The Dilbert Blog: Democracy at Work - Does it need torture ?

Scott Addams on his blog asks:

If you think there's no moral justification for torture, would you accept the nuclear destruction of NYC (for example) to avoid torturing one known terrorist?


Posted by: Tim | December 23, 2005 at 01:54 AM
Your question contains the implicit assumption that you have someone available for torture who will (not MAY) be able to give you sufficient information in sufficient time to save NYC from destruction. It also assumes that the person you have will only give up the necessary information if you torture him. In the real world, neither of these two assumptions are EVER safe.
In the world of your hypothetical question, then, torture away, since the rules of the greatest good of the greatest number prevail. But since that world can never exist, I can continue to hold to my view that torture is never justifiable or effective (since its use necessarily taints the validity of the information gathered.)
Clear enough?

Posted by: leemcg | December 23, 2005 at 05:14 AM

Even if your answer to Scott's hypothetical situation is "yes, save NYC", the problem is always one of practicality. How do you know it will work? Is it even likely that torture of one person could stop such a major event ?
What if I suggest the following hypthetical question:
If we know that person X robbed bank Y, should we just lock them up without a trial?
If you can really deal with the hypothetical, the answer is probably yes, but in practice, what does it mean to "know" they did it? This is the fundamental reason why justice systems are set up the way they are.

You might feel that asking such hypothetical questions gets to the core of opinion, but frankly it's the realities and the practicalities that can be just as important.

Posted by: Richard | December 23, 2005 at 08:50 AM
Having been there, I can say that I have absolutely no problem putting a bullet in the brain of someone pointing a gun at me and trying to kill me in open combat. I guess for me though, my position changes once that person surrenders, voluntarily or not, and then becomes unarmed.
Heh… let me wander off here for a minute… Is the terrorist truly unarmed at that point. Could we say that knowledge is also a weapon and that the terrorist is still armed with knowledge that could continue to or potentially kill innocent lives? And as long as he is holding that weapon, he is still in combat. Do we have the right to continue to fight with whatever means we have at our disposal to disarm him of his weapons (knowledge)?
I think I’ll go off and chew on that for a while. My brain hurts.
You make me think, Scott, and that is a wonderful thing.
(later after a couple of hours "Richard returns and posts this fantastic piece -- law)
t's very easy to say that people who use torture as a methodology of interrogation are sadists or people with some sort of macho mental problems. It's not so easy to picture them as loving husbands and fathers who are trying their damndest to get information out of people who have sworn their lives to KILL ALL AMERICANS NO MATTER WHAT THE COST. You cannot see the toll it may take on them as they try desperately to keep another 9-11 from happening... not only for the sake of their wives and children, but for YOU as well.
I apologize for jumping on that, but it makes me ill to see stupid people judging those who are out there everyday risking their own lives to save the lives of those that are at the same time judging them so irreverently.
That said, having served in the armed forces, served during the gulf war, served in close combat and having been wounded by an enemy trying to kill me, let me tell you what I believe in.
I believe in the American ideal. I believe in everything that our forefathers, and many since them, fought and died for, and I would gladly lay down my life to defend those ideals and this American way of life, and any of you out there whether I agree with you or not. Part of those ideals that I would violently defend is the morality with which we live our daily lives. And although morality seems to be a lost cause these days, I still believe it is one of the truths on which this country was founded. And as such, departing from our own convictions for the sake of "preventing another attack" or any other reason is NOT what I was fighting for.
When this great America betrays its own moral compass for a few scraps of intelligence that may or may not prevent another attack, have we not lost what America stands for?
Honestly, even if we knew that a terrorist had a vital peice of information that would absolutely stop the nuclear attack of a major city, if we betray our own ideals on which this country was founded, have we not lost already?

I would never put the life of the terrorist above the lives of thousands of Americans, but I would put those lives against the loss of the true value of what America stands for. And I would gladly sacrifice my own life to save those ideals and preserve this democracy and the freedoms that is stands for.
An American Patriot [who served AND is against torture. My kind of patriot -- law]

Posted by: Buster | December 22, 2005 at 06:14 PM

Torture is horrible, but isn't war worse? We like to think one doesn't occur and that another happens for a "good cause"... People in government do unsavory things, to maintain our way of life. War is an easier sell than torture or covert assasinations or banana republics because government can easily put up lame reasons for war, wave the flag, and all the Wal-mart shopping, Billy Graham loving, Pick-up driving, Country music lovin' people get behind it. But which is less costly in terms of lives (ours and theirs), resources, image? You bet, the covert shit. The torture. Should we be appalled? We should, about the war....

Anyone who has taken U.S. History at a college level has had their eyes opened from the glare of our past. We have done horrible, bad things in the name of national interest.. All the banana republics in Central and South America...accident? Not at all. Our opinion of a country can turn on a dime as soon as they serve no purpose. We are tough S.O.B.s that violently protect our interests--often at arm's length through true scum of the earth. The mob has nothing on our tactics. But you know what? If it's not us, it'll be them. And you don't want that to happen. Because as bad as we can be, it is nothing like the bad that is truly out there.

The world is not a nice place. Most of the world does not have the same values, mores, philosophy, ... Shoot, we can't even agree on how to accept Christ amongst the many who believe! If we neuter our government, remove tools from their bag, we are damaging our longterm viability as a country... [Are we really ? see the comment below -- law]

Posted by: Ian Smith | December 21, 2005 at 03:52 PM

The problem here is that as a country you have sunk so low as to have to ask the question if torture is justified (the answer is no BTW). Stop looking at 'terrorists' and start looking at yourselves - you have become the problem.

And as for accepting a nuke in NY - you miss the point again. If you go round torturing people and trying to justify it, you simply setup the situation in which someone would want to nuke you. Karma is a bitch and one way (asymetric warfare) or another (foreign held debt) the US is going to be brought down by the actions and the attitudes it has fostered.

Yes, you used to be nice and friendly at home, but you have long been a right bunch of b*st*rds outside your borders. People have noticed.
And the word for the day is: Hubris

Posted by: bhauth | December 22, 2005 at 12:09 PM

Interrogation works (SOMETIMES works - it is very inconsistent) generally when you can either convince the person that they've made a mistake or that you'll know if they're lying and it's worth it for them to tell you what you want. It's also a matter of pulling out a big psychological bag of tricks and seeing if something works.
As for your extreme hypothetical, it is a red herring. Let's follow it through as things should happen under law -
1) Someone believed a terrorist is captured and in a prison. (As it is, most people taken as terrorists by the US are taken on very sketchy information, sometimes even just to meet a sort of "quota" to look good.)
2) Apparently credible information comes in that there will be, say, a nuke, set off in, say, Manhattan, in 24 hours. (Regarding your previous post, there is no such thing as a suitcase bomb. The smallest nuke ever built was the Davy Crockett. Learn some physics.)
3) Someone consults with the closest thing to a resident expert, and they decide that torturing the guy is worth it to try to find the bomb.
4) The guy is tortured. He either gives correct information, no information, or incorrect information.
5) 24 hours later, either you've found the bomb, the bomb explodes, or there was no such bomb. In the first case, the people are congratulated. In the second or third case, an investigation.. happens. If it concludes that it was not justified, the two guys are court-marshalled, with their punishments of course open to review if new information comes in. The investigation will know exactly what happened because everything will have been on camera and taped. Jesus. [in other words, the law provides everything you need to "save NYC from a nuke" there was no reason to go against it -- law]

Posted by: OldGuy (sw) | December 22, 2005 at 11:38 AM

If he´s a real bad ass, it might be ok. But the problem starts when you realise (probably a couple of days after you have started) that this maybe is the wrong guy. And if he is that, what excuse would work? -Oh, im sorry. Here is your fingers, shall I put them in a bag?.
If he didn´t hate you before, he will now. Look at the Palestinian/Israeli problem, and you will find a lot of that kind of feelings.

Posted by: yankeebob | December 22, 2005 at 11:32 AM

Torture the jerks since they started the mess. 'Ya mess with the bull, you get the horns', ya know?
The whole idea that we are supposed to be above everyone else is silly. Who says we are better than them? If we are, then how come we can't just keep them as pets?

Posted by: John in ROW | December 22, 2005 at 11:02 AM

I was saddened to read "You live in one of the most tolerant nations in the history of the human race and, believe it or not, there are people out there who hate us for that. They hate us because we don't kill each other over religion or race." I suppose this is a comfortable lie for some Americans to believe; it is untrue. Some people hate you because you imprison people who share their race and religion, indefinitely and without trial; you arrest, torture and execute them without laws, and because you strongly support one side in a land-occupation and racial oppression in another part of the world, where they share a race and religion with the other side. The fact that you also prop up unpopular, undemocratic and oppressive regimes in other countries where you find the governing body useful, does nothing to make them think that you are a tolerant or just society.

The Dilbert Blog: Democracy at Work


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