Anatomy of a bad argument

Anyone who believes that laws are enacted only to deter crime has a tenuous grasp on reality.

In response to Darren Bernard’s Sept. 21 column titled “Terrorists’ rights – if there is such a thing.”

For Darren Bernard’s argument to be persuasive, it had two difficult problems to confront. It had to 1: Show that torture is reliable for extracting truthful information, and 2: Combat the ethical opposition. Unfortunately, Mr. Bernard fails on both accounts.

Devoting one full paragraph to the hotly debated topic of the efficacy of the practice itself, Bernard cites John Negroponte and Michael Hayden as voices implicitly for the use of torture in gathering intelligence. Obviously both Negroponte and Hayden have a vested interest in seeing that torture tactics are made legal: As Bernard himself mentions earlier, those pesky, idealistic Democrats might prosecute CIA officials guilty of using torture if they can take Congress or the White House. This does not, of course, wholly dismiss Negroponte and Hayden’s testimony, but it does give one reasonable cause to seek out further, (perhaps psychological or medical) testimony on the topic. When looked at more critically, there is obviously no consensus on the efficacy of torture; in fact a prevailing professional sentiment is that torture leads to one talking, but not likely talking truthfully.

Still, Bernard feels it enough, after inappropriately appealing to authority, to rely on anecdotal evidence for why torture works. Using the powerful qualifier “probably,” Bernard proceeds to imply that torture “broke Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and surely saved thousands of American lives.”

The problems of this one sentence could indeed warrant an entire page, but I will attempt to keep to only the most egregious errors. Bernard betrays the fact that he does not, in fact, know if Khalid was tortured, only that if he was, it “surely” saved people.

But that claim, freestanding, is quite problematic. Did his capture save people, or did testimony tortured out of him save people? Bernard makes no distinction or even a reason to believe one scenario over the other. He does not mention whether testimony from Khalid has been used, or if used, it has directly saved anyone.

Here is one final problem with that paragraph and relying on anecdotal evidence in general: It’s nearly inevitably a contradiction. Consider the case of Ibn al-Shaikh al-Libi. He was detained by the FBI, whereupon the CIA requested he was flown to Egypt and interrogated with torture techniques. The false information he gave was used by Colin Powell to lead up to the Iraq War: For some reason or another, while being water-boarded al-Libi told information that the interrogators wanted to hear rather than the truth. If Bernard is allowed to uncritically claim that the “probable” torture of Khalid “surely” saved thousands of lives, than I am equally able to say that the definite torture of al-Libi surely led to the loss of thousands of lives: 2,688 lives to be exact.

So, decisively, Mr. Bernard does not make a good case for the efficacy of torture, but how does he fare on the ethical question? If possible, even worse: While Bernard heroically bested a straw man, in so doing he managed to defeat himself.

Anyone who believes that laws are enacted only to deter crime has a tenuous grasp on reality. Laws are not made only so that people will think twice about committing a crime: They are made largely so that when someone inevitably does commit a crime they can be held accountable. Stephen Colbert once quipped “laws have never stopped crime from happening, so why don’t we just get rid of laws?”

Bernard seems to subscribe to this same vein of reasoning, albeit without the sarcasm. Allow me to clarify for Mr. Bernard: The opposing argument is not to ban torture as a deterrent; it is to ban torture because it is ethically objectionable. But perhaps Bernard believes torture is wrong only against humans, not the (metaphorical) “monsters” we are at war with.

Even granting Bernard the (important) premise that these people have forfeited all human rights, it does not follow that torture might still be ethically used on them. Consider this to be a universal moral premise: It is always wrong to inflict pain purely out of malice. In this respect, even the scariest “monsters” cannot be tortured without the torturers acting unethically.

This premise could be bypassed if, in fact, torture was proven to yield honest information (as then the torture would not be for malice’s sake) but as I’ve hopefully previously argued there is little reason to believe that torture works in such a way.

Sadly, those with the belief that they are torturing for good reasons have their ignorance to foil their conscience; the rest of us hopefully know better.

Caleb Smith is a University student. Please send comments to letters