University Philosophy’s Complicity in CIA Torture, 10/12/2014

Today’s post was originally going to be about a beautiful novella by a writer I discovered only recently. That post is now scheduled for tomorrow, because of how the release of the United States Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA’s torture tactics under the Bush-Cheney Administration affected me. Let me put it this way.

I’ve taught classes where I’ve argued that torturing prisoners is the right thing to do.

Here are the circumstances. Ever since September 11, introductory ethics courses at McMaster’s Philosophy Department included a couple of articles discussing different perspectives on whether torture was morally right. Whenever the courses covered issues like this that were relevant to the political climate of the time, they usually included one particle taking a pro and one taking an anti stance.

It terrifies me that Dick Cheney has no guilt for anything
he's done.
The pro-torture article that was usually included in that section would straightforwardly examine the moral consequences of the ticking bomb scenario. Every instance of real-world torture of a terrorism suspect would be described as if it were on an episode of 24, where we know the torture victim is an actual terrorist, and the pain of torture is immediately effective in breaking his ability to hide information that he genuinely knows about an imminent and deadly threat to a large number of innocent people. 

I always used to lead my tutorial students through a strong critique of this entire scenario for being the ridiculously unrealistic hogwash that it is. But in the educational context I was working in, this argument was taken seriously. Course lectures and textbooks presented this argument fairly, on its own terms, according it the same respect as essays by Peter Singer, John Rawls, and Ronald Dworkin. Hell, the ticking bomb was the actual public justification that the executive branch of the United States government used to justify its torture policies.

Now, I read about CIA operatives waterboarding people nearly to the point of permanent brain damage, and that waterboarding was an everyday practice at Guantanamo and the Salt Pit prison complex in Afghanistan. Food slurry was forcibly inserted into prisoners’ digestive tracts through their rectums. People were suspended by their wrists for hours upon hours, and imprisoned in boxes barely bigger than a coffin for days without relief. CIA operatives said the purpose of these techniques were to attain “total control over the detainee.”

None of the information that the tortured prisoners divulged was usable at all. Most were outright lies that were screamed in the throes of horror simply so the pain would stop. Some prisoners who suffered just these hideous tortures were completely innocent people; they were simply casual acquaintances whose names previous prisoners threw out in the midst of state-sanctioned violation.

I feel genuinely regretful about having led tutorials and sat through lectures that took these arguments seriously. Even in the abstract, ticking bomb scenarios were serious means to excuse and endorse horrifyingly cruel and inhuman treatment of people who were at the mercy of a state army and clandestine warfare service. But in the interests of fair philosophical argumentation, we presented both sides of this debate as if they were ostensibly equal in rigour and standing. It was a convention of what is taken to be the disinterested standpoint of philosophy: examining arguments from an unbiased perspective and deciding between them based on their objective merits.

But it is itself monstrous, as an authority figure in an institution of higher learning, to refuse to take a firm stance on the issue of one’s government carrying out acts so heinous that the people who enact them cannot stop themselves from becoming monstrous. Treating torture as if it were any other matter of political or moral philosophy normalizes it, makes it appear to be one among a number of alternatives that we can calmly weigh in impartial contexts. 

Yet being human renders impartiality here utterly obscene. Insofar as I was part of an educational institution that made torture appear to be an entirely normal philosophical question weighed according to a simple for/anti balance, I played a part in normalizing a crime against humanity.

We owe it to ourselves and each other to act with more care.

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