Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

Aus­tralia, in the height of sum­mer, a woman in­ad­ver­tently left the keys in her car ig­ni­tion while she paid for petrol, giv­ing the op­por­tu­nity for a thief to steal it. Un­for­tu­nately, her baby was still in the car. The po­lice ad­vised the woman the thief would soon aban­don the car, which he did. He was quickly ar­rested—but he re­fused to say where he left the car. Forty min­utes in the heat would leave the baby brain dam­aged, pos­si­bly dead. Ap­peals to de­cency, rea­son and self-in­ter­est all failed. So the po­lice beat the thief up. Re­al­is­ing the beat­ing would go on un­til he told them where the car was, he did so—and the baby was saved, just.

In an­other in­stance, in Florida, one half of a kid­nap­ping duo was caught. He re­fused to re­veal the where­abouts of his part­ner-in-crime. Fear­ing that the vic­tim would be killed, the po­lice choked their sus­pect un­til he told them what they needed. The tor­tured crim­i­nal was later taken down­town and made a con­fes­sion—one he later, at trial, sought to have sup­pressed. The state ap­peal court ruled against this re­quest, but went fur­ther, stat­ing that the tor­ture was “un­der­stand­ably mo­ti­vated by the im­me­di­ate ne­ces­sity to find the vic­tim and save his life”. A fur­ther ap­peal to a fed­eral court was met with the same de­ci­sion.

Nei­ther in­stance amounts to the thou­sands threat­ened by, say, a bi­o­log­i­cal weapon, but most peo­ple’s moral in­tu­ition favours the po­lice’s ac­tions all the same. The ‘en­hanced in­ter­ro­ga­tion’ of known Al-Qaeda or ISIS ter­ror­ists whose fel­low ter­ror­ists are plan­ning fur­ther at­tacks brings us closer to real-life ex­am­ples of the tick­ing time-bomb sce­nario than many are ready to ad­mit.

In­deed, per­haps it is be­cause our moral in­tu­itions are just that—gut feel­ings rather than cold ra­tio­nal­ity—that that our re­sponses to tor­ture of­ten vac­il­late be­tween the pro and the con. The neu­ro­sci­en­tist and public thinker Sam Har­ris has also put for­ward a case against an ab­so­lute pro­hi­bi­tion on tor­ture—“in the af­ter­math of Abu Ghraib, not a com­fort­able po­si­tion to have pub­licly adopted,” he has noted. “[But] while many peo­ple have ob­jected, on emo­tional grounds, to my de­fence of tor­ture, no one has pointed out a flaw in my ar­gu­ment. [And] I would be sin­cerely grate­ful to have my mind changed on this sub­ject.”

Har­ris ar­gues that the po­si­tion against the use of tor­ture in rare cir­cum­stances is at odds with our will­ing­ness to wage mod­ern war in the first place: if we are will­ing to ac­cept the ‘col­lat­eral dam­age’ that comes with drop­ping bombs—a method of war­fare more or less guar­an­teed to in­flict mis­ery or death on a con­sid­er­able num­ber of in­no­cents, of­ten know­ingly so in ad­vance—why should tor­ture of a ter­ror­ist “pro­voke con­vul­sions of con­science”?

“What,” he asks, “is the dif­fer­ence be­tween pur­su­ing a course of ac­tion where we run the risk of in­ad­ver­tently sub­ject­ing some in­no­cent men to tor­ture, and pur­su­ing one in which we will in­ad­ver­tently kill far greater num­bers of in­no­cent men women and chil­dren? It seems ob­vi­ous that the mis­ap­pli­ca­tion of tor­ture should be far less trou­bling to us than col­lat­eral dam­age. There seems no ques­tion that ac­ci­den­tally tor­tur­ing an in­no­cent man is bet­ter than ac­ci­den­tally blow­ing him and his chil­dren to bits.” Re­vul­sion felt to­wards tor­ture be­cause it’s up close and per­sonal is a fail­ure of imag­i­na­tion in con­sid­er­ing what it must be like to be bombed.

Har­ris even pro­poses his own thought ex­per­i­ment. If some kind of ‘tor­ture pill’ might be de­vised—one that pro­duced paral­y­sis and a brief, in­tense spell of the kind of mis­ery that no­body would wish to suf­fer twice, but which, af­ter what ap­peared to be a short nap, led to the per­son who took it wak­ing to give up all he knew—wouldn’t we be in­clined to call this phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­ter­ven­tion a ‘truth pill’? “Re­al­ism,” Har­ris has added, “is not the point of th­ese thought ex­per­i­ments. The point is that un­less your ar­gu­ment rules out tor­ture in ide­alised cases, you don’t have a cat­e­gor­i­cal ar­gu­ment against tor­ture.”

It’s not an easy thing to hear. We all like to con­ceive of our­selves as civilised, as keep­ing back the bar­bar­ians, not stoop­ing to their meth­ods. But it would seem that, in ex­cep­tional in­stances, opt­ing for tor­ture would be the right thing to do—morally, prac­ti­cally, al­beit re­luc­tantly—in de­fense of le­git­i­mate self-preser­va­tion. That may not be in­tel­lec­tu­ally sat­is­fac­tory, sug­gest­ing only how moral is­sues rarely have neat end­ings. All the same, it’s prob­a­bly not a con­ver­sa­tion to have next time you’re en­joy­ing a din­ner party with friends ei­ther.

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