Communicator (communicator) wrote,
Communicator
communicator

The Dirty Harry defence

I do argue against views that I don't agree with, but I don't want you to get the impression that this means I dislike people expressing them, so please continue to disagree with me in this blog wherever you feel inclined. Disagreement often makes me think a bit harder, of course. For example, gfk88 recently commented on a previous post, concerning my belief in the non-efficacy of torture.

I had to confess, after some thought, that there is an example where torture is efficacious, though not moral. This is in armed robbery situations. The Brinks Matt bullion raid is an example. Security guards or bank managers are frequently tortured to make them deliver 'the truth' - for example vault access codes.

The managers know better than to fuck around So if you get one that's giving you static, he probably thinks he's a real cowboy, so you gotta break that son of a bitch in two. If you wanna know something he won't tell you, cut off one of his fingers-- the little one. Then tell him his thumb's next. After that, he'll tell you if he wears ladies' underwear. I'm hungry. Let's get a taco.

This, then, forms the basis of the argument that torture, in certain limited cases, may be a permissable tool for moral ends. What if - and let us call it the 'Dirty Harry defence' - someone is locked in a box with the air supply running out? What if (ah, Jack Bauer, those happy hours) there's a bomb somewhere that we have to find p.d.q. We've got a suspect who won't talk. Are we morally justified in going Brinks Matt on his ass?

OK, well first of all, the point of Action Movies (in my opinion) is to provide moral justification for heroes to perform socially transgressive acts. Driving with mad speed, punching people in the mouth, taking their shirts off. So it's not surprising that one of the repertoir of transgressive actions is torture. It's a legitimate strand of action drama, but does it have any application in real life?

Matt Yglesias has a post on just this subejct (scroll down to 'ticking bombs'). I do urge you to read this short piece if you are have an opinion either way. His thoughts coincide with mine on this point. Specifically, a morally committed soldier or terrorist is not like a security guard.

If your proposed victim is disposed to respond self-interestedly to inventives, it's easy enough to get him to cooperate without resorting to extreme measures... Torture is for precisely those cases where the victim is sufficiently committed to the cause that he won't respond to incentives in an instrumentally rational manner.

Thus, the goal of torture is not to shift the incentives facing the victim ... but rather to destroy the personality of the victim, thus creating a shattered wreck of a human being who, unlike his predecessor, lacks strong ideological commitment to the cause. ... The trouble here, is that this sort of thing takes time to work. You can get information (as seen in, say, The Battle of Algiers) like what the name of the guy you reported to was, but not stuff that's incredibly time-sensitive ("where's the bomb!").

The point is that these more outlandish hypotheticals can probably be safely ignored ... without resorting to any implausibly absolutist arguments, then I don't think we're likely to find any situations where torturing people is a good idea.


As always, no criticism implied of people who disagree with this, and I'd be interested in your views.
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