Entry from November 15, 2010

In yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph of London, Janet Daley scolded the new British prime minister, David Cameron, for unwisely commenting on the contention of George W. Bush’s new memoir, Decision Points, that waterboarding saved British lives. Mr Cameron said that he thought “torture” was wrong and that “there is both a moral reason for being opposed to torture — and Britain doesn’t sanction torture — but secondly, I think there’s also an effectiveness thing. . .” — by which he meant, he said, that information gained by “torture” was unreliable and therefore of no use anyway. “There is a fairly simple logical problem here,” wrote Miss Daley shrewdly:

if torture is unfailingly immoral, then it would be wrong to employ it even if it did produce information that averted attacks and saved lives. But that, you will appreciate, is a rather more uncomfortable case to have to make to the folks watching television at home. Few security spokesmen or political leaders would want to take to the airwaves with the message: “We are so wedded to our principle that we are prepared to risk the lives of innocent people to maintain it.” But if you categorically reject the use of torture (even its psychological forms) then you must be prepared to say that you would not use it even if it did give you valuable evidence that could prevent mass murder. And, as is the way with these things, the people whose lives had been risked (or, in the worst case, lost) would not have had any say at all in this matter.

But then, in today’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, now the mayor of London but one who still practises his trade of journalism in a weekly column for the paper, makes exactly the same argument which Mr Cameron had made and with which Miss Daley had pointed to the logical difficulty only the day before. “Waterboarding,” he wrote,

is a disgusting practice by which the victim is deliberately made to think that he is drowning. It is not some cunning new psych-ops technique conceived by the CIA. It has been used in the dungeons of dictators for centuries. It is not compatible either with the US constitution or the UN convention against torture. It is deemed to be torture in this country, and above all there is no evidence whatever that it has ever succeeded in doing what Mr Bush claimed. It does not work.

Well which is it, Boris? Disgusting and immoral or ineffective? If you tell us that it is both, we shall wonder if you aren’t making your forensic work just a little too easy for yourself.

The problem is really a linguistic one. Obviously, any act involving the application of force for political, diplomatic, military or law-enforcement purposes involves physical distress to the person to whom force is administered. This stress must be measured along a continuum from the most mild — we’d like you to come downtown with us, sir, say the police to a compliant suspect — to the most severe, which are presumed by all civilized people to include a red zone of illicit applications of force justly called “torture.” Whether any particular application of force should come under the rubric of “torture” or not is a political and moral argument which obviously cannot be settled in advance by the question-begging tactic of applying to it the word “torture” automatically, as Boris Johnson does.

In other words, reasonable men may differ, as they used to say — but seldom say any longer — not only about whether or not a particular tactic, say waterboarding, should count as torture but also about whether or not the decision as to whether it is or isn’t torture allows any relevance to the consideration of what may be gained in terms of public safety from the information thus extracted. What if x lives could be saved by y involves complicated moral calculations where x can be few or many and y can be anything from pin pricks or loud noises or denial of air-conditioning to waterboarding and beyond. The political tactic of the left in using the term “torture” indiscriminately short-circuits this calculation by insisting, as President Obama did in his inaugural address, on the prima facie untruth that we don’t have to compromise our ideals for our safety. But what if we do? That’s the question neither Mr Johnson nor any of his fellow moralizers ever seem to want to answer.

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