Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump, Toughness, and Torture

      If it got down to a choice, I'd rather see Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President than Ted Cruz. About the last thing planet Earth needs nowadays is another "Party of God," especially one with a chance to control nuclear weapons. That is true in Pakistan, and that is true in the USA, and Ted Cruz could make the Republican Party the US Party of God in ways Donald Trump just can't.

     Still —

     Three or four decades back, I wrote letters for Amnesty International, including to one regime that tortured children in front of their parents in order to break the parents, a method that was probably effective. If Mr. Trump continues to say he'd use torture to protect the American people, he needs to be asked if he'd be willing to follow historical examples and, among other things, torture children if it would reduce their parents to a state where they could be manipulated into providing "actionable intelligence" that could save American lives — and maybe if he could quantify the question a bit and discuss how many American lives would have to be at stake before he'd torture children.

     The interrogation of Mr. Trump on the subject should also include questions on specifics from the rich history of torture and whether or not he'd use genital electroshock, the rack, holding people's feet to the fire — the expression comes from an actual torture — thumbscrews, or something more ingenious.

     It is the specifics that real journalists should be pressing Mr. Trump about — and "pressing" has its own nasty undertones — but there is also the more general ethical question of ends and means.

    One can assert "The end has justified the means" and argue that the results one has achieved has justified the means one has used. But to say, "The end will justify the means" is to make a statement of faith: it's a slippery short form for "Our goal, if and when we achieve it, will justify the means we have used." One can be far more certain of the means that one chooses to use than of any results.
     Other problems with "The end will justify the means" include that "end" means both "goal" and "results" and the results of one's actions can include a whole lot more than some straightforward goal: "unintended consequences," as the cliché has it. "End" also implies the end of something, when it's finished, and history doesn't work that way. History keeps rolling on, and the most significant consequences of an act may be not only unintended and unforeseen but unforeseeable, taking place in a distant future.

     Tough guys making tough pronouncements should be asked tough questions. If Mr. Trump thinks a reluctance to torture is part of the pussification of America, he should be asked how brave it is to torture a currently helpless person if it might reduce the risk to Americans. And that can be any person if I recall correctly and understood correctly: my recollection is that Justice Antonin Scalia said that the Eight Amendment to the US Bill of Rights forbids inflicting "cruel and unusual punishments" — but torture of someone convicted of nothing is clearly not a punishment, and, by implication, the more innocent of crime the less the torture would be a punishment.

      Which brings us back to regimes that torture children. Is Mr. Trump tough enough to order such torture — or just the fake killing of children as in a notable episode of the TV show 24 — if necessary to save American lives?

      More important, should Americans think ourselves tough and brave if we allow torture rather than risk terrorism? I wrote letters for Amnesty International and grew up on movies where "Ve haf vays of makink you talk" was the line of a particularly villainous Nazi, so for me the question is rhetorical. Brave people say, "Our means will justify our ends" and choose to do monstrous evil only when it is really, really, really necessary as the lesser of two or least of several evils. And brave and honest people never say that the evil they have chosen to do — however necessary — is something other than evil, and they never, ever praise their toughness for doing it.

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