Friday, June 11, 2004

Idiot watch

Via Oxblog, one Steve Sturm questions opposition to torture:

How will you explain to the families of Americans killed in future terror attacks that their loved ones died because this country did not use all of the tools at its disposal - in large part because of your opposition - to learn of the attack in advance?

The obvious response to this must be: how do you explain to families of people who have been abused, assaulted and generally had the shit kicked out of them -- even if entirely innocent -- that this was justified because they might have known something that jeopardised US lives?

To my surprise, Sturm has an answer. US lives are worth more than the lives of other people. I kid you not. In fact he has a scale. A US life is worth 50 points, a French life (an ally, but not friendly) is only worth 20 points. A life of a nation that the US doesn't know much about is worth only 8 points. Given that I'm South African, and probably fall somewhere between these two categories, I imagine that my life weighs in at about 15 points. That means that the average US citizen has just over three times my value.

Despite this, I imagine that Sturm is one of these people who is bemused by why parts of the world are worried about American hegemony. Of course they are if you propagate the view that their lives are not of equal value! This, I thought, was a founding, absolutely fundamental, tenet of democracy (people have inalienable rights etc) -- the very political system that I thought the US was claiming to promote.

As I said, idiot.

I'd like to think that Sturm is an isolated crank but, to my disappointment, David Adesnik at Oxblog -- a blog that I enjoy -- doesn't take him up on these issues. Instead, he merely concedes that torture might be justified sometimes. I will have more to say about this later, as well as Sturm's purported philosophical justification for his position.

Idiot watch continued

As promised, more on Steve Sturm's purported justification for torture. His argument has two steps: the first is that American lives are worth more than the lives of other nations; the second is that, given this, torturing non-Americans is justified when American lives appear to be at risk.

Let's start with step one. Sturm claims to reach this conclusion by way of a vague family metaphor. I'm more likely to value my mother's life over the life of a stranger or maybe even two or three strangers. I would save her first if I had to. America is like one big family. Therefore American lives are worth more.

The problem with this is that Sturm fails to distinguish between state and citizen. Sure, I might put my Mom's life ahead of that of other people. But I wouldn't expect the state to do so. If a policeman had to choose between saving my Mom and saving three others I'd accept that he acted legitimately by saving the three others, even if I wouldn't have done the same. We can see how flimsy the family notion is as a basis for political organisation if we think through its implications within America for a moment. Catholics are like one big family. Does this mean that, if Catholics are running the White House, they would be justified in treating American Jewish lives as worth less than their own? Of course not.

But why not? Well, because in the public domain we accept that people have rights, or that their lives are of equal value. This should be the starting-point of these sorts of discussions. If we instead make the idea of family, or the bonds of solidarity, central, we end up undermining the very ideas upon which the US was founded. We put notions such as ethnicity and religion ahead of ideas of equality. (As an aside, Sturm's position resembles that of the philosopher Richard Rorty who wants to substitute the idea of solidarity for rights -- the problems are the same.)

So much for that. Let's turn to the question of torture. Is is ever justified? As mentioned, the starting-point for this should be that torture violates a fundamental right (the right not to be tortured) and also constitutes a crime (assault). Now, violations of rights and assault may be justified in certain extreme cases. In criminal law, we're entitled to kill and assault in circumstances of necessity -- to save our own lives or the lives of others for example. Rights may also be outweighed by countervailing factors of appropriate weight. This means that, at the level of theory, torturing someone might be justifiable in certain hypothetical cases. There's a judgment by the Israeli Supreme Court to this effect.

But what sort of cases would these be? Given the fundamental nature of the right not to be tortured, the circumstances would have to be extreme. At the very least, the torturer would have to absolutely certain that the risk is imminent (not merely probable), that a large number of lives are involved, that the suspect has the information, and that there is no other way of obtaining the information.

Given this, I tend to think that such cases exist largely at the level of theory. I also think that, if the US military did attempt to institute torture as a technique, it would very rapidly spill over into other, inappropriate cases. This is why Alan Dershowitz takes the view that, if the US is to do this, 'torture warrants' should be issued in advance. There're other -- in my view insurmountable -- problems with this approach but I'm not going to go into them here.

Still, Sturm might claim victory in that I've conceded that in certain extreme -- probably entirely hypothetical -- cases torture might be justified. But we should note that, in the framework I've sketched, the starting-point is that everyone has the same rights and that these may be compromised in certain extreme cases. The starting-point isn't that the lives of Iraqis, or, for that matter, South Africans, are worth less than those of Americans. What's more, we need to accept the converse. Swallow hard Steve but, if an American held information in the circumstances that I've outlined above, and the lives of, say, Nigerians (8 points on your scale) were at stake, then it would also be justified to extract the information from the American (in our extreme theoretical case).

28 Comments:

At 11 June 2004 at 15:25, Blogger Abiola said...

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Extremely well said. "Patriots" like Steve Sturm don't know just how much damage they do to the cause of the nation they claim to love so dearly.
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At 11 June 2004 at 19:55, Blogger steve said...

Murray:

I've responded to your comments.

http://thoughtsonline.blogspot.com/2004/06/reply-to-those-here-and-here-and-here.html

It would have been nice if you had given me a reply-able e-mail address.

Steve

 
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