Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Terrorism and torture

The recent arrest of terrorism suspects has prompted some new warnings:

Counterterrorism officials have issued security bulletins to police around the nation about terrorists' desire to attack stadiums, entertainment complexes and hotels — the latest in a flurry of such internal warnings as investigators chase a possible bomb plot in Denver and New York.

In the two bulletins — sent to police departments Monday and obtained by The Associated Press — officials said they know of no specific plots against such sites, but urged law enforcement and private companies to be vigilant. These two bulletins followed on the heels of a similar warning about the vulnerabilities of mass transit systems.

The bulletin on stadiums notes that an al-Qaida training manual specifically lists "blasting and destroying the places of amusement, immorality, and sin... and attacking vital economic centers" as desired targets of the global terror network.

A joint statement from DHS and FBI said while the agencies "have no information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack, we believe it is prudent to raise the security awareness of our local law enforcement partners regarding the targets and tactics of previous terrorist activity."

The article notes that such warnings happen frequently and aren't usually noticed by the public; but in light of the recent arrests of terror plot suspects people are paying attention.

In the comments below this post of mine, a mini-discussion about torture started cropping up. I think it might be a good idea to revisit the subject, especially since one poster seemed to insinuate that I was opposed to torture because my region of the country hasn't been threatened yet. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth; the principle that torture is morally wrong is not dependent upon how close the threat of terrorism is, or of how devastating that act of terror might be, or of any other such prudential concerns.

I agree with the principle that torture is intrinsically evil. Using evil means to obtain good results is still evil, regardless of the desired results. The ends do not, and never have, justified the means.

If a terror plot like the one described by Daniel J. Hill ever occurred, it would be beyond terrible, a devastating blow to our nation, and a truly horrific situation for the innocent who perished and for all those impacted by such an act of evil. If a terror plot like the ones theoretically discussed in the various security bulletins ever took place, it, too, would be a nightmare.

But if we could stop either of those things from happening by torturing a man to the breaking point of his will and obtaining information that way, we would still not have the moral right to do it. We do not have the moral right to torture, because torture is intrinsically evil.

I know this is a hard concept to understand, sometimes. Our desire to protect the innocent is strong, as it should be; our desire to root out and destroy the evil of terrorism before one more person dies from a terrorist act is also strong, and it should be. But we can't let these good desires and impulses turn into evil acts--or we risk becoming that which we seek to eradicate, the kind of people for whom the ability to use force is its own moral justification, for whom might makes right.

There are many things our law enforcement branches can do and are doing to uncover and thwart terrorist plots; they should be supported and encouraged with funding and cooperation to do what needs to be done. But the line against torture must be held; we can't condone any use of the methods of torture or the euphemistically-named "enhanced interrogation" techniques by our law enforcement against terror suspects, even if we strongly believe that some suspects might know about a terror plot and that their information is key to stopping it.

At the present time, no one (that I know of, anyway) is suggesting that we should be torturing the recently-arrested suspects to see if they know about any other planned terrorist activities in our country. But as we saw in the debate about torture in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, we can't say confidently that such things could never happen here. The American people have already shown our officials, elected and otherwise, that we lack the will to insist that "enhanced interrogation" or torture be forbidden completely--and I wonder sometimes if we've really thought about how dangerous that lack of will really is.


annef said...

interesting food for thought. i completely agree that torture is immoral. the question for me becomes this: what exactly is torture? I don't think some induced discomfort such as forcing wakefulness for prolonged periods would count. but, really, i haven't given it a great deal of thought.

Mark P. Shea said...

The other obvious fact being overlooked here, of course, is that this whole bomb plot was foiled without having to torture anybody. What works is normal investigative procedures, not Jack Bauer theatrics.

Hey! Thanks for the wonderful baby stuff! Mazeltov!

LarryD said...

Chesterton once said (and this is a rough paraphrase) that we're not arguing over good vs evil; now we're arguing over which evils are excusable. Torture is not excusable.

Red Cardigan said...

Mark, you're welcome! :) Lucy would never, ever be a squishy consequentialist about torture.

And you're exactly right, of course--nobody needed to be tortured for these arrests to be made. And one of the arrested was released on bail, on condition of electronic monitoring. Horrors--what's next, the Comfy Chair??