Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Sam Harris: the truth about Muslims and torture

Sam Harris was recently interviewed about some of his views. I’m going to take a moment to share my thoughts on some of them.

On the existence and nature of Muslims moderates:

Who knows what Muslims don’t really read the Quran with any attention, don’t think about whether apostates should be killed (if you ask them they say “no of course not that’d be horrible”), and yet one important distinction now is that [there is] no viable school of Islam that is analogous to and is [as] benign as reformed Judaism, say. The penalty for apostasy is death, and the best you can get is to find people who don’t care to enforce it, or think that its enforcement must come after some laborious process that no-one is willing to engage. But you can’t find a school of Islam – I hope I’m wrong about this, but as far as I can tell this is true – you can’t find a school of Islam that, based on its theology, [believes that] there should be no penalty for apostasy

I can think of a number of examples of Muslims who piously and honestly interpret the Qur’an and hadith as supporting liberal values, such as certain Iranian reformists, those in the Wasatiyya movement, not to mention Muslims from Imaan or al-Faitha. The relationship between scripture and belief is rarely simple, and suggesting that these Muslims simply haven’t read the Qur’an with any attention is ignorant. A quick google search finds a wiki page, another wiki page, an essay, and a few books. I’ve written a couple papers on this subject, and I’d be willing to provide more extensive bibliographies if requested. I’m not suggesting that these liberal trends are prevalent – yet – but they do exist.

On torture:

If you get someone who you know is a member of al-Qaeda, and you know they have nuclear materials, and and they claim to have knowledge, then you have the perfect ticking time bomb situation..I think people undersell how often situations are analogous to that… The idea there that you have a moral duty to keep this person perfectly comfortable with three meals a day and adequate sleep etc …if you can’t imagine any situation in which depriving someone of sleep, playing loud music, water-boarding them – doing something which leaves no lasting physical damage other than making them exquisitely uncomfortable for the moment so that they talk – if you can’t imagine a situation in which you’d be willing to do that or sanction that, then you’re just not thinking hard enough.

While I can think of situations where I’d sanction the use of torture, I have no illusions about it. I am not merely abrogating my responsibility to ensure that prisoners are given adequate food and rest, by waterboarding them. I’m not doing something that’s relatively better than other forms of torture because it leaves less ‘lasting physical damage’ but merely makes them ‘uncomfortable.’ I’m violating those rights to which any person must be entitled in a liberal society, and in doing so I am taking a grim  step towards tyranny. And while I am aware of a few situations in the Israeli context where this ‘ticking bomb’ scenario was real, to my knowledge it hasn’t happened in the US yet. Maybe Sam Harris knows something about this that I don’t? An excellent book on the subject of counterterrorism torture by Yuval Ginbar shows how unlikely torture is to be an effective intelligence gathering technique compared to alternatives, outside of highly illiberal regimes, and how the ‘ticking bomb’ spectre has been used unreasonably to justify torture under both US and Israeli law.

Ah but there’s more:

One thing I link to from that torture discussion on my website is when we killed I think it was Zarqawi with a missile strike, we killed something like 12 other people at the same moment – and it was just reported on as a success. The other people weren’t even an afterthought, really. We killed his mother-in-law, and whoever else was standing next to him. But if we had tortured his mother-in-law – water-boarded his mother-in-law to find his whereabouts, which is much less extreme than blowing her to bits … Christopher Hitchens volunteered to get water-boarded: it’s something you can do and survive and not be destroyed by.

Besides his continued apologies for waterboarding as a torture technique by suggesting that it is ‘survivable’ (incidentally it was used generously by the Spanish Inquisition, the French in Algeria, and the Khmer Rouge), Harris seems to suggesting that it is moral hypocrisy to view this death of of Zarqawi’s mother-in-law as worse than her hypothetical torture.

Call me hypocritical.

Zarqawi was a military target of high value, a dangerous and violent man, and assassinating him was a powerful blow against his ‘al-Qa’ida in Iraq’ organisation. I don’t know about his mother-in-law, but he was killed alongside his wife and child. But this is one of the realities of war today: great difficulties in isolating combatants from non-combatants. The best a military can do is try to operate as much as possible under the principles of military necessity, target discrimination, and proportionality. Those principles could justify an assassination that causes bystanders to die, whether or not you think it did in this case. Torturing someone’s mother-in-law for information on his whereabouts is not likely to be a necessary measure (torture doesn’t work better than it’s alternatives in almost any conceivable situation),  and is injures her not as a bystander or as ‘collateral damage’ but as the specific intent of a certain use of force, upon which the achievement of military goals is contingent. This is a more egregious violation of the norms of warfare as they are today, under most interpretations. Yes, these are conventions which could be subject to abrogation under utilitarian calculations, but maintaining them is, I’d say, pretty important in the long-term.

I’ll finish there, as I don’t want focus too much on one person, and I’ve already discussed Sam Harris and his moral philosophy in greater detail.


One response to “Sam Harris: the truth about Muslims and torture

  1. Pingback: Islam: no more essentially ‘fundamentalist’ than any other religion « Said Simon

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