On torture-13: Why torture decisions have to be made impersonally

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let me finally address the question raised by the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists, that if our own loved ones could only be saved by torture, wouldn’t we approve of it?

I have said that I oppose torture on the principle that I cannot condone any practice that I would not accept if it were to be applied to my own loved ones. But what if the tables were turned and my own loved ones were under threat of harm and the security forces had captured someone who might have information that might save them? Wouldn’t I want the security forces to do whatever it takes, even if it includes torture, if that might save their lives?

The answer is yes, I probably would want them to do whatever it takes to save my loved ones. I might even be willing to do it myself. There is no saying what we might do when we are placed in extreme situations far removed from our normal experience. But the fact that we might wish suspects to be tortured if it might save our own loved ones is not an argument for torture. It is instead a sign of our human weakness, an indication of how strong emotions can override our better nature. It is an argument for why people with a deep personal and emotional investment in a case should not be involved in any way with such investigations or interrogations, because their passions can cause them to commit atrocities that are beyond the pale of civilized behavior.

There is a reason why we do not allow vigilante justice. There is a reason why, if we report to the police that someone has killed or otherwise brutalized our loved ones, the police do not give us a gun and tell us to take care of it ourselves. There is a reason why in trials, any person who has any links to the case or has had a past involvement in a similar situation, is eliminated from the jury pool. It is because such people are too likely to be inflamed by our emotions to think rationally about evidence and proof and justice and law and principles.

The impersonal institutions of society, such as the police and the courts, are there to provide the dispassionate buffer that prevents us from committing atrocities arising out of our personal passions and grievances. The collective principles of morality and humanity and justice enshrined in those institutions are meant to save us from ourselves.

People are capable of advocating, let alone committing and condoning, all kinds of appalling acts when their own personal safety and well-being or that of their loved ones are at stake. A reliable staple of Hollywood films is where an enraged private individual takes the law into his or her own hands to avenge some personal wrong that the authorities cannot or do not want to deal with, and the audience invariably cheers the successful elimination of the evildoer at the end, however questionable the means used. Filmmakers are taking advantage of our natural empathetic feelings towards the victims of injustice. We are manipulated by the filmmakers into accepting torture and killing because they make sure that we, the audience, know for certain that the villain brutalized at the end is truly guilty, is really evil, and has no redeeming qualities. It would be interesting to see what would be the reaction if at the end of the film or in the pro-torture TV series 24, the righteous avenger finds that he or she has made a mistake and tortured an innocent person and we, the audience, find that we had been manipulated into cheering on a monstrous injustice.

This is what is being exploited by those who justify torture by asking us to imagine ourselves as the victims of a crime that might be prevented by torture. Notice that the people who are supporting torture repeatedly make the sweeping assumption that all the people in US custody at Guantanamo and elsewhere are horrible and dangerous people who are guilty of unspecified but presumably appalling crimes, the kind who would kill their own grandmothers for pleasure, even though this has not been established to be the case.

If we allow actions to be justified on the basis of the passions of the victims, then we are but a short step from barbarity. Take for example, Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law. He cites a case where a criminal was publicly executed in Iran before a large crowd of spectators in a event that was made into a sordid spectacle, where he “was flogged 100 times before being hanged. A brother of one of his young victims stabbed him as he was being punished. The mother of another victim was asked to put the noose around his neck.”

Volokh puts himself in the position of the victims’ families and heartily approves of the barbaric way the execution was carried out, saying:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims’ relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he’d killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing – and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act – was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there’s a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

The disturbing tone of Volokh’s comments (remember that he is a professor of constitutional law and is presumably well aware of why we have laws and constitutions) perfectly illustrates why we should keep victims of crimes out of the investigation and punishment of crimes.

Those with a strong personal and emotional stake in it are capable of the most appalling things, which is why the hypothetical of whether we might be willing to commit torture if we could save our own loved ones should not be used as a justification for the practice.

POST SCRIPT: Wretched excess

Stephen Colbert visits three restaurants where a single item on the menu costs $1,000.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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  1. says

    Excellent post! Very sincere and vital. It agree in that we should to give more as that of attention of safety of our favourite. Here you argue, why we address in police when someone commits crimes, yes you are right, here works a human instinct. Us to it learnt since the childhood. On it our morals are that we do not do self-court. Probably we simply more are more civilised, and on it we do not wish to fall on level of those who makes evil deeds. In any case our favourite including I, can appear at any moment in danger and when I cannot help them during this moment, I do not know what to undertake, it is at times very strongly oppresses. Thanks for nice video about Stephen Colbert, very amusing!

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