May 20, 2004

Recent events in the prisons in Iraq have revived an ancient discussion that I'm fairly sure will go on forever. It takes the form of the question, is it ever right to torture people?

You can hear proponents on both sides of the question asserting their position with perfect confidence and perfect vehemence. The people who argue for torture make up such ingenious hypothetical situations you get the feeling they should all be working as writers on TV melodramas. Here's their invariable approach:

Supposing you knew for certain that he knew  where the bomb is planted and when it's going to go off -- a bomb that is definitely going to kill sixty zillion children -- wouldn't you have the right to torture him then?

On the other side, you hear people asserting with the same passion that a guy who's being tortured will tell you anything just to get you to stop. And that 95% of the time it's going to be false. And besides that, if you torture them then they -- whenever they get their hands on you -- are going to torture you , so that all you're really doing when you torture someone is hurting yourself.

Not only are all these people perfectly confident in their arguments. They will tell you that their theses are backed up by science so hard that it makes the physics of Isaac Newton look like a marshmallow.

I have been in literally dozens of these discussions, stretching out over a period of more than forty years. And I've discovered there are only two things about this discourse you can really count on. The arguments in favor of the efficacy of torture come from people who find emotional pleasure in imagining their enemies screaming in agony. And the arguments that say torture is worthless come from people who detest the idea of causing any human to suffer immeasurably.

There's nothing scientific about it. It's all a gargantuan structure of rationalization. People will find ways to say that what they like is of great worth and they will find just as many ways to say that what they don't like is useless.

So the next time Chris Matthews, or Bill O'Reilly. or Sean Hannity , or any other magnificent news analyst who's really looking out for you, trots out an expert to give you the ultimate scoop on torture, and tells you that he has studied this issue with every great master of torture spread out across the globe,  keep in mind that all you're going to learn from him is one thing: whether he enjoys the thought of torture or whether he is disgusted by it.

©John R. Turner

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