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Random Thoughts on Torture: Letting the Fly Out of the Fly Bottle

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Philosophers are particularly good at untangling unclear concepts; they are experienced at the task of formulating problems clearly and logically; they are ready to unmask the hidden presuppositions underlying a particular formulation. This is the kind of work Wittgenstein describes as "letting the fly out of the fly bottle"; it is what J. L. Austin does so well in "Three Ways of Spilling Ink." Drawing distinctions and formulating ideas clearly — these are core intellectual tools, and they lie at the root of philosophy Understanding Society.

Everyone would agree that torture is deplorable, perhaps the most abominable in human behavior. Are there circumstances, however, under which it might be justifiable or permissible?

That’s one important question which seems to exercise the finest minds of late, both on the national stage and our little microcosm here on BC. A further-reaching question perhaps, though rarely if ever asked, might be put thus: Do the very same acts, which under normal circumstances would undoubtedly constitute “torture,” deserve this most abhorrent of epithets when performed under circumstances or conditions that are, by anyone’s estimation, unusual?

Consider the following, rather astute observation to serve as our point of departure:

"If we look at torture in civilian life we never see cases where torture is employed to elicit information. Torture is employed for personal amusement by twisted personalities."

In a sense, the aforementioned remark hits the nail on the head. It comes awfully close to what Wittgenstein called a “grammatical remark,” a remark whose express purpose was to elucidate the key concept (torture). In the first part, we learn that under normal circumstances, (civilian life), torture rarely has anything to do with eliciting information; in the second, that it’s associated most often with “twisted personalities.”

The notion of cruelty that comes to mind first and foremost, is intentional cruelty, cruelty to animals being one example. The act seems to serve no discernible purpose other than to satisfy one’s sadistic impulses and feed the crazed personality. That’s the core of the concept as far as I’m concerned: the association of torture with cruelty and the connotation of the term, only confirms that. Torture is a taboo – more of a taboo perhaps, than incest, rape, even murder.

It would seem convenient, therefore, to leave matters at that,  arguing  that’s the purpose behind the strongest possible language and its highly evocative quality: namely, to guard against any and all instances or incidences of torture under “normal” circumstances.

 

But this cannot be the truth or the whole truth, since it would mean a near-total misuse of an otherwise perfectly functional moral language: for it’s not morality or moral rebuke that are likely to be effective in preventing someone from pursuing their perverted inclinations to acts of cruelty and the like, but therapy, or lock & key . All of which seems to suggest that the intentionally strong language associated with such terms as cruelty or torture is designed with an entirely different purpose in mind; to deal with extraordinary cases.

What cases, one might ask. Precisely the kind of cases excluded from consideration in the first part of the subject remark – i.e., “where torture is [being] employed to elicit information.” Indeed, it’s only because anything that even smacks of torture or cruelty is an utter abomination that extreme safeguards must be in place to prevent any such act,  not out of sickness, but for a reason, whatever the reason! And this brings us to our first question: Are there circumstances under which acts of torture might be permissible, let alone justifiable?  What sort of circumstances might they be?

Consider the following "ticking bomb" scenario (and its “milder” alternative):

An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy. Even John McCain, the most admirable and estimable torture opponent, says openly that in such circumstances, "You do what you have to do." And then take the responsibility.

***

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. (One of the "torture memos" noted that the CIA had warned that terrorist "chatter" had reached pre-9/11 levels.) We know we must act but have no idea where or how — and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

As far as I am concerned, both situations can be reduced to one: one life versus the many, and absolute knowledge versus knowledge that is imperfect, aren’t sufficient enough differences if getting bogged down with them would mean losing sight of the main point. And that point seems to be that one way or another, act we must. Lives are at stake, along with a reasonable assurance that direct action might prevent a catastrophe.

About Roger Nowosielski

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski
  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    The digest:

    “The NYT off-leads with an exclusive look at newly declassified documents and correspondence on the Justice Department’s views of torture. E-mails dating back to 2005 reveal that certain Justice Department lawyers who urged against the use of waterboarding and other controversial interrogation methods never questioned the legality of such tactics. The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility will release a report this summer on how the decision was made to allow enhanced interrogation methods. The critical period seems to have been between 2004 and ’05, around which time DOJ lawyer James B. Comey presciently warned that the issue would come back to haunt the department.”
    Slate Magazine

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Cindy

    Roger,

    I am so sorry you took the time to write all that. I wish I realized you must have missed what I said in #11.

    Yes, #50, I did understand the rules you set and that is why I chose rape, not something else like child molesting for my analogy. I recognize not all heinous acts would fit. I understand how you distinguish the two types of acts. One as done by a deviant, another as done with an intent to achieve a purpose. I hold rape was actually used with an intent to achieve a military purpose.

    Please, if you could, reread #11 and tell me what you think.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Cindy,

    I think I covered all the objections in #11 except for this:

    “That there is no equivalent to ‘interrogation purposes’ for you to fit into your puzzle is a meaningless red herring. It’s merely an extra condition that doesn’t apply. However I could use rape and do the same thing.” Am I right?

    First off, I’d agree with you that rape may have been used as an instrument to undermine the enemy morale. One could go even further and claim that it may have been used to “deplete the enemy,” “change their loyalty,” and generally speaking, even to alter the balance of power. (Good example here: the “prima nocte” policy instituted by Henry the Longshanks (some claim it a myth) in Braveheart, for the purpose of minimizing the possibility of Scottish rebellion/opposition).

    So in the sense that rape can be thought of and used as a means to an end, it is true that it may be comparable to the idea of torture (when also so used).

    I don’t know what else follows from that, so perhaps you can rephrase your question now (in terms of the red herring thing you spoke of), in light of the progress we’ve made thus far. It would be easier for me to discern than the main point of your counter-argument.

  • Bliffle

    #26 – Maurice

    “…For example my first analogous thought of torture would not be cruelty but required action that brings about a desired result. ”

    I’m sure that Saddam thought the same when he gassed the Kurds. Dare I mention the holocaust and it’s Prime Mover?

    Words, words, words. Aren’t they wonderful? The most awful acts are de-fanged by bureaucratic bafflegab.

    Many years ago I read an article by the chief US interrogator in Vietnam, who was credited with very successful intelligence gathering from VC and NV soldiers. His most effective interrogation tool: ping pong!

  • Clavos

    His most effective interrogation tool: ping pong!

    He didn’t talk about pushing one Gook out of a chopper at 3,000 feet to make the others talk?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    Clav,

    I seem to recall having read somewhere that the technique to which you refer was called “aerial reconnaissance.” What might have been “ping pong?” Several possibilities come to mind. What are those spherical things one bats around with a ping-pong paddle? Such trivia often escape me.

    I shall now go and pray*.

    Dan(Miller)

    Please see definition at comment #106 here.

  • Clavos

    Say a prayer* for me, Dan(Miller).

    A heathen like me could use some prayer.*

    *As defined previously.

  • http://twitter.com/tolstoyscat Lilith (the destroyer)

    Roger,

    But natural languages are naturally resistant to such perverted attempts – as we can always (if we care to pay attention, of course) recognize “doublespeak” and all such from the real McCoy.

    But, do many people really pay that much attention? Today’s doublespeak is tomorrows common description, no? If you control language you can influence how people think about things. Isn’t that a reason why government tries to control language in this way? (like George Carlin’s routine: (WWI) shell shock -> (WWII) battle fatigue -> (Korean war) operational exhaustion -> (Vietnam war) post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Isn’t this part of the natural development of language? If not, how do you conceive of this being different? As a child would I know it’s different if that’s what I learned to call something?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Good point, Lilith. It is a part of the “natural” development, as you say. But we still have the language of Shakespeare, for example, and that of other great novelists. You’re taking the notion of education out of the equation. So there are old and proven standards for comparison purposes. Plus, you seem to be assuming the general dumbing down of the populace – not an impossible scenario but quite a leap. Recall Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury,remember, books being burned, we had a little community where each person became a book: a far-fetched story, true, but not without a moral. More generally, perhaps, most of us at least (I’d like to believe) strife towards sense and light rather than nonsense and ignorance.

    On the foundational level, much in language reflects our practices. And in order for these practices to have a staying power and the corresponding longevity, they, too, must make sense. Sooner or later, practices either improve in time, become more refined, or become obsolete (if they fail to serve the purpose or make sense). And the same goes for the language relating to those practices.

    So praxis, ultimately, is the ground-zero so to speak which keeps the language honest.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    “But, do many people really pay that much attention?”

    Maybe not! But buzz words and doublespeak will always be challenged (by some). You can’t get away with murder forever. Don’t underestimate native intelligence even among the uneducated. And as I said, all those who have no stake in self-deception (prompted by their selfish, narrowly conceived self-interest)naturally are attracted to light, not darkness.

    The BC community represents a rather skewed picture. Everyone is so keen on expressing their own pet theory because they know they can’t be taken to task.

    In real life, which is to say, face-to-face communications, the situation is nowhere as hopeless. There are supplemental tools at our disposal to change minds (and more importantly, hearts). And it does happen.

    Again, BC is an anomaly. One’s almost led to believe it’s a waste of time, unless of course the one and only motive is to hear oneself speak (or improve their writing skills).

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    While this site is still under construction, please direct all your comments to this or the preceding article(s) to my own weblog if you expect a response.