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Sam Harris' Support of Torture

Posted by libhom Sunday, April 20, 2008

What I've heard and read from Sam Harris has been on progressive media outlets where he has been quite reasonable, in most respects. I had no idea how nutty he can be until I listened to today's Equal Time for Freethought show on WBAI.

Sam Harris actually supported torture, in some circumstances.

The disturbing Huffington Post item is from 2005.

Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.

While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.

This is so absurd. On a factual level, people who actually do interrogations report that torture leads to bad information, precisely the opposite of what one would hope for in the "ticking-bomb" scenario. Any reasonable person should be able to see why. When a person is being tortured, they are being given an incentive to tell the inquisitor what they think the torturer wants to hear. That is usually different than the actual truth.

Harris tried to argue for a limited use of torture, not one that would correspond with the Bush regime's policies, at least in theory.
I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, this is not a comfortable position to have publicly adopted. There is no question that Abu Ghraib was a travesty, and there is no question that it has done our country lasting harm. Indeed, the Abu Ghraib scandal may be one of the costliest foreign policy blunders to occur in the last century, given the degree to which it simultaneously inflamed the Muslim world and eroded the sympathies of our democratic allies. While we hold the moral high ground in our war on terror, we appear to hold it less and less. Our casual abuse of ordinary prisoners is largely responsible for this. Documented abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere have now inspired legislation prohibiting "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of military prisoners. And yet, these developments do not shed much light on the ethics of torturing people like Osama bin Laden when we get them in custody.

In practice, I'm skeptical of the notion that torture being considered "ethical" under highly limited circumstances is possible in real life. Let's take the Iraq war, for instance. Troops involved in the occupation are in danger from any direction all the time. There literally is no way to distinguish somebody who wants to kill them or their friends from a little girl walking to school. (The friends part is of particular importance because the situation and current military practice encourages occupying troops to form extremely strong bonds of friendship.)

They live the "ticking bomb" scenario on a daily basis. If they act according to Harris' view of ethics, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will be tortured. Apparently, that may well already have happened.

Harris then goes on to make an argument that conflates torture with other forms of warfare both practically and ethically. It doesn't make much sense, given that actual objectives have been historically shown to have been achieved with warfare, while torture has yet to be shown to accomplish any goal other than to make the targeted population suffer.

I hope Harris has changed his mind since then. It would be nice to think he has become more rational on the subject now that the US is further past the 911 attacks, but I have not been able to find any evidence of this online.



  1. RickB Says:
  2. This is why I don't like him, it also exposes a huge naivety about imperial histories and tortures place within it.

  3. I can see using force in a ticking bomb scenario, but I would then expect to have to mount a necessity defense against criminal charges. I would never expect to be beyond the reach of law just because. Any pseudo-legal regime for institutionalized torture will be abused, I guaran-damn-tee it, and that's what's happened to the U.S. under the Bushists.

  4. libhom Says:
  5. lovable: What is the point of using something that is unreliable when accurate information is most crucial?

    The ticking time bomb scenario actually is the worst argument for torture if you think about it.



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