McCain's Tortured Thinking

At the South Carolina Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, moderator Brit Hume posed this hypothetical: Three shopping centers near major American cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured, and US intelligence believes an even larger attack is imminent. Some involved terrorists have been captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay. The question: How aggressively should we interrogate them?

The hypothetical was put first to John McCain, who answered: "The use of torture, we could never gain as much as we would lose in world opinion."

Note that the question was not: Should we torture, but rather, how aggressive should we be? McCain's answer was nonresponsive -- but worse, it trivialized the value of saving innocent lives in deference to supposed "world opinion."

Rather than even acknowledge conflicting moral ideals, McCain attempted the easy way out. He argued that torture -- a word which, again, Hume had not used -- accomplishes nothing. "The more physical pain you inflict on someone the more they're going to tell you what they think you want to know."

That's like being asked who you'd throw out of a two-man lifeboat, your wife or your mother-in-law, and taking the dodge that the old woman would probably have died of fright anyway, so you'd pick her. The question requires you to assume: What if she didn't?  

Likewise in Hume's hypothetical: What if coercive interrogation could yield results?

Which it certainly can. McCain fails to distinguish between forcing a confession and coercing verifiable information from someone like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who famously began to sing after about two minutes with the waterboard. He also refuses to acknowledge the opinions of people like former CIA Director George Tenet, who has said that harsh interrogation techniques against hard core targets like KSM have proved more valuable than any other methods.

Offering no reasoned analysis but only shotgun arguments, McCain fired off this one: "If we do (coercive interrogation), what happens to our military people when they're captured?"

This is perhaps McCain's silliest anti-torture talking point. It assumes that treating terrorists with dignity gives them an incentive to treat us likewise. A counter-argument, which McCain never considers, would be that demanding civilized behavior as a condition of receiving the same is an incentive against barbarism -- which is why the Third Geneva Convention grants protections only to enemy captives who have followed "the laws and customs of war." 

In today's world, though, neither of these incentive-based arguments is convincing.

Does McCain or anyone else seriously believe that Islamofascists will treat our captured military personnel well if only we set a gentle example? Did the likes of Abu al-Zarqawi begin sawing off the heads of bound civilians only in response to reports of KSM's experience with the waterboard? We can treat them roughly, respectfully, even offer them Korans and tea; their behavior won't be altered. So why not do what's necessary -- unless you think that rough treatment would be an injustice against them?

Perhaps anticipating that he might be seen as promoting terrorists' rights, McCain always pulls out his trump-card argument -- that coercive interrogation (apparently of any kind or degree) erodes character. "It's not about the terrorists," McCain told Hume, "it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."

This argument has superficial plausibility. Philosophers going back at least to Kant have judged behavior on its consistency or inconsistency with human virtue. The problem is that virtue thought and rights thought are two sides of a coin. No one would say that kicking a rock, however viciously, is an indication -- or a cause -- of bad character, because the rock can't be wronged. So if treating a terrorist roughly makes you a bad person, then it follows that the terrorist deserves better -- that he has rights.

But don't tell that to Giuliani. In a ticking bomb situation, he said without hesitation that he'd direct interrogators to "use every method they could think of" and added that -- unlike McCain -- he likes to keep terrorists locked up at Guantanamo "where they don't get the access to lawyers." Romney said he'd like to double the facility. Hunter said he'd tell interrogators, "Get the information; have it back within an hour." And Tancredo added, "I'm looking for Jack Bauer."

All refreshing expressions of a single sentiment -- that there are better ways to take measure of our national character than to fret over our treatment of throat-slitting, suicide-bombing barbarians.

At the South Carolina Republican Presidential Candidates Debate, moderator Brit Hume posed this hypothetical: Three shopping centers near major American cities have been hit by suicide bombers. Hundreds are dead, thousands injured, and US intelligence believes an even larger attack is imminent. Some involved terrorists have been captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay. The question: How aggressively should we interrogate them?

The hypothetical was put first to John McCain, who answered: "The use of torture, we could never gain as much as we would lose in world opinion."

Note that the question was not: Should we torture, but rather, how aggressive should we be? McCain's answer was nonresponsive -- but worse, it trivialized the value of saving innocent lives in deference to supposed "world opinion."

Rather than even acknowledge conflicting moral ideals, McCain attempted the easy way out. He argued that torture -- a word which, again, Hume had not used -- accomplishes nothing. "The more physical pain you inflict on someone the more they're going to tell you what they think you want to know."

That's like being asked who you'd throw out of a two-man lifeboat, your wife or your mother-in-law, and taking the dodge that the old woman would probably have died of fright anyway, so you'd pick her. The question requires you to assume: What if she didn't?  

Likewise in Hume's hypothetical: What if coercive interrogation could yield results?

Which it certainly can. McCain fails to distinguish between forcing a confession and coercing verifiable information from someone like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who famously began to sing after about two minutes with the waterboard. He also refuses to acknowledge the opinions of people like former CIA Director George Tenet, who has said that harsh interrogation techniques against hard core targets like KSM have proved more valuable than any other methods.

Offering no reasoned analysis but only shotgun arguments, McCain fired off this one: "If we do (coercive interrogation), what happens to our military people when they're captured?"

This is perhaps McCain's silliest anti-torture talking point. It assumes that treating terrorists with dignity gives them an incentive to treat us likewise. A counter-argument, which McCain never considers, would be that demanding civilized behavior as a condition of receiving the same is an incentive against barbarism -- which is why the Third Geneva Convention grants protections only to enemy captives who have followed "the laws and customs of war." 

In today's world, though, neither of these incentive-based arguments is convincing.

Does McCain or anyone else seriously believe that Islamofascists will treat our captured military personnel well if only we set a gentle example? Did the likes of Abu al-Zarqawi begin sawing off the heads of bound civilians only in response to reports of KSM's experience with the waterboard? We can treat them roughly, respectfully, even offer them Korans and tea; their behavior won't be altered. So why not do what's necessary -- unless you think that rough treatment would be an injustice against them?

Perhaps anticipating that he might be seen as promoting terrorists' rights, McCain always pulls out his trump-card argument -- that coercive interrogation (apparently of any kind or degree) erodes character. "It's not about the terrorists," McCain told Hume, "it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are."

This argument has superficial plausibility. Philosophers going back at least to Kant have judged behavior on its consistency or inconsistency with human virtue. The problem is that virtue thought and rights thought are two sides of a coin. No one would say that kicking a rock, however viciously, is an indication -- or a cause -- of bad character, because the rock can't be wronged. So if treating a terrorist roughly makes you a bad person, then it follows that the terrorist deserves better -- that he has rights.

But don't tell that to Giuliani. In a ticking bomb situation, he said without hesitation that he'd direct interrogators to "use every method they could think of" and added that -- unlike McCain -- he likes to keep terrorists locked up at Guantanamo "where they don't get the access to lawyers." Romney said he'd like to double the facility. Hunter said he'd tell interrogators, "Get the information; have it back within an hour." And Tancredo added, "I'm looking for Jack Bauer."

All refreshing expressions of a single sentiment -- that there are better ways to take measure of our national character than to fret over our treatment of throat-slitting, suicide-bombing barbarians.