Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate

I think the main cause for concern in ZD30’s portrayal of torture is that it is seen to elicit reliable information, whether ‘in the moment’ or as resulting from its lingering threat in future interrogations. Even if in this particular story that information didn’t lead to the Big Bad, the simple fact that the information was successfully educed in this way in the story is bad.

Most people, except those on the real fringe, don’t believe that anyone deserves to be tortured, nor that torturing is anything less than a severe violation of human rights. However, I’ve also found that many people – myself included – are swayed by the hypothetical ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario. Hypothetically, we would see the harm of torture, though great, as justifiable if it prevented the otherwise imminent deaths of some sufficiently large group of people. And some of the ‘ticking time bomb’ parameters do show up from time to time in reality.

So the fact that the scenario, as a whole, is a red herring – the fact that torture is basically never more reliable than alternative methods in the best of cases and probably not reliable in general – is one of the most morally salient pieces of information in this debate. The fact that there is no utilitarian negotiation, that we are never actually balancing harms but simply choosing to amplify them, is the knockdown argument that makes torture illegitimate to people like me who believe that security issues demand a prudential logic.

ZD30, by clouding the relatively solid – to my knowledge – expert consensus that torture doesn’t work, probably should be criticised as naive and irresponsible given its possible influence upon the larger public discussion of torture. Target of hate and source of outrage? Maybe not. But I think it’s a bit less ambiguous than many seem to think


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