Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Torture and Ticking Time-Bombs

I just finished reading this book.  It is very well researched and well argued.  Allhoff, a utilitarian, argues that torture is morally permissible in extreme circumstances where there is good reason to believe that a terrorist has information which might be valuable in preventing a catastrophe.  He defines torture--helpfully contrasting it with terrorism, canvasses the various arguments for and against torture, spends a reasonable amount of time discussing U.S. legal policies on torture vis-a-vis international law (the Geneva Convention, etc.), discusses practical implementation and public policy issues, and also provides some real life examples of when torture led to information preventing a huge catastrophe.  Not being a utilitarian, I found the weakest part of the book to be his criticisms of in-principle, absolutist objections to torture.  But he does challenge the reader to offer an argument explaining why torture is in-principle never permissible, and I found the in-principle arguments he covers to be far from compelling.

Allhoff also discusses torture in kidnapping situations.  In chapter seven he leaves the reader with the following story:
Height of the [Australian] summer, Mercury at the century-mark; the noonday sun softened the [asphalt] beneath the [tires] of her little Hyundai sedan to the consistency of putty.  Her three year old son, quiet at last, snuffled in his sleep on the back seat.  He had a summer cold and wailed like a banshee in the supermarket, forcing her to cut short her shopping.  Her car needed [gas].  Her tot was asleep on the back seat.  She poured twenty [liters] into the tank; thumbing notes from her purse, harried and distracted, her keys dangled from the ignition.
[While] she was in the service station a man drove off in her car.  Police wound back the [service station's close-captioned television], saw a heavy set Pacific Islander with a blonde-streaked Afro entering her car.  "Don't panic," a Constable advised the mother, "as soon as he sees your little boy in the back he will abandon the car."  He did; police arrived at the railway station before the car thief did and arrested him after a struggle when he vaulted over the station barrier.
In the [patrol car] on the way to the police station: "Where did you leave the [car]?" Denial instead of dissimulation: "It wasn't me."  It was [him]--property stolen from the car was found in his pockets.  In the detectives' office: "[It's] been twenty minutes since you took the car--little tin box like that car--It will heat up like an oven under this sun.  Another twenty minutes and the child's dead or brain damaged.  Where did you dump the car?"  Again: "It wasn't me."
Appeal to decency, to reason, to self-interest: "It's not too late; tell us where you left the car and you will only be charged with Take-and-Use.  That's just a six month extension of your recognizance." Threats: "If the child dies I will charge you with Manslaughter!"  Sneering, defiant and belligerent; he made no secret of his contempt for the police.  Part-way through his umpteenth, "It wasn't me," a questioner clipped him across the ear as if he were a child, an insult calculated to bring the Islander to his feet to fight, there a body-punch elicited a roar of pain, but he fought back until he lapsed into semi-consciousness under a rain of blows.  He [had gotten into fights from time to time], but now, kneeling on hands and knees in his own urine, in pain he had never known, he finally [realized] the beating would go on until he told the police where he had abandoned the child and the car.
...When found, the stolen child was dehydrated, too weak to cry; there were ice packs and dehydration [remedies] in the casualty ward but no long-time prognosis on brain damage.

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