudes with really important info? Why is that too widespread?

4:44 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Libertarians do tend to big on grand moral statements, which is one of the reasons libertarianism has trouble catching on as a more mainstream movement. I'll get back to torture in a second, but to use a very different and much less controversial example, there are no shortage of libertarians out there who will explain to you that all taxation is theft. I'm sympathetic to that argument, but ultimately, it's sort of besides the point if you want to deal in the real world and not in the theoretical. First principles are fine, but given that we don't get to go back and start over from scratch, we are stuck with much of our basic structure. I suppose this is a difference between purist libertarians who won't settle for anything less than libertarian paradise and more pragmatic ones like myself who would rather see politics simply move in a libertarian direction as a starting point.

But to get back to torture, you're very right, there are different levels of torture. As I've been saying, specifics do matter.

From what I've read it's a lot more than three really bad dudes who were waterboarded. And beyond that, I've also read accounts of extreme interrogation techniques (such as sensory deprivation) used repeated times on innocent prisoners and very low level terror suspects.

This isn't about vilifying America if we did fuck up, but there does need to be accountability- and by that I don't mean accountability to the world but to us the people, whom the government is supposed to be serving. Yes, there is a fine line to be walked regarding classified information, but the truth is that the information we've gotten from Bush and now from Obama doesn't tell us a thing about the job they are doing to protect us and their competence as commander-in-chief.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

I'm sympathetic towards the more pure libertarian economic stances, than the privacy/civil rights stuff.

But anyway, we're not getting a real discussion on the gitmo issue because the majority of dems who are loudest in denouncing, are simply opportunists. The majority are sell-outs like Joe Biden, who have made sure that they're on whatever side the public is on, even if that means morphing your views 16 times since 2003.

The reason I can respectfully disagree with libertarians is because they opposed all this in 2003 and they oppose it today.

I'm happy Dick Cheney is out there providing a counter-point, even if its unpopular. Maybe we could've used a principled counter-point in 2003 pre-Iraq, but the dems didn't offer one until it became popular to do so.

9:32 AM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

I initially supported Gitmo and defended most of the actions taken by the Bush administration in the initial stages of the war on terror in the months immediately following 9-11. I was glad that the administration didn't get bogged down in these moralistic policy debates and took strong decisive action. If you go back to my blog in 2005, I made the point that critics of Bush administration policy were offering no real alternatives of their own and the Bush policies, even if flawed, were preferable to no action at all.

But now we're approaching eight years since 9-11 and both the failures of the Bush administration and it's critics have grown more glaringly obvious. It's not enough to have one side argue "close Gitmo!" while the other argues against checks and balances and transparency.

Not to get on my high horse, but the intellectual elite- liberals conservatives, and libertarians alike have all failed to offer an all-encompassing plan that effectively fights terrorism and protects the American people while maintaining liberty and preserving the values we hold dear. It's not easy and as I've said, our leadership has failed, albeit for different reasons. Bush and Cheney were pragmatic to a fault, acceptable enough in the short term, but flawed in the long term as they have little or no philosophical legs to stand on. Obama's been even worse, speaking out against the Bush-Cheney policies while continuing most of them. Obama had the opportunity to start anew and lay out a real moral framework for combating terror, but instead has chose to play words games in identifying terrorism and play politics in the closing of Gitmo.

10:31 AM  
Blogger McMc said...

"Not to get on my high horse, but the intellectual elite- liberals conservatives, and libertarians alike have all failed to offer an all-encompassing plan that effectively fights terrorism and protects the American people while maintaining liberty and preserving the values we hold dear."

I mean, is it even possible to do those things simultaneously. Terrorists or any criminals for that matter work outside the boundaries of the law and they try to maintain secrecy and tight knit groups. If there's a sleeper cell working on American soil to plot an attack, how can one legally or ethically know without that group making a mistake?

1:16 AM  

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