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Torture and the greater good

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May 31, 2009

In my last post, I discussed the concept (or, more properly, the anti-concept) of so-called “American Exceptionalism.” An anti-concept (according to the coiner of the term, Ayn Rand) is a phrase that is meant to muddy and confuse, rather than enlighten and clarify, an issue.

Thus, “American Exceptionalism,” when used by the likes of Sean Hannity, sounds like a synonym for a sort of warm and gooey patriotism–a belief that America is (as Hannity constantly says, being very comfortable with repeating himself) a force for good in the world, as against the forces of evil represented by terrorists and liberals.

But the real meaning, the masked concept behind the gooey patriotism, is the idea that when America does something, it is by definition right. And of course, when another country does the exact same thing, the matter is up for debate, depending on whether or not Sean Hannity likes the other country.

If America, Israel, or Britain torture a detainee, it is right. If Iran or the Taliban do the exact same thing, it is wrong. The question is not whether an action is right or wrong. The only question, is our current addled patriotism, is which gang does it.

Thus, when the US government waterboards (that is, tortures) a detainee, that action is by definition “good.”

But to avoid the proper accusation of hypocrisy, one cannot say that a crime, when committed by my gang, is right, while the same crime, committed by another gang, is wrong.

A common cover used by advocates of “American Exceptionalism”, is the concept of the “greater good.” Let’s examine this idea and see if it applies with any sort of logic.

In the common law, one can be excused for committing a crime if a “greater good” is at stake. For example, if you see a man drowning in the middle of a lake, and decide to steal a boat in order to save him, you have committed no crime. The life of a drowning man is a “greater good” than the right of the boat’s owner to his private property. A jury would rightly convict a fellow who stole a boat for a joy-ride around the lake; they would never convict him for stealing the boat to prevent a drowning.

Applying this concept to current events, we see an anti-conceptual variation of this “greater good” theory. This is the well-worn “ticking time bomb” scenario. If you think you know, for example, that an enemy soldier (or other combatant), has special knowledge about a possible coming attack, then you have the right to torture him to force the information out of him. The hundreds or thousands of lives you might possibly save, as the argument goes, outweighs the immoral act of torturing a helpless detainee.

On the surface, this sounds plausible.

But there are many, many problems with this application of the “greater good” theory. If you spot a fellow drowning in the middle of a lake, you KNOW he is drowning, and you know that stealing the boat is the only moral thing to do. In the case of the captured resister (or, if you prefer, “terrorist”), you PRESUME that he knows something, but you have no proof. He might know about a pending attack, or he might just be taunting you. Or, maybe he knows absolutely nothing about any coming attack. You, as the detainer, have no way of knowing either way.

Do you now have the right to torture a suspect because he might know something?

(We will stipulate for now, for the sake of argument, that torture actually elicits reliable information. Virtually every intelligence agency on earth has stated that torture does no such thing. Torture is useful for extracting false “confessions,” but is dubious at best for extracting reliable intelligence.)

In a war situation, if you say you have the right to torture someone to (dubiously) prevent a future attack, then you also must agree that the enemy has the same right. Otherwise, you are a flaming hypocrite.

Let us cite an example. Let’s say a US fighter jet is downed by the enemy. The enemy assumes, with good reason, that the pilot probably has at least some knowledge of proposed future bombing runs. Those bombing runs will result in hundreds or thousands of casualties. The “greater good,” the enemy might argue, allows them to torture an American pilot in order to extract this information.

Is there any essential difference between the American pilot, who has knowledge of future bombing raids, and the resistance fighter, who has knowledge of possible future attacks on American installations?

There cannot be, if you want to avoid hypocrisy. Of course, if you believe in “American Exceptionalism,” then you can excuse OUR torture, but you can condemn the same torture committed by the enemy. It’s right when we do it, but wrong when they do it. If you believe in the anti-concept of “American Exceptionalism”, you can blithely accept (or even celebrate) torture when committed by Americans, but condemn it when committed by others.

Thus, the likes of Hannity or Beck or Limbaugh can get all giggly and glib when discussing blowing out the eardrums of a detainees with a high-pressure air hose (Beck got all excited like an adolescent looking at his first pornography when a caller identifying himself as a government agent described this very procedure). If a foreign power did the same thing to an American, they would roundly condemn it, with no feeling of hypocrisy at all. What allows them to do it?

The anti-concept of “American Exceptionalism.” The belief that, when our gang does it, it’s right, but when the “bad guys” do it, it’s wrong.

2 Responses to Torture and the greater good

  1. almandine

    June 2, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Face it Paolo…

    torture provides NO greater good.

  2. Paolo

    June 4, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    Hi Almandine,

    I absolutely agree.