Tuesday, May 10, 2011
This column by Dahlia Lithwick from a few days ago struck me as right on the merits, wrong on the manner of argument. And for those who think tone and style don't matter, so long as the arguments are right, I must disagree. Particularly with a subject as fraught as the justifiability of torture -- as seemingly dependent on who does what to whom, how recently one has suffered serious losses, how big the stakes appear to be -- the style of argument makes a big difference.
As I said, I agree on the merits with Lithwick (mirabile dictu). Torture is wrong, whether it leads to useful information or not. I also agree with the very different point, further down the page, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. That is a worthwhile and important contribution, but it is an empirical point that requires -- not Lithwick's rhetorical splashing about -- but greater capacity to test the effectiveness of various techniques for eliciting information. As it stands now, there is a 'tu quoque' quality to the argument -- we don't know for sure that torture elicits reliable information, and we don't know for sure that it doesn't.
Having said that, I disagree almost entirely with the rest of the tone. First there is the languid, supercilious dismissiveness of others' views ("Do we have to have another national debate about torture? Really do we have to?"), as well as the characterization of anything which does not match up with the view advanced as "stupid" and "self-serving propaganda." "A bunch of Bush officials" are cast down for obloquy -- sui generis moral reprobates. But in reality, the debate endures because it is an enduring question. It would be a mistake to assume that with changed political circumstances necessarily come changed moral views. Indeed, there is a danger that when those whom one admires hold the reins of power, one is more susceptible of being blind to missteps.
Next, there is the puzzling statement that "the only reason we are having this discussion at all is because we have tortured people." But of course -- the only reason that we have discussions about nutrition is that people eat things. The only reason that we have discussions about the justification of punishment is that people commit crimes. The only reason that we have debates about self-defense is that people sometimes attack one another. If a matter is of human concern, it is often proper to have discussions about it. Torture is no exception.
Third, there is the proclamation that the discussion of torture attending the killing of Osama Bin Laden is a "national embarrassment" because we are not debating the effectiveness of other intelligence-gathering mechanisms. I do not understand why that should be embarrassing. I don't feel embarrassed. Other intelligence-gathering mechanisms may or may not carry the same moral freight as the torture issue. If they do not, then it is no surprise -- and certainly nothing to be embarrassed about -- that we are not talking about them in public fora.
Those that believe torture may be justified, writes Lithwick, "are now using half-facts and unverifiable assertions to ask another question: Does torture work? Unsurprisingly, they claim that it does. That's nice. Let's ignore them." I could not disagree more. Indeed, I take it that Lithwick herself, in writing this column, is not ignoring them. She is engaging with them. But the style of engagement leaves much, in this reader's view, to be desired.