Can torture be justified? I say yes, because where torture has a reasonable chance of saving innocent lives, it is a proper course of action.

I begin by stipulating that certain practices constitute torture by almost everyone’s standards. Given that there is such a thing as torture, is it ever justified? Let us consider the  objections to torture, which are several:

1. It doesn’t work.

2. Even if it works (in rare circumstances), it is counterproductive because it creates enemies.

3. Torture is wrong — period. Therefore, it does not matter what good ends may be served by torture (e.g., gaining information to prevent terrorist attacks).

4. “We” (i.e., the American government, acting on behalf of Americans) must not sink to the level of those we would torture. Despite all threats and provocations, “we” must stand up for our ideals, which include respect for human life.

5. The practice of torture may be hard to contain, like a contagious disease or a slide down the slippery slope: enemies today, Americans tomorrow.

Here are my responses to the objections:

1. Torture doesn’t work. Never say never, as the saying goes. Of course torture works, sometimes. If you count waterboarding as torture, as do the opponents of torture, there is a strong case that torture prevented post-9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Those who say that torture doesn’t work really mean something else, for example: it may not work in all cases, it will not work if not done skilfully, or there may be ways — short of torture — to achieve the same result. All such objections may be correct, but their possible correctness does not rule out torture on practical grounds.

2. Torture creates enemies. This may be true, but what is another enemy if his enmity is impotent — as is the enmity of most of the anti-American world. (It should not be forgotten that the most potent enemies of liberty are Americans, who — with increasing success — seek to dictate the terms and conditions of our daily lives.) We are not engaged in a popularity contest; we are engaged in a death struggle against predators. The real issue here is whether anti-American sentiment translates into reliable threats of action against Americans and their interests (as opposed to demonstrations), and — even if it does, to some degree — whether the threat is to be feared more than more imminent threats (e.g., terrorist attacks). Further, there is a strong case that signs of weakness (i.e., inaction, negotiation, the pursuit of “justice” rather than vengeance) do more to encourage our enemies than do signs of strength (of which a demonstrated willingness to torture surely is one). There is evidence, for example, that Osama bin Laden was emboldened to attack the U.S. on 9/11 because of the weakness of American responses to earlier attacks. In general, the historical record — notably in the history of the Third Reich and Soviet Russia — points to the folly of accommodation and appeasement.

3. Torture is wrong — period. How can torture be wrong — period — if it can be used to prevent harm to innocents? To assert that torture is always wrong is the same thing as asserting the wrongness of self-defense. It replaces a noble goal — protection of innocent persons from harm — with an ignoble goal — protection of miscreants from harm. If torture is always wrong, then attacks on innocents which could be prevented by torture are always right. That is the logical implication of an absolute injunction against torture. The proponents of an absolute injunction (e.g., this one) usually start from the premise that it is wrong to take human life. But I wonder how many of them would persist in that premise were they in a life-or-death struggle with an armed intruder. Would success in such a struggle mean that a proponent of the “life is precious” view had somehow “sunk” to the intruder’s level of moral depravity? Let us see.

4. “We” must not sink to the level of those “we” would torture. Even the most obdurate opponents of torture (excepting rigid pacifists) would agree that self-defense is a fundamental right. To oppose torture is, therefore, to oppose self-defense. Self-defense is not a matter of “sinking” to the level of those who would kill us; it is a matter of acting rightly against predators. Did we “sink” to the level of Japan and Germany when we warred against them? We did not; to the contrary, we rose to the occasion of defending humanity against brutality. Thus it is (or can be) with torture, in the right circumstances.

5. There is a slippery slope from torturing enemies to torturing Americans. This may be the most telling objection to torture. But, like the other objections, it fails to entertain the alternative: harm to Americans and their interests. It is the prevention of harm, after all, which justifies government. The question of “harm to whom?” was confronted in the creation of American armed forces and police forces. Both can be used (and in the case of police forces, sometimes are used) against innocent Americans. But Americans, by and large, are willing (often eager) for the protections afforded by organized defenses against foreign and domestic predators. It has long been understood that the defenders must be controlled to ensure that they they do run amok, but it also has long been understood that the risk of their running amok is worth the payoff, namely, protection from predators. The point is that adequate control of the timing and methods of torture can ensure against a slide down the slippery slope.

In sum, torture is moral — and therefore justified — when it becomes necessary for the purpose of eliciting information that could save innocent lives and the lives of those whose job it is to defend innocent lives. I do not mean that torture must be used, but that it may be used. I do not mean that torture will not have repulsive consequences for its targets, but that the thought of those consequences should not cause the American government to renounce torture as an option.

Related reading:

An example of the payoff: “Cracking KSM” (here and here, too)

The “torture memos” and why they shouldn’t have been released

The politicization of the “torture issue” (AG Holder cannot conduct an investigation on his own authority, despite disingenous claims to the contrary)

The always insightful Megan McArdle: here, here, and here

The brilliantly incisive Thomas Sowell: here and here

Other commentary: here, here, here, here, here, and here

My earlier (and unchanged) views: here, here, here, here, and here