Entry from April 24, 2009

We all know that today’s culture presents us with an ever-growing list of things which, for ideological reasons, we are well-advised to regard as a priori truths: as, for instance, that belief in a divine creation is anti-scientific; that there are no racially-based differences in intelligence or any other native ability; or that there is no natural — which is to say non- “socially constructed” — reason why women are less interested in and/or good at math and science than men. Just the other day we learned that, according to Judge Edward R. Korman of Federal District Court in New York, the Bush administration’s attempt to limit access to “Plan B,” the “morning-after pill,” to girls over 18 “was driven by politics, not science,” as The New York Times put it — the natural corollary of that being that the attempt to make the pill available to girls under 18 is driven by science, not politics.

I say nothing about the other a priori truths, but I can’t help wondering if we have already got to the point where belief in the moral perspicuity of “science” has become one of them. Certainly Judge Korman seems to anticipate no peep of dissent from or argument with his apparent belief that science provides its own moral and political guidance quite apart from morality and politics as traditionally understood, and I cannot be the only one to wonder how much longer I might be permitted to point out the falsehood — indeed, the absurdity — of any such belief. It may already be the case that pointing out Judge Korman’s error is tantamount to denying the theory of evolution since, as I pointed out here and here, President Obama appears to share it. In any case, it could easily be enough to get a fellow labeled — officially, as it were — a right-wing nut and so denied access to the public discourse except in the marginalized media of other right-wing nuts.

It will be interesting to see if another of these a priori truths turns out to be that torture never “works.” Or, as Ben Macintyre put it in yesterday’s Times of London “‘24” is fictional. So is the idea that torture works.” Except, of course, when it does work. But that is, in Mr Macintyre’s view, simply inconceivable. Those who are nowadays popping up to provide instances where — as they believe — such “torture” as was licensed by the Bush administration did provide life-saving information are simply brushed aside as either mistaken or lying for self-protection — or, perhaps, as right-wing nuts, with all that that status implies of rhetorical and political marginalization. Scott Shane in the same day’s New York Times is a little more circumspect in proclaiming that “Interrogations’ Effectiveness May Prove Elusive,” insisting that there must at least be doubt about apparent instances in which enhanced interrogation elicited life-saving information, so that the current to-and-fro is just a he-said-she-said exercise out of which the truth can never be expected to emerge. What, then, to believe? Mr Shane quotes Robert Mueller of the FBI as saying he knows of no instance where valuable information has been extracted by the methods, though he acknowledges that

Many intelligence officials, including some opposed to the brutal methods, confirm that the program produced information of great value, including tips on early-stage schemes to attack tall buildings on the West Coast and buildings in New York’s financial district and Washington. Interrogation of one Qaeda operative led to tips on finding others, until the leadership of the organization was decimated. Removing from the scene such dedicated and skilled plotters as Mr. [Khalid Shaikh] Mohammed, or the Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali, almost certainly prevented future attacks. But which information came from which methods, and whether the same result might have been achieved without the political, legal and moral cost of the torture controversy, is hotly disputed, even inside the intelligence agency.

I guess that’s another way of establishing the same a priori truth alluded to by Mr Macintyre: if you can’t know for sure that it worked, then you can know for sure that it didn’t. At any rate, that looks to me to be what he is getting at, since he doesn’t bother to note any implications for the proposed “investigations” of the Bush administration of the fact that it is even arguable that the methods saved lives. Can it be a criminal matter in the absence of any clear statute and if these men sincerely and plausibly believed they were protecting the public?

Another writer who is dipping his toe into these troubled waters is Gary Kamiya in Salon who maintains that “Torture works sometimes — but it”s always wrong.” Yet he seems to deny the principal instance in which the testimony of those who ought to know say that it did work, since he agrees with Ben Macintyre that “the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario only happens on TV.” How, we may ask, can he know that? Because it is on the point of becoming an a priori truth. Here’s his reasoning:

Dick Cheney recently argued that classified documents will show that the use of torture stopped “a great many” terrorist attacks. But unless those documents reveal a “24”-like situation in which the use of torture somehow actually stops an imminent attack from taking place, a situation that has never come up in the real world, his statement is false. Breaking up terror networks is not the same thing as “stopping” terrorist attacks.

This is typical pacifist logic chopping. Yes, it’s possible that the terror networks were really formed for something other than terror, or that, before getting around to committing any actual acts of terrorism, they might think better of their ostensible purpose and take up bowling instead. But you’d have to be a fool to argue that way if you were the one responsible for preventing the terrorist attacks. Not that those who are so responsible are likely to making arguments of any kind if they are well-supplied with a priori truths about terrorism.

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