The Blog

Why I’d Rather Not Speak About Torture

(Photo by DOH4) (Photo by DOH4)

I have long maintained a page on my website where I address various distortions, misunderstandings, and criticisms of my work. I take it to be either a sign of carelessness or masochism on my part that this page is the #1 Google search result for the phrase “response to controversy.”  Surely, I need not have courted quite so much controversy. But there it is.

While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: it is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances.  This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war.  I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.

However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people.  To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have an interest in keeping them illegal).

I sincerely regret making this argument. Rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case, and my published views have been the gift to my critics and detractors that just keeps on giving: It seems that every few weeks, someone discovers the relevant pages in The End of Faith, or notices what others have said about them, and publicly attacks me for being “pro-torture.” Journalists regularly steer interviews on any subject in this direction—not so that they can understand my position, or coherently argue against it, but so that readers can be shocked by whatever misleading gloss appears in their final copy. The spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up.

And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.

 

Have We Lost the War in Afghanistan?

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The prognosis on the war in Afghanistan seems increasingly dismal. In his review of Bing West’s new book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, (which I have not yet read), Dexter Filkins discusses the challenges posed by Afghan culture and religion:

Time after time, West shows the theory of counterinsurgency scraping up against the hard and jagged ground of the real Afghanistan. In one instance, he examines the work of a group of American soldiers and civilians, known as a provincial reconstruction team, whose job was to provide development assistance to Afghan locals in Asadabad (A-Bad to the Americans) in eastern Afghanistan. It was overseen by a battalion known as the 1-32 and commanded by a lieutenant colonel named Mark O’Donnell. In June 2009, after the reconstruction team had been working there for three years, an American supply truck blew a tire on the main road. A crowd of Afghans gathered, and then suddenly a grenade exploded, killing and maiming several Afghans. A riot ensued. “Kill the Americans!” the Afghans shouted. “Protect Islam!” Only later did a videotape of the incident show clearly that an Afghan had tossed the grenade.

About this, West writes:

“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”

Is Afghanistan a lost cause?

 

In Defense of Torture

NOTE: Please see my most recent thoughts on this and other controversial subjects here: Response to Controversy.—SH

Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.

While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.

 

Bombing Our Illusions II

In my last post, I argued that there is a direct link between Islam and suicide bombing.  Many readers of this blog considered this post to be offensive, tendentious, and even irresponsible.  An addendum seems to be in order.  Criticism of my argument fell into a few broad categories:

1. Sam, you don’t know a damn thing about Islam, the Koran, or Muslim history.  Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists.

This objection is generally put forward by people who have not read the Koran or the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some readers also pointed out that the bible contains some very scary passages.  This is true, and I discuss the consequences of biblical literalism in my other writing.  But the bible is a vast, self-contradictory book.  It is very easy to just read the “good parts” and ignore all the barbarism found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, etc. The fundamental message of the Koran is impossible to ignore and far easier to summarize. And there is no Sermon on the Mount in there to break the spell.  Yes, there is a single line that can be read as a prohibition against suicide (4:29 – “Do not destroy yourselves.”), but this line can also be read as an admonishment to Muslims to refrain from killing other Muslims.  In any case, we are talking about one line set in a wilderness of other passages that clearly admonish the faithful to despise unbelievers. On virtually every page of the Koran we are informed that Allah is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “scourging,” “not forgiving,” “not reprieving,” the infidels.  Had Allah wanted to guide the infidels to the true path, he would have.  So he has cursed them with their doubts.  He allows them to prosper in this world only so that they may have a greater opportunity to heap sin upon sin and more richly deserve the eternal punishment of the fire whose “fuel is men and stones.”  As a basis for religious tolerance in a pluralistic world, the Koran is one of the least promising documents ever written—despite the few lines that, read in isolation, seem to counsel patience, charity, tolerance, etc.  And the hadith is even worse.

 

Bombing Our Illusions

Open the newspaper today—or tomorrow, or almost any day for many years to come—and you will discover that some pious Muslim has deliberately blown himself to bits for the purpose of killing “infidels” or “apostates.” It is likely that the bomber was male, middle class, and comparatively well educated.  It is especially likely that he was guided by the sincere expectation of spending eternity in Paradise.  In fact, suicide bombing is now so commonplace in our world that most of us have lost sight of just how unimaginable it should be.  It is, perhaps, the least likely thing human beings could ever be inclined to do.  What, after all, is less likely than large numbers of middle class, educated, psychologically healthy people intentionally blowing themselves up—in crowds of children, in front of the offices of the Red Cross, at weddings—and having their mothers sing their praises for it? Can we even conceive of a more profligate misuse of human life?  As a cultural phenomenon, suicide bombing should be impossible. But here it is.

 

Holy Terror

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It appears that President Bush and the Republicans in the Senate have failed (for the moment) to bring the U.S. Constitution into greater conformity with Leviticus and the writings of St. Paul—which are, respectively, the sections of the Old and New Testaments that justify Christian concerns about gay marriage.  Reading these documents, one discovers that the Creator of the universe does not approve of homosexuality.  In fact, his instructions on the subject go far beyond a mere prohibition of gay marriage.  According to God, homosexuals must be put to death.  God himself says so in Leviticus (20:13), and St. Paul says it in Romans (1: 24-32).  God also instructs us to murder people who work on the Sabbath, along with adulterers and children who curse their parents.  Congress might also want to reconsider the 13th Amendment, because the biblical God clearly expects us to keep slaves.  He merely admonishes us not to beat them too severely (Exodus 21).  God’s wisdom on this subject can be distilled to a single precept: don’t injure their eyes or their teeth, because then you have to set them free.

 
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