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June 17, 2004

Weapons of Moral Destruction

A particular turn of phrase by Kieran Healy has provoked a chain of thought I should get in writing.


I think there is no shame in being viscerally repelled by the prospect of state-sponsored torture, even when — hypothetically — there might be utilitarian benefits to be gained from it.

also in context:

I think that Eugene’s post from 2002 shows, in outline, what the torture memo might have looked like had it been written by government lawyers who were genuinely concerned with the question at hand rather than with writing a brief on how the President could circumvent the law. Although it doesn’t examine the constitutionality of torture and the limits of executive authority to authorize it in a time of war, it honestly explores the utilitarian calculus of torture without indulging what Mark Kleiman has called “the human capacity for courage in the face of pain felt by strangers.”

I think that it should go without saying that torture is an inherent evil. The question is whether or not it is a redeemable evil. It is a question that I believe redounds to the matter of the one. Under what circumstances might an indidividual be justified in using torture?

It is the phrase, state-sponsored, that catches my eye. So put, there doesn't seem any possibility of justification. And yet we understand that there is a kind of utility in thinking the unthinkable. Is there value to be found in doing the undoable?

It is a premise of mine that human beings, since they are capable of making life and death decisions, must take responsibility for life and death decisions. This implies that there must be some consequence for the action of killing. This is the warrior code and it is the basis for the moral organization of armies. We accept that there can be honor among killers. We do it for cops and for soldiers all the time.

In my review of 'Man on Fire', I applied some utilitarian justification for the character John W. Creasy's use of torture during interrogation. It was done with the understanding that death was inevitable. Not only the death of the torture victim, but the sacrificial death of Creasy the interrogator. We are facing the moral organization of assassins, torturers and suicide bombers. Is there any honor for them? In the context of John W. Creasy's torture and assassination of Mexican kidnappers, he willingly sacrificed himself to them in order to save the life of a child. In his assassinations and torture he saved many more lives by disabling the machinery of kidnapping piece by gory piece. By sacrificing himself he created peace between the remains of that organization and the child's mother. In the end as in the beginning he knew that he could not be forgiven. So I am willing to suggest that such acts can be honorable in a very limited context - that is the context of sacrifice.

Nevertheless suicide bombing, assassination and torture are weapons of moral destruction. Those who call for their use must stand to be judged as well as those direct participants. No honor can accrue to any victory which relies primarily of such means. They can only be of limited tactical value. As I said in 'Monsters on a Leash', there can be no question about the moral disposition of the employment of such weapons. We do it. They do it. I am unsure about the utility of torturous interrogation. I believe it can be effective but I am not inclined to believe that it is reliable. But I limit it not because of its effectiveness as a weapon but the damage it does to the moral standing of those who employ it as a weapon. Therefore we are bound to keep our supply of torturers low, be willing to sacrifice them and not call them into service readily.

The CIA honors its members with stars posted on a memorial wall. Some of those are anonymous. I would not be surprised to find that some of those spies were involved in extracting information by morally suspect means. If a state is to sponsor assassination or toture or suicide bombing, this kind of arrangement should be the deal. Note that here, for the entire history of the CIA there are only 83. I can live with that.

Posted by mbowen at June 17, 2004 01:19 PM

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I enjoyed your material here. It's my feeling that once a country decides war is the only answer to there problem, the gloves must come off. If nothing else to limit the casualties on there own side. And to deter any other group from trying a similar act in the future. Today we are seeing filmed decapitations, however still it's the Americans who are the evil ones! I would think not. What do you do for a living? What provoked you to put this on the net?

Posted by: Jay at July 4, 2004 06:32 AM

I'm in the BI biz. So I'm always interested in how it is that decisions are arrived at and supported. CS & Philosophy were my undergrad focus.

These days I continue to write online in fulfillment of my responsibilities to The Conservative Brotherhood, but it's an avocation going way back.

Posted by: Cobb at July 4, 2004 11:18 AM

I agree with torture when it is the only viable [and remaining] method that remains of extracting information that is so necessary that without it the consequences would be too dire. I only say this because, as a man, if it were my only choice I would certainly excercise it. Not out of the gratuitous use of violence but because it would have to follow such action(s) that justified it's use and because there are no other alternatives or because of the litany of horrendous possibilities that a barbaric man can subject his fellow man to.

Posted by: seth at September 16, 2004 04:30 PM

you need to live in mexico city

to now


a live a heel

Posted by: jorge at September 27, 2004 09:01 PM

John W. Creasy, is an example of a MAN! the mothefuckers that hurts a children should all die...like john did! childrens are the future angels..who kill them are the present hell!

Posted by: Bruno Couto at November 28, 2004 12:07 AM