At NRO, Jonah Goldber has jumped into the debate , raising some interesting questions that are worthy of consideration. Jonah’s argument takes two parts that I believe can be responded to separately. In the first section, he concedes that the issue is partially a battle over definitions:

Torture is a taboo word, and for good reason. Like incest, bigotry or, in some circles, censorship, the word torture separates good from evil, right from wrong. Once we decide something is torture, we end the debate over what the right policy should be. The right policy is to never torture.

That’s one reason why supporters of waterboarding reject the term torture, preferring “enhanced interrogation methods” or some such; because conceding that it’s torture is like surrendering. It’s also why opponents of waterboarding are so intent to win the argument that it is torture. I don’t doubt they believe it, but they also recognize that the taboo value of the term is their strongest weapon against the practice. They certainly aren’t going to win much ground trying to muster sympathy for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

And so the discussion descends into a battle of semantics, dictionary entries and checklists. Joe Carter lists a bunch of definitions and if he persuades the reader that waterboarding fits the definitions, bada bing: he wins.


Jonah is certainly right that supporters of waterboarding reject the term torture because it undercuts their position. Waterboarding has historically been considered torture, and the opponents are merely trying to prevent the redefinition of the act into something less odious. But I don’t think opponents of waterboarding are trying to win the argument solely on semantic grounds. We are merely pointing out that words have meaning and refusing to concede that new definitions should apply because we are living in a more liberal age.

This attempt to move the definitional boundaries is akin to Whoopi Goldberg’s claim that Roman Polanski’s actions weren’t “ rape-rape ” since she is more comfortable with sex with children than is the majority of the population.

As Whoopi Goldberg has shown, many progressives are comfortable expanding the linguistic boundaries of sexual behavior to defend actions that were once considered taboo. Similarly, many conservatives, such as Mr. Thiessen, are progressives are comfortable expanding the linguistic boundaries of violence in order to defend actions that were once considered torture. On the left we have “rape-rape”; on the right we have “torture-torture.”

Jonah’s second point focuses on the justification of certain actions under emergency situations:

My problem with this taxonomical approach, as I’ve written before, is I think context and intentions matter. The Catholic Church — as Carter and Marc both know far, far better than I — has a theory of just war. That means war is sometimes justified, right? It also means it is sometimes evil and criminal. The question depends on the circumstances. Similarly, killing is sometimes murder and sometimes it is self-defense or (for some) lawful and justified execution.

No one has ever explained to my satisfaction why torture, or let’s say some kinds of torture, is objectively and in all ways worse than killing. Which would you rather happen to you? Would you rather be waterboarded or killed? Which would get you a stiffer criminal penalty, waterboarding someone or murdering them? Why do you think that is? Which do you think deserves the greater criminal penalty?


Before we provide an answer to Jonah’s question, let’s clear away some of the semantic problems. He first asks, “Would you rather be waterboarded or killed?” but then follows with, “Which would get you a stiffer criminal penalty, waterboarding someone or murdering them?”

Obviously, most of us would rather be waterboarded than murdered and even opponents of torture would admit that he criminal penalty for the latter should be stiffer. But by his own admission, Jonah recognizes that killing is sometimes murder and lawful execution.

One of the relevant distinctions for making such a judgment is whether a person is a combatant or a noncombatant. While it may be justified to kill an enemy engaged in direct, armed conflict it would be murder to kill them after they surrendered or were captured since a prisoner-of-war is an enemy noncombatant.

Advocates of torture sometimes argue that the since enemy noncombatants may have actionable knowledge that makes them a threat, that they should be treated as combatants. But by this logic, we should also be able to shoot them in the head or throw a live grenade into their cell. Do they think that since they’ve defined an unarmed prisoner as a combantat that it is acceptable to kill them?
Jonah continues:

It seems, going by Marc’s response, that CIA waterboarding is not quite the same as what they did during the Spanish inquisition. That’s good to know. But even if the two were more similar, Carter leaves out a hugely important difference. Waterboarding someone for punishment or to force them to renounce their faith and convert to Christianity is morally a very different thing than waterboarding someone to find out how to stop the next 9/11. It may be that the latter waterboarding is still wrong - that’s a real debate - but it surely must be less wrong than waterboarding for sport. A kid who kills dogs and cats for fun is a sadistic bastard. A vet who euthanizes dogs and cats when it’s necessary to ease their pain is something very different.

As I’ve shown in the two previous posts on the subject, waterboarding is essentially the same as the method used in the Spanish inquisition. There really is no difference between one form of suffocation by water and another. The question, though, is whether the motives behind the act significantly change the moral equation.

The problem with judging based on motives is that it requires a subjective values clarification. Jonah thinks that waterboarding to force a confession of heresy is morally different from waterboarding to force a confession of intent to commit terrorism. But would a Spanish Inquisitor think the same? Perhaps they would argue that the soul of a single individual is of more worth than the lives of thousands of citizens. They also might contend that the spread of heresy may be more damaging to a nation than any act of terrorism.

Naturally, I would disagree with the Inquisitor. But who’s to say who is right? Why would a modern American’s justification of torture be any more morally worthy than that of a medieval Spaniard?

(I’ll concede that the motives of those who engaged in waterboarding terrorists is likely to be unimpeachable. Though some of the interrogators now have qualms about their actions, I have no doubt that at the time they believed they were doing the right thing.)

The crux of Jonah’s argument, however, seems to be that ticking bombs scenarios may force us to discard our idealistic morality for wartime Machiavellianism:

Opponents of torture/waterboarding hate these ticking time bomb scenarios not simply because they have no good response to them other than to wish them away as scare tactics and red herring fantasies. I suspect what they really don’t like about the ticking bomb scenario is that it undermines torture’s status as a taboo word.

I’m not sure Jonah really believes this (at least I hope he doesn’t). I suspect there are certain acts of torture that Jonah would not resort to even in a ticking bomb scenario. Like most civilized people, he would draw a line of behavior in which he would not cross. The same goes for Thiessen. As Ramesh Ponurru said, “Marc [Thiessen] presumably draws a line of his own somewhere. There is some rule he wouldn’t break though the heavens fall.” Thiessen agreed .

The problem with this approach, as John da Fiesole points out , is that the lines are arbitrary:

What will happen, though, if people who follow Thiessen’s own “though the heavens fall” rules are in charge of interrogation decisions when innocent lives will be lost if the rules aren’t broken? Innocent lives will be lost.

Are we then to keep swapping out increasingly lax decision-makers as the circumstances become more dire?

If Thiessen wants to argue that his own rules are better than the rules of others, he can, but the inductive claim he offers in these posts is also an argument that his own rules are worse than are less rigorous rules.


Would Jonah’s criticism hold up if it was his standard that would “undermines torture’s status as a taboo word?” What if rape were determined to be an effective means of interrogation? Would allowing that technique undermine the taboo?

Sadly, there are many Americans who don’t share the moral sensibilities of Goldberg and Thiessen. They would have no qualms about using any inhumane methods—rape, dismemberment, murder—since almost anything can be justified under a ticking bomb scenario. By redefining torture to mean whatever we are currently comfortable with doing, we are sliding down a slippery-slope of semantics that will eventually lead us to a place of moral horror.

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