As we watch the terms of debate shift back from whether one or another “coercive interrogation technique” constitutes “torture” to the more straightforward question of whether torture “works,” the brief clips I catch of TV talking heads are becoming eerily reminiscent of freshmen chewing over their first Trolley Problem. So we find Bill O’Reilly challenging guests with posers like: “But if it did save lives, was it worth it?” Now, as Cato’s David Rittgers aptly notes in reply, even if we stipulate that torture had produced vital information in some particular instance when no other method would have worked—and it’s not remotely clear at this point that we should stipulate to any such thing—this is a wildly confused way to frame the question. Sooner or later, someone wins the lottery. For that person, it was certainly worth it to buy that lottery ticket. That’s not a helpful way to decide whether buying lottery tickets is a wise investment.
The odd thing here, though, is the sense that we’re facing some kind of unique and novel question when, in fact, we have fought a variety of wars in the past. And there too, presumably, the ability to extract information from a recalcitrant enemy officers might have saved many lives. Yet historically, we’ve considered waterboarding a war crime, whether committed by our own forces or the enemy’s. Were American lives worth less then? Or is that we think the lives-to-waterboardings ratio is likely to be different in the terrorist context? A military historian would have a better sense of whether that’s plausible, but given that some 43,000 British civilians died in the Blitz, I’d think that information permitting you to target a traditional state actor’s arms production, say, might easily prevent as many deaths as the disruption of some particular bomb plot. There’s the obvious argument from reciprocity–you don’t torture captive members of a uniformed military force in exchange for similar treatment for your own captives—but taken as a strictly pragmatic policy, this would only make sense when there was reliable monitoring of POW treatment in both directions. More to the point, we’ve previously considered torture unacceptable even against insurgent forces, or against those who themselves failed to observe the laws of war. It’s cliché at this point to say that this is a “new kind of war,” but I’d like to hear in a little more detail why “but torture might save lives” is supposed to be a more compelling argument now than it was in previous conflicts. The usual hawk narrative is that we’ve become much more squeamish, much less willing to “do what is necessary,” than previous generations. That we’re even having this debate suggests that either they’ve got it backwards, or something other than “squeamishness” is at work here.