Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The search for sanity and decency in the whole sorry torture discussion

One catch (out of, let's fondly hope, many out there): Mark
A.R. Kleiman says excellently a lot of the things I've
tried to say confusingly and in fear of being deluged by

He rather callously adds, "It's a good bet that
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has felt some pain. And if that's
the best chance of making him talk, it's OK by me."

No doubt it is. The human capacity for courage in the face
of pain felt by strangers is always pretty impressive, and
fear and hatred can make that capacity virtually boundless.
Taylor disapproves of "actual torture," for example
breaking bones or tearing out fingernails, but even then
makes a reservation for what he calls "extreme

We faced truly extreme circumstances in 1861, and again in
1941, and again until 1989. We do not face them now. The
threat of terrorism is a real threat, but it is not a
threat of such gravity that it forces us to chip away at
the Constitution to preserve the Constitution itself. The
terrorists can't conquer us or overthrow our government.
The worst they can do is kill some of us, and we're all
going to die some day anyhow.

Lest someone attribute to me the same sort of callousness
of which I accuse Taylor, let me bring this down to a
personal level. About 3000 people died on 9-11, out of 300
million Americans. If the next attack were as successful,
and its risks were spread evenly over the population, each
of us would face a risk of 1 in 100,000 of dying in that
attack. (If the risks of ordinary homicide and of
automobile accidents were evenly spread, each of us would
have about 1 chance in 15,000 of being murdered this year
and about 1 chance in 7500 of being killed by a car.)

Imagine, then, that torturing the next al-Qaeda suspect has
one chance in ten of preventing a disaster that great, and
thus one chance in a million of saving you, personally,
from being killed by that terrorist act.

Would you choose to be a citizen of a country that
practices torture to avoid one chance in a million of dying
suddenly? I wouldn't.