In defense of the indefensible


Consider the following scenario.

A Muslim terrorist has got hold of a massive nuclear weapon that can be triggered by remote control and has placed it in a secret location in the heart of New York City. You are his prisoner in a room where he has his finger on the detonator button. He gleefully tells you that he is going to set off the weapon killing and injuring tens of thousands of people unless you agree to his demands. What demands? He points to a woman cowering in the corner and says that if you rape her, he will not blow up the bomb and will give himself up peacefully.

Wouldn’t rape be justified in such a situation?

Now that I have got your attention, and before you start (at least metaphorically) throwing things at me, let me hasten to add that I do not believe any such thing. Rape is a horrendous crime and is never, ever justified. The hypothetical I have created is ghastly and an obvious attempt at using manipulative rhetoric, such as calling the evil person a ‘Muslim terrorist’ who ‘gleefully’ contemplates using a ‘cowering woman’ as part of his diabolical plot. In some circles it is pretty much taken as a given these days that once people are assigned the label of Muslim terrorist, they are assumed to be capable of such cruel and insane behavior that no further information is necessary to make their behavior plausible.

What I have tried to do is make a point by adopting one gambit out of the Sam Harris playbook, where you say something outrageous and offensive using a hypothetical that has no connection to reality and assumes an outlandish initial situation that appears out of nowhere, all the while ignoring the huge number of bizarre assumptions involved in getting there and without any explanation how such an improbable situation could have ever come about.

This is what Harris does to justify torture, though he is by no means alone in doing so. His article In Defense of Torture begins:

Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs–in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity–it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.

While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles–millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.

Critics might argue that my attempt to draw a parallel scenario to Harris’s fails because he was advocating hurting the person contemplating the evil act while in my scenario an innocent is the target. No problem! I can easily up the ante since there is nothing that limits the scope of hypotheticals except the writer’s imagination. Now I make my villain have access to a powerful thermonuclear device that will release such a massive ash cloud that it will plunge the entire Earth into darkness and kill pretty much every mammal. Surely the rape of an innocent is justifiable to prevent such a global catastrophe, since I would also be saving the life of the victim?

Harris is quite right that you can keep on ratcheting up the horrific nature of the threatened outcome until people agree with your recommendation to end it, whatever their initial qualms may have been. In fact, I am going to postulate a general rule: For any moral or ethical prohibition, you can always construct a hypothetical that requires violating it. But that does not make it right or justifiable. This is why such extreme hypotheticals are pretty much useless as a means of arriving at moral or ethical principles of behavior, since we live in a real world where such scenarios do not occur.

So why use them? It is to defend the indefensible. The purpose of extreme hypotheticals is to get the camel’s nose under the tent, to get the other person to agree that under certain conditions, a proposition that normally would be rejected out of hand may be justifiable. Once that purpose has been served, you can ditch the hypothetical and exploit the acceptance to cover situations that come nowhere close to the extreme situation that was used to gain acceptance in the first place. This was the case with torture that the US government started using.

The other Harris playbook gambit is to say something appalling like “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” and then when people take your words at face value and denounce you for advocating execution for thought crimes, you take the next step, which is to say that people are either misunderstanding you or taking your words out of context. You then ‘clarify’ your remarks by adding so many conditions and caveats and auxiliary statements that under this reinterpretation either your original statement becomes so banal that it was not worth saying in the first place or people no longer understand what point you are trying to make and just give up engaging with you. If people continue to criticize you, you can then accuse them of deliberately seeking to distort your words in order to defame you.

The basic idea in both cases seems to be to say something so repulsive to any reasonable person’s moral sensibilities that it serves the purpose of getting people to pay attention to you and start angrily denouncing you. Then you get the opportunity to appear to be a heroic truth-teller, seeing yourself as venturing into areas where others are afraid to go, and also of being someone who is such a deep thinker as to be aware of subtleties in logic and ethics and morality that the great unwashed masses cannot appreciate. Harris boasts in his torture article that “I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror”. Well, congratulations. It does not seem to strike him that there may be good reasons why so few people argue in favor of torture.

I initially thought of using the header In Defense of Rape for this post, to draw a closer parallel with Harris’s essay that he titled In Defense of Torture. It would have definitely increased its shock value. But even writing it was difficult for me because it goes against everything I believe in. I am also well aware that this post will live forever on the internet and people who do a search will find my name linked to the header and, not reading the post, will assume that I actually believe such a thing. That would result in me having to write endless rebuttals to my critics explaining that they were mistaken. Harris may enjoy that kind of notoriety and attention but I don’t.

So let me be perfectly clear: Rape is always wrong and never, ever justifiable.

Comments

  1. atheistblog says

    No, rape is justifiable, think of this situation, when,………………………………………….. the sentences continues with more sub-scenarios until you agree that rape is justifiable in that situation.

  2. Eric Riley says

    So – I initially thought you were going after rape apologetics, since I believe that I have seen that very argument used to support the proposition that rape is sometimes ok —

    Found it:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/12/11/no-rape-is-wrong-even-if-there-is-a-wizard-with-a-nuke/

    And we have heard it many times to support torture. I began hearing something similar in 2004-’05 when being challenged on my conscientious objector status – and for the same reason you point out here – to drive in the thin point of a wedge to break apart your argument against (rape, torture, war… choose one). In my case it was more personal, a guy holding a gun to my mother’s head – surely I would shoot him for that.

    But it’s a ploy, and an obvious one. My response was to ask *why*. Why would anyone do that? “He’s crazy” is a copout – make them explain the motivation. If they insist (as the person who confronted me did) that how the situation arose does not matter, point out that the solution they offer (to rape, to torture, to shoot the bad guy) is not guaranteed to work. Suppose you give in a rape that person, or torture the guy with the codes, or shoot the guy holding a gun to your mother’s head – now you’re in charge of the scenario so add, after you’re done the bad guy does what he was going to do anyway – and pushes the button (or pulls the trigger as he dies, in my case). Or maybe (in the given scenario) he brings out another person for you to rape – maybe a four year old. Is it ok then? You can up the ante too.

    In fact – in my situation – I finally turned it around on him and asked what *he* would do. With great confidence he said, “I would pull the trigger and kill that son of a bitch”. I replied “click, misfire. The guy shoots you and your mom.”

    The key to this kind of rhetoric is to refuse to allow them to set all the rules of the confrontation. Pick it apart – and in debate you can also point out that if they have to go to this extreme, they have no valid argument that is better.

  3. parasiteboy says

    The use of torture to gain reliable actionable intelligence is a failed hypothesis and so this hypothetical falls apart before it begins.

  4. deepak shetty says

    his is why such extreme hypotheticals are pretty much useless as a means of arriving at moral or ethical principles of behavior, since we live in a real world where such scenarios do not occur.

    I recollect thinking that my answer to Harris’ scenario was – I would not torture – instead I’d rip off my shirt to reveal my Superman costume and use my X-Ray vision to find out bomb and save everyone while also rescuing the cat stuck in the tree.
    Ask comic book scenarios, get comic book answers.

  5. Holms says

    While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us.

    This single sentence of his is all the demonstration I need that he is being disingenuous: he openly admits that his morality-breaking scenarios do not exist in the real world. I am happy to admit that in some crazy, existential crisis style scenario may warrant a breakdown of the normal conduct we consider moral, if he is willing to admit that such an admission has no bearing when considering real policy.

  6. Holms says

    …In my case it was more personal, a guy holding a gun to my mother’s head – surely I would shoot him for that.

    My understanding of what is meant by conscientious objector is that it is the objection to joining (or being conscripted) a military force in a combat role, but does not prevent self defense or that of another. If that is correct – and it may well be that it isn’t – the hostage scenario as presented to you is not relevant to your application for conscientious objector status. Or does your government truly think self defense nullifies that status? This would be pretty fucking perverse to me.

    “Sure you can have your status… but it will be revoked if you so much as punch back when under attack muahahahaha!”
    *Sends goons to beat you up*

  7. garnetstar says

    Unfortunately, I once heard about a crime that rather recalls this. Somewhere in the Midwest, a couple of criminals broke into a house occupied by four or five young people. The criminals amused themselves by forcing the young people, at gunpoint, to do various things. One demand was that two of the people, who were friends, but not lovers, have sex together. The two discussed it, and decided they’d rather do that than be killed, and so did. Not exactly a rape by an individual, since both parties to the sex decided that they’d prefer it to the threatened alternative, but a rape by the two criminals, one would say.

    Sadly, just as Eric Riley says, when the criminals were finished amusing themselves, they shot all the young people. Only one survived (the bullet hit a barette in the back of her head, resulting in a less severe wound.)

    So no, even the most horrific things that happen in real life do not resemble Harris’ nonsensical scenarios.

  8. Artor says

    Exactly this. It’s like Sophie’s Choice, except there is never any real choice to be made. In that scenario, Sophie is being tortured by fucking Nazis, and they make her choose which of her children will be murdered next. Why would anyone put an iota of trust in Nazi torturers? In the same situation, I would assume the Nazis would force me to make a personally devastating choice, and then do whatever they felt like, probably whatever would cause the greatest anguish.
    In Harris’s ridiculous premise, why would anyone trust the crazed terrorist to keep his word? He wouldn’t plant his doomsday device only to not set it off. If I were to follow his direction, I’d assume he would set off the bomb anyway, and I would have to live with the crime of being a rapist. Fuck that ridiculous noise, and fuck Sam Harris!

  9. qwints says

    You’re giving Harris way too much credit if you think he created the technique. Remember when Scalia pointed to the fictional character of Jack Bauer as defense of torture. Or how the CIA literally re-wrote a major film which portrayed torture as contributing to Bin Laden’s capture. How about when a “civil liberties scholar” treated the “ticking bomb” scenario as justifying torture on CNN in 2003?

    The point is much bigger names (Dershowitz and Posner) treated the ticking bomb scenario as obvious prior to Harris saying anything about it. For what it’s worth, wikipedia attributes the hypo to a French soldier’s book from 1960.

    It’s kind of silly to attack Harris in particular for re-stating a standard right wing talking point, which seems to have majority support in the US/a href> .

    Q: Looking ahead, do you feel that torture of suspected terrorists can often be justified, sometimes justified, rarely justified or never justified?
    Hide Results
    Detailed View
    Often justified 17%
    Sometimes justified 40%
    Rarely justified 19%
    Never justified 20%
    No opinion 4%

  10. brucegee1962 says

    Another comeback to scenario-pushers like this is to turn the tables on them.
    OK, fine, Sam I get that you’d torture the dude who knows where the bomb is. But whom do you think _shouldn’t_ be tortured? Let’s find out where you draw the line.
    Do you also torture the guy who doesn’t know where the bomb is, but he knows the hiding place of the guy who does?
    Oh, you’d torture him too? What about if the person you’re about to torture is protecting the bomber because she is his wife?
    So you’re an equal-opportunity torturer, eh? Good for you. Same scenario, except now you’ve got five gang members, but only one of them knows where the bomb is.
    OK, so you’d torture all five of them. What about if you’re not entirely sure about the “gang members” part of the equation? The four who don’t know where the bomb is might be gang members, or they might just be innocent people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
    You’d torture them anyway, because bomb? Ok, now up it from four maybe-innocent folks to fifty. And some of them are definitely innocent now.
    Now take the same scenario, but you aren’t sure that there actually is a bomb. There might be an actual bomb, or it could just be somebody talking smack so that you’ll round up and torture a bunch of his enemies for him.
    It’s still justifiable in defense of the public safety? What if it’s three hundred people, and odds are the bomb is theoretical? What if it’s a whole race?
    Congratulations. Now you have left the Hypothetical Twilight Zone and entered the Real World.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    One more point as a followup: There’s a reason that “No torture” is a bright line. As I tried to show in the last set of questions, it’s a bright line because once you’ve crossed it, it’s very hard to figure out where to stop before you turn into Big Brother.

  12. says

    If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release.

    I say fuck you for gleefully imagining horrible things being done to little children* and using my daughter for your intellectual masturbation.

    *Oh, no, wait, it’s exclusively little girls. Probably with blond curls. Makes you wonder why. Does he think people love their 7 yo sons less? Or is it the thought of little girls being cruelly murdered that gets him off?

  13. AstroKid Nj says

    It is to defend the indefensible. The purpose of extreme hypotheticals is to get the camel’s nose under the tent, to get the other person to agree that under certain conditions, a proposition that normally would be rejected out of hand may be justifiable. Once that purpose has been served, you can ditch the hypothetical and exploit the acceptance to cover situations that come nowhere close to the extreme situation that was used to gain acceptance in the first place

    Excellent summation Mano. I see variations of this strategy everywhere. They twist historical reality and sow a hypothetical scenario in your mind to lower your defenses. for e.g
    1) recent Kunduz debacle, Fox News tries to defend the indefensible saying “well.. if the Taliban hadnt used the hospital as a base for operations, none of this would have happened”
    2) Bombing the peasant’s huts in Vietnam using Napalm and White Phosphorous? Justified coz they are commies who are slaughtering the south vietnamese! Once Vietnam falls, rest of the dominoes will fall.

  14. asbizar says

    It is actually heart-warming to see intellectuals like you are coming out against pseudo-intellectuals like Harris. Now, to Harris’ credit, although his scenarios have no basis whatsoever in reality, he has a creative imagination.

    I think, there are two people who systematically criticized his ideas, Theodore Sayeed and Glenn Greenwald. They are both so rational in their arguments, that i cannot comprehend how somebody who has founded “Project Reason” can ignore them.

    Also let me give a list of the “arguments” his fanboys are gonna give in response to every criticism of their master:
    1. You are misrepresenting him
    2. You don’t understand the “nuance” in his arguments
    3. You decontextualized his words
    4. You are lying about him
    5. You are an Islamist apologist
    6. You are a regressive leftist

  15. Chiroptera says

    One nice thing about being whatever the opposite of a utilitarian is, it’s that I can answer “no” without adding any more extraneous details to the scenario.

    ‘Course in real life, there probably is a far-fetched scenario where I would agree that such and such reprehensible act is justified, so I’m being somewhat disingenuous when I go, “nope, still not justified” all the way down to the End of the Entire Universe.

    I also can’t stand the “20 questions/faux Socratic dialectics” method of argumentation so I often purposely give the “wrong” answers just to screw with them.

  16. anat says

    One can be a utilitarian and say ‘no’. For so many reasons. The moment you think about the non-immediate consequences the balance is against Harris’ scenario. And of course, between the unreliability of information received by torture and the low likelihood that the terrorist sticks to their word to not go ahead with whatever they were threatening to do there is no utilitarian reason to say ‘yes’ even in the short term.

  17. Ben Finney says

    The hypothetical I have created is ghastly and an obvious attempt at using manipulative rhetoric

    Is that obvious? I’d have thought it pretty plausible you’re trying to find an example to which, having had no interaction with me as an arbitrary reader, we’ll have common reaction. You could do this in order to examine the situation and examine our reactions, to see why we have that reaction.

    Why would I accuse you of using manipulative rhetoric, without seeing where you’re going with this?

  18. Eric Riley says

    Holms @10

    You are (mostly) correct that conscientious objection is “the objection to joining (or being conscripted) a military force in a combat role, but does not prevent self defense or that of another.” (With the addendum that one can become a conscientious objector while in the military – as I did.)

    In my story, the conversation had nothing to do with the CO case, the officer was just a random person (of several) who decided to try arguing me around. There was no questioning of that nature in the actual hearing. The focus there was on the history of how I developed my objection and ensuring that I was sincere (of which no-one who had read through my packet was in doubt).

    The holding unit commander did attempt several times (and against regulations) to force us (there were 2 other COs present at the time) to carry weapons and engage in combat training – he succeeded by threatening us with a court martial for refusing to disobey orders (well, succeeded with one), two of us still refused and no court martial was convened (it is your right, indeed your obligation, to refuse to obey illegal orders).

    In the end, after several congressmen, an appearance at a District Court, 5 stars worth of general and a senator got involved, myself and the other guy were both awarded our discharges (honorable) about 10 months after starting the process. The third guy was also given a psych discharge a little before we left.

    It was quite the adventure.

  19. says

    Mano:

    It does not seem to strike him that there may be good reasons why so few people argue in favor of torture.

    Such as the fact that torture is a violation of human rights and produces unreliable information.

  20. says

    It’s telling that while Harris constructs baroque hypothetical horror-shows to defend torture and attempts to corner people into admitting they’d engage in it personally, the US government’s actual torturers require no such extreme supervillainy.

    At Abu Ghraib (to name just one venue), prisoners were tortured and humiliated for the amusement of their guards, with no attendant excuses regarding vital information they might have had. Elsewhere, others experience “enhanced interrogation” as a matter of course if it’s believed they have such information. Harris is constructing follies to amuse himself while actual people are actually being tortured, and he congratulates himself for being some kind of maverick seeker of truth.

    Harris is inventing wildly implausible comic-book scenarios to justify something that’s already happening regularly and with far more banal justifications than “imminent nuclear holocaust”. I have to wonder why he isn’t defending and justifying those examples of torture that already exist and instead persists with his patented – and patently absurd – melodramas.

  21. StevoR says

    In the first hypothetical case you describe there Mano Singham, I would go over to the girl , whisper to her to help me stop him, let’s pretend for a second that we’ll co-operate then both attack him, whilst looking like I’m grabbing her I quickly untie or cut the ropes then we spin around and both knock into and knock down the supervillain, take his remote and put him in custody.

    Hey, hypothetical problem hypothetical answer and the girl is not just a potential victim but also a potential ally.

    What #21. anat & 3. Eric Riley notes about the killer being unlikely to oblige and more likely to double cross and make things worse is spot on too.

  22. says

    use my X-Ray vision to find out bomb

    It’s right in the room.

    I’d kick the guy’s ass before he could push the button. Case closed. Hey, this “ridiculous hypotheticals” game is fun.

  23. StevoR says

    For Mano’s opening hypothetical case there’s also another fairly obvious and likely factor where the character here could tell the terrorist – whether truly or as a ruse – that they couldn’t comply out of either physical ability or because they were gay. (Yes most of us know there’s more to sex than just p-i-v intercourse but does our Muslim terrorist here?) This admittedly wouldn’t immediately solve the problem of the terrorist but it could buy some time for the cavalry to arrive. It also seems likely given the very unromantic circumstances (and pressure!) I wonder how many men would realistically be physically capable of “performing” under the conditions that are hypothesised here?

  24. Trickster Goddess says

    Eric Riley, your experience reminds me of the story of one of my ancestors who was conscripted into the army during the Civil War. He was a religious pacifist, but there was no conscientious objector clause in those times. So he declared up front that he would march with the troops, he would carry a gun and he would even fire the gun — but he would never point it at anyone. The story goes that they eventually realized he was true to his word and he was reassigned to menial labor for the rest of the war.

  25. Holms says

    For Mano’s opening hypothetical case there’s also another fairly obvious and likely factor…

    …The the entire hypothetical game is disingenuous and not worth bothering with? Yes, well spotted.

  26. =8)-DX says

    Perfect! Also I really missed the article Harris should’ve written:
    “Ok, let’s sit down and try to figure out a couple of things. Does torture work as an interrogation method? No. And that’s a double no, since it seems that the primary defence of US state-sanctioned torture comes from a place of wishful thinking and revenge-seeking. The people in the CIA and government who agreed to these inhuman methods were primarily acting on an emotional impulse to “get back” at an enemy that had done so much damage to America’s ego. The idea was that you don’t get to hurt us that way, and so we will hurt you so much more! To picture a ticking time-bomb scenario and a tortured terrorist who finally gives in and shouts out the code to the bomb or the address of the sleeper cell’s gun stash is essentially an exercise in wishful thinking of the most primal kind: it is murder-revenge-porn, playing out a blockbuster heroes and villains plot. Since we know for a fact that torture doesn’t work, that’s all we are left to discuss: what sick motivation would lead a country that prides itself on its humanity, on its civil rights advancements, to not only gleefully consider, but also cold-heartedly perpetrate human rights violations they have been on the forefront of criticising throughout post-war modern history. Yes, America is sick, the West is sick, every time we let our pride overshadow our values, every time we agree to view the world from the terrorist’s perspective and see bombs, invasions, suspension of the rule of law, waterboarding and violent cruelty in general as solutions to our problems, we’re throwing away the civilizational capital that is about the only thing we should actually feel proud of.”
    (A little too pretentious? Well I was trying to write a Sam Harris article.)

  27. StevoR says

    In some circles it is pretty much taken as a given these days that once people are assigned the label of Muslim terrorist, they are assumed to be capable of such cruel and insane behavior that no further information is necessary to make their behavior plausible.

    Given what terrorist are and the long list of cruelties that terrorists have inflicted – like shooting wheelchair bound passengers and dumping their bodies from cruise liners or flying jet airliners into buildings or bombing peace marches like we saw in Turkey the other day, that’s pretty much true by definition.

    Not just for Muslim terrorists but for all and any terrorists really.

    After all, what sane or kind person becomes a terrorist and uses the lives of innocent people to make a political point of some kind or try to terrorising and murdering others?

    What horrors wouldn’t the likes of Daesh, Al Quaida or the KKK do?

    Terrorism like torture and rape is inexcusable.

  28. dianne says

    What horrors wouldn’t the likes of Daesh, Al Quaida or the KKK do?

    Do you admire their actions? I don’t. And I don’t want to act like them or have my government act like them. The KKK’s existence does not justify waterboarding. If we can’t find a way to fight terrorism without becoming like them, well, it’s probably irrelevant who wins.

  29. StevoR says

    The KKK’s existence does not justify waterboarding.

    Agreed – and vice versa is also true too.

    No, we shouldn’t (& I’d argue don’t) act as badly as the terrorists do. For starters, waterboarding, wrong as it is isn’t deliberately done against innocent people who are doing no wrong. It is only applied to those who are at very least strongly suspected and reasonably suspected of being terrorists. There a difference between waterboarding e.g. Khalid Sheik Mohammad who planned 9-11 repeatedly and flying a jet airliner into a building full of thousands of people who have just go be in to work for a day. (Or waterboarding say Christopher Hitchens who literally asked for it and was a volunteer!) Which does NOT make torture right of course but still.

  30. StevoR says

    ^ Different – not the same. Not good or right but different lesser evil, still evil but lesser. Degrees of badness and shades of black.

  31. says

    He points to a woman cowering in the corner and says that if you rape her, he will not blow up the bomb and will give himself up peacefully.

    So it’s not just a surname that Sam Harris and Rolf Harris have in common, they have similar rape fantasies. We should refer to him as Sam “Rolf” Harris from now on.

    What I have tried to do is make a point by adopting one gambit out of the Sam Harris playbook

    That “gambit” sounds exactly the same as Mike Huckabee’s obscene fantasies about using transgendered people’s quest for rights as a way to rape teenage girls in bathrooms.

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/meganapper/huckabee-on-transgender-people-i-wish-i-couldve-said-i-was-t#.eg6GY4Ybwz

  32. says

    I forgot to add:

    Sam “Rolf” Harris’s rape scenario isn’t a hypothetical he’s inventing. It’s part of his racist advocation of violence, an attempt to say “There is no reasoning with those people” to justify uncontrolled warfare on part of the world. Or to put another way, he’s saying “Who will rid me of this meddlesome imam?”

  33. dianne says

    No, we shouldn’t (& I’d argue don’t) act as badly as the terrorists do. For starters, waterboarding, wrong as it is isn’t deliberately done against innocent people who are doing no wrong.

    We don’t? I’ve yet, for example, to hear of the Taliban bombing MSF.

    Also, if we aren’t deliberately kidnapping and torturing innocent people, we sure are going about it with depraved indifference. It’s known that quite a few of those held at Guantanamo and other concentration camps are innocent of anything other than being the wrong race and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  34. says

    A hero isn’t the one who would torture under those circumstances. Every villain has a story they tell themselves to justify their actions.
    A hero is the one who, under those circumstances, retains the strength of character to find a better answer.

  35. lanir says

    I think in extreme cases like the ones dreamed up for these scenarios it’s also a legitimate question as to whether you even know how you would act. These are highly stressful emergency situations as they’re presented. People who clearly, confidently, even self-righteously proclaim they would absolutely perform some vile, despicable act in these situations strike me as either being sociopaths who are simply looking for an excuse to perform this action in the first place or more likely they’re pretenders. The armchair quarterbacks, the Mr. “I would tell the other hostages to rush the gunman”s, the action heroes in waiting who are impatiently wondering when their movie will begin.

    I think it would be much more difficult to perform these sorts of actions than it is to pick them in a blandly impersonal multiple choice exercise. In the real world you aren’t the only person in the situation. The other people there have agency, motives, habits, history, and family just like you do.

  36. StevoR says

    @ ^ lanir : You are quite right. I don’t know how ‘d actually react. I do know how I’d hope I’d act and what I’d like to see myself doing in the circumstances. I think that applies for almost everybody here.

  37. deepak shetty says

    @Marcus Ranum

    I’d kick the guy’s ass before he could push the button.

    Great. An issue of World’s finest.

  38. deepak shetty says

    @StevoR

    For starters, waterboarding, wrong as it is isn’t deliberately done against innocent people who are doing no wrong. It is only applied to those who are at very least strongly suspected and reasonably suspected of being terrorists.

    Then you shouldn’t have any problem proving it in a court of law , right? You know where there are checks and balances and where one could demonstrate the “reasonably” part. Its easy to argue that waterboarding isn’t as bad as other forms of torture especially when the waterboarders are the good guys – It reminds me of Harris v/s Chomsky.

  39. Holms says

    For starters, waterboarding, wrong as it is isn’t deliberately done against innocent people who are doing no wrong. It is only applied to those who are at very least strongly suspected and reasonably suspected of being terrorists.

    If it is unjustified on human rights grounds, then it is unjustified against anyone regardless of how nasty they are. Thus the difference you note is meritless.

  40. says

    Given what terrorist are and the long list of cruelties that terrorists have inflicted – like shooting wheelchair bound passengers and dumping their bodies from cruise liners or flying jet airliners into buildings or bombing peace marches like we saw in Turkey the other day, that’s pretty much true by definition.

    Not just for Muslim terrorists but for all and any terrorists really.

    Even that is bullshit. Europe has a long history of terrorism where the terrorists actually had very clear rules of engagement, who was and wasn’t a legitimate target. Who usually gave an advance warning before blowing shit up.

  41. abear says

    left0ver1under wrote:

    So it’s not just a surname that Sam Harris and Rolf Harris have in common, they have similar rape fantasies. We should refer to him as Sam “Rolf” Harris from now on.

    Actually, that sick fantasy belongs to Mano Singham who, given his apparent willingness to see millions of people exterminated should henceforth be known as Mano “Hitler” Singham.

  42. asbizar says

    “left0ver1under wrote:
    So it’s not just a surname that Sam Harris and Rolf Harris have in common, they have similar rape fantasies. We should refer to him as Sam “Rolf” Harris from now on.
    Actually, that sick fantasy belongs to Mano Singham who, given his apparent willingness to see millions of people exterminated should henceforth be known as Mano “Hitler” Singham.”

    Oh look another Sam Harris zombie acolyte

  43. abear says

    asbizar: Would you rather see millions of people murdered than a single woman raped?
    Oh-and stop worshipping PZ Myers.
    I don’t agree with everything that Sam Harris says but I’m a little bit amused of seeing people like left0ver1under that fall all over themselves to falsely attribute ideas and words to people like Harris and Dawkins. Read #37; he is so dim he can’t even understand that the rape scenario was Mano’s idea but has his mind so made up that Harris is the root of all evil he can’t help himself to try and smear Harris with it.
    I happen to be a bit tired of seeing nobody bloggers like PZ and Rebecca Watson that have no real accomplishments of their own make a cottage industry of shitting on those that have some success.
    Further, your silly little tactic of attributing hero worship to anyone that points out unfair characterization of Harris or Dawkins is just plain bullshit. Are you a moron or just a liar?

  44. Chiroptera says

    a bear, #47, 48:

    I’m worse than Hitler: I’d let the entire universe come to an immediate end before I’d participate in a rape.

  45. abear says

    Chiroptera @51; So instead of raping someone you would be responsible for extinguishing all life and all matter?
    You are even worse than Donald Trump!

  46. says

    Oh, thank heavens. abear has arrived to class the place up a bit.

    I happen to be a bit tired of seeing nobody bloggers like PZ and Rebecca Watson that have no real accomplishments of their own make a cottage industry of shitting on those that have some success.

    Meanwhile, we’re all in awe of your accomplishments in the threads around here. I’m sure Myers and Watson will take your criticisms on board and immediately emulate your awesomesauce record of lurking at blogs and popping up occasionally to shit on those whose opinions you don’t approve of.

  47. Mano Singham says

    abear @#47,

    When you say:

    Mano Singham would rather see millions of people incinerated than one woman be raped.

    you are being too kind. With your demonstrated superior reading ability, razor sharp logic, and acute reasoning skills, surely you should have charged me with being willing to kill every single mammal on the planet, a level of genocide that is only exceeded by Jehovah.

  48. abear says

    Mano@54: You’re not nearly as bad as Jehovah.:-) On the other hand, Chiroptera wants to go even further than the Big J!

  49. deepak shetty says

    @abear
    Isnt your question better posed to Sam Harris who keeps coming up with scenarios that peril millions of humans ?
    Sam Harris would rather sacrifice millions of humans in contrived scenarios instead of admit that he gets it wrong sometimes.

  50. says

    Harris boasts in his torture article that “I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror”.

    Marnia Lazreg’s Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad discusses the arguments of the many people – military, religious, and so on – who published defenses of torture in the Algerian War. Imperial/colonial wars will always spawn justifying hacks, and Harris is one of the latest, eminently forgettable, crop.

  51. Intaglio says

    You did see how much Harris embarrassed himself in the e-mail exchange with Chomsky about ethics?

  52. eddie says

    Is torture so wrong? We know it’s an entirely unreliable means of information gathering but what if you have this scenario?…

    There’s no muslims, or bombs or hostages at stake. Just you and a bunch of instruments and dick cheney strapped in a dentists chair, with all the medical backup to kerep him alive and in extreme pain indefinitely. What shift-rota would you use?

  53. pascals bookie says

    Height of the antipodean summer, Mercury at the century-mark; the noonday sun softened the bitumen beneath the tyres of her little Hyundai sedan to the consistency of putty. Her three year old son, quiet at last, snuffled in his sleep on the back seat. He had a summer cold and wailed like a banshee in the supermarket, forcing her to cut short her shopping. Her car needed petrol. Her tot was asleep on the back seat. She poured twenty litres into the tank; thumbing notes from her purse, harried and distracted, her keys dangled from the ignition.

    Whilst she was in the service station a man drove off in her car. Police wound back the service station’s closed-circuit TV camera, saw what appeared to be a heavy set Pacific Islander with a blonde-streaked Afro entering her car. “Don’t panic”, a police constable advised the mother, “as soon as he sees your little boy in the back he will abandon the car.” He did; police arrived at the railway station before the car thief did and arrested him after a struggle when he vaulted over the station barrier.

    In the police truck on the way to the police station: “Where did you leave the Hyundai?” Denial instead of dissimulation: “It wasn’t me.” It was — property stolen from the car was found in his pockets. In the detectives’ office: “Its been twenty minutes since you took the car — little tin box like that car — It will heat up like an oven under this sun. Another twenty minutes and the child’s dead or brain damaged. Where did you dump the car?” Again: “It wasn’t me.”

    Appeals to decency, to reason, to self-interest: “Its not too late; tell us where you left the car and you will only be charged with Take-and-Use. That’s just a six month extension of your recognizance.” Threats: “If the child dies I will charge you with Manslaughter!” Sneering, defiant and belligerent; he made no secret of his contempt for the police. Part-way through his umpteenth, “It wasn’t me”, a questioner clipped him across the ear as if he were a child, an insult calculated to bring the Islander to his feet to fight, there a body-punch elicited a roar of pain, but he fought back until he lapsed into semi-consciousness under a rain of blows. He quite enjoyed handing out a bit of biffo, but now, kneeling on hands and knees in his own urine, in pain he had never known, he finally realised the beating would go on until he told the police where he had abandoned the child and the car.

    The police officers’ statements in the prosecution brief made no mention of the beating; the location of the stolen vehicle and the infant inside it was portrayed as having been volunteered by the defendant. The defendant’s counsel availed himself of this falsehood in his plea in mitigation. When found, the stolen child was dehydrated, too weak to cry; there were ice packs and dehydration salts in the casualty ward but no long-time prognosis on brain damage.

    (Case Study provided by John Blackler, a former New South Wales police officer).
    Should the police have allowed this child to die rather than torture the thief ? Is this case proof that sometimes torture does work ?

  54. =8)-DX says

    Pascal, you gave a “just so story” from a cop. There is nothing in that story that proves the criminal in that case couldn’t have been convinced through other means or could not have killed the child or lead police on a wild goose chase.

    In fact the moral to take away from that “real life scenario” is how people behave cruelly when under pressure and how those policemen should all be sitting behind bars themselves for their “heroics”.

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