Thursday, January 31, 2013

Richard Cohen's Squishy Moral Relativism

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

- Benjamin Franklin
"I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture."

- Richard Cohen
Alas, poor Richard Cohen, having spent many years thinking (to the best of his ability) about torture, and writing columns about torture, he just can't figure out where he stands:
As with the famous ink blots developed by Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach, some people look at the film and conclude that torture works, others conclude that it doesn’t, still others think the movie advocates torture, while some — and now we have gotten to me — don’t know what to think. I am implacably opposed to torture... unless it can save lives.
I oppose taxes, unless they're necessary to fund the government. I oppose vaccinations, unless they're necessary to prevent disease. Can you get more squishy?

Cohen is grateful that the film, Zero Dark Thirty, has started a debate over torture. This isn't like during the Bush Administration, when people were debating the definitions and use of torture in response to the actions of our own government. Our government has, after all, determined that torture is not a sufficiently effective tool for gathering actionable intelligence, and thus has abandoned the use of torture in favor of what it has determined to be better methods of intelligence gathering. No, that silly old debate didn't resolve anything, but now there's a movie!

Cohen speaks of "three senators [with] access to highly classified information... [who as] a group [] are a somber lot" taking the position that torture does not work. He elaborates,
Still, others have taken the same position. Journalists with no access to classified information but with access to people who possess that information insist that (1) torture doesn’t work and (2) it did not lead to the killing of bin Laden. Okay, point taken.
Apparently, to Richard Cohen, there is no difference between asserting, "point taken" versus "point not taken", because to him the important question is no longer whether torture "works", but whether torture is "moral". The concept of the lesser of two evils? Apparently that's not a concept that Cohen has ever encountered.
Is it immoral to waterboard someone who knows of an imminent Sept. 11-type attack? Wouldn’t it instead be immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives? Torture in that case might be hideous, repugnant and in some rarefied way still immoral, but I could certainly justify it.
In other words, who cares about the "real world" - Cohen has seen movies and TV shows in which bad guys are tortured into confessing their secrets seconds before nuclear bombs explode, with the good guys defusing the bomb just before the countdown timer reaches "zero", and if good guys do it on TV it can't be immoral!
The phrase "it depends" has been chased from our political life — a sign of feared wishy-washiness, which is, crucially, bad for TV ratings.
And yet it's TV shows and action movies, built to get those ratings, structured around simplistic plot lines and countdown timers, that inform Cohen's views. Does it matter that he can't find anybody "in the know" to tell him that torture "works"? Not in the slightest. He just wants somebody to admit that if we assume that torture can work in a fanciful, action movie scenario, there's moral ambiguity when the hero uses torture to elicit crucial information from a cartoon villain.

Cohen wants to engage in a dangerous form of moral relativism, the type that naturally extends to "If they do it, it's wrong, but if we do exectly the same thing it's an act of good because our motives are pure." He doesn't understand the difference between when something is morally justifiable and when it is moral. "If it saves a lot of lives" isn't sufficient - resorting to what appears to be Cohen's greatest source of moral influence, the motion picture, let's borrow from Batman and imagine The Joker is threatening to blow up Manhattan unless somebody shoots Richard Cohen in the head. Would it become moral to shoot Richard Cohen in the head? ("Ah, but I'm an innocent," Richard Cohen might protest, which under his theory of morality is beside the point. If it's "in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives" then it's "immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives", right?)

Cohen is also concerned that if the government bans torture, then people detained by the government won't be afraid of being tortured:
But it would be all right with me if the government were silent on torture so that no detainee could be confident of civilized treatment or if, in a crisis, an understandable looking away was permitted. Life ain’t neat.
I'm not sure where he thinks he's going with this. (Actually, I am, but only because I've read beyond this column.) Cohen imagines a nation in which torture is legal, and can be used on any detainee, but in which it is not actually used? Because then detainees will believe that it might be used and will volunteer information rather than risking being legally tortured?

Really, what Cohen is doing is alluding back to an argument he's made in the past, based upon his misunderstanding of the detention and torture of a single individual:
I refer you to the 1995 interrogation by Philippine authorities of Abdul Hakim Murad, an al-Qaeda terrorist who served up extremely useful information about a plot to blow up airliners when he was told that he was about to be turned over to Israel's Mossad.
As Cohen is no longer referring us to Murad, it seems reasonable to infer that somebody has clued him into the fact that the plot was revealed not through the use of torture, but because Murad's computer was overflowing with files detailing every element of the plot. And they may also have clued him into the fact that Murad was subsequently tortured, and that the torture produced no useful information while sending authorities on myriad wild goose chases. What do you do if the one anecdote you use to support your argument turns out not to support your argument? If you're Richard Cohen, it would appear that you continue to make the same argument but stop mentioning the anecdote. Cohen concludes his column by telling us that, thanks to the release of an action movie, "We are getting a robust debate over torture that we should have had years ago". Which is false. We had the same debate years ago and, but for a few details, he wrote the same column years ago. Several times. He also writes, "we are finding out a bit more about it — whether it works and whether it can ever be justified." Those are questions Cohen also asked and answered years ago. For example, on April 28, 2009,
Yet the debate over torture has been infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not. Of course it works -- sometimes or rarely, but if a proverbial bomb is ticking, that may just be the one time it works.
And on May 12, 2009:
I know how upsetting this will be to some Cheney critics, and I count myself as one, who think -- in respectful paraphrase of what Mary McCarthy said about Lillian Hellman -- that everything he says is a lie, including the ands and the thes. Yet I have to wonder whether what he is saying now is the truth -- i.e., torture works.
By September 1, 2009, it was all squish:
The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions -- torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives.
So even back in 2009 Cohen was lecturing us that we should never speak in absolutes, whatever the facts may be. Except back then it was "extreme and illogical" to argue that "torture is moral if it saves lives" whereas now that's his central thesis.

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