U.S. Torture Policy Part of Larger Moral Erosion

In a world where a hundred thousand lives can be swept away in a tsunami, do I lack a sense of proportion when I blog about a small pack of tortured detainees? Why am I so concerned about American abuses when the world is full of torturing despots and even Nature is cruel?

I mentioned my disillusionment about the failure of the American public to oppose the policy of the U.S. government and its military and intelligence operations of torturing some of the people they have captured.

It is more than national pride that makes me especially frantic over America’s moral retreat about torture — and about other things, such as putting people in concentration camps because of their race or national origin (I half expect to wake up some morning to find the talk shows debating whether the United States was justified in enslaving Africans or denying women the right to vote).

The U.S. possesses a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons, each one of which can inflict a disaster every bit as cruel and awful as ’s tsunami. There are enough nuclear weapons in the world that we could, if we chose, unleash an equivalent nuclear tsunami every day for the next fifty years.

All the world’s nations and scientists and engineers can’t pin down the earth’s crust, but it is only human judgment and willpower that prevents nuclear holocausts.

What prevented the U.S. from nuking Hanoi or Moscow or Baghdad or Havana? What prevents India from dropping the big one on Pakistan, or Israel from taking out Tehran? A number of things, most of them coldly strategic perhaps, but among these are the opinion of the civilized world and of the citizens of the nuclear powers. To the extent that there is an international consensus and a national consensus within the nuclear powers that nuclear weapons should not be used or that their use should be strictly limited, we are less likely to experience such a preventable disaster. To the extent that any of these opinions is discredited or eroded, disaster becomes more likely.

I don’t know if I have the data to defend this, but it seems to me that moral retreats, like the post- U.S. retreat on torture, are related to each other. Retreating in one area makes other retreats easier. I’ve heard people p’shaw the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody by saying that those prisoners were a lot more fortunate than people outside the prison that Americans had bombed or shot, and I remember how the Abu Ghraib photos were dismissed by some as being nothing worse than what happens in American prisons or fraternity hazings. Certainly each abuse at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo made the next one easier to commit. All sorts of awful things have been justified simply by saying that this is a “post-9/11 world” in which one act of terrorism excuses another act of thoughtless barbarism which then makes anything standing in the way of the next atrocity seem “obsolete and quaint” as a result.

I’ve heard people p’shaw Hiroshima by pointing to the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. I can imagine the nuking of Falluja being explained away as being no worse than the recent conventional weapons assault on the city. And why shouldn’t we enslave the people we conquer? After all, a slave ought to be thankful he isn’t a torture victim or a napalmed civilian!

Moral retreats seem to happen along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is something like cannibalism — there is a near-universal consensus that people should not be slaughtered to be eaten, and people practice what they preach with almost no exceptions. Next to this on the continuum is something like slavery, for which there is a similar near-universal consensus but which exists in some places or in some watered-down forms that probably ought to trigger the same ethical revulsion but do not. Next comes something like torture or the bombardment of innocent civilians, which public opinion and government statements mostly condemn in the abstract but permit in reality. After this comes the abandonment of hypocrisy and the matter-of-fact adoption of something brutal and immoral, for instance the U.S. holding the threat to obliterate entire cities with nuclear weapons as part of its explicit offensive military posture.

Each stage of this retreat along the continuum represents territory that will take hard effort to reclaim. If slavery is overlooked, it becomes more likely to be hypocritically practiced, and then more likely to be brazenly adopted. To make a nuclear first strike policy unthinkable, you must first make it dishonestly and hypocritically denied, then almost unheard of, and only then will it be possible it make it nearly inconceivable.

After , the American public debate on torture started — which is to say that torture went from being undebatably, obviously wrong except in certain artificial philosophical thought experiments to being something that might possibly be appropriate in titillating real-world hypothetical scenarios of vicarious sadism. From there it was a short step for the Dubya Squad to condemn torture in public and authorize it in private.

From here it can go in two directions — either the Dubya Squad will become more brazen about torture as the public adopts a “what’s the big deal” attitude and the nominal opposition decides it’s not an issue that polls well (and torture will become more widespread, and other atrocities will find their slippery slopes greased), or the Dubya Squad will be forced to tighten up its secrecy and hypocrisy in the face of public revulsion and opposition protest (and torture will become less common, and those who are tempted to push the bounds of wrongdoing in other areas may be more hesitant).

The “slippery slope” fallacy is a fallacy because rhetorical or analogous momentum does not by itself provide an argument for real-world momentum. It can nonetheless be a persuasive argument because sometimes that real-world momentum does exist. Ordinary, well-educated people, without malice, sent children to be starved, gassed, and cremated because given the momentum of the time, such things seemed appropriate to people who had replaced their moral compasses with weathervanes.