Eddie of Hidden Unities recently emailed me the text of “The Ploy” by Mark Bowden. My reply back to him mainly concerned, the subtile, which is The inside story of how the interrogators of Task Force 145 cracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawiâ€™s inner circleâ€”without resorting to tortureâ€”and hunted down al-Qaedaâ€™s man in Iraq. The title’s odd in that it is both boring and inflammatory.
The boredom first. I can imagine an article subtitled The inside story of how programmers at Microsoft Corporation released SQL Server 2008 on time — and without using hash tables. Such an article might be worth while to a specialist in the field who is cogniscant of the limitations of hash tables, and believes he may well come across a project in the future were he would do well to avoid tabular hash technology. The article would of course be useless to a general interest reader, and indeed would be properly ignored by anyone who didn’t have a special interest in SQL Server, Microsoft, or has tables.
Now, the inflammation. Imagine an article subtitled The inside story story of how the United States Army Air Force broke the ability of Tokyo to resist — without resorting to nuclear weapons — and hunted the Empire’s man in Japan. Such an article would be madening because it minimizes terrible harm that was done to human beings.
Nuclear war is not bad because it involves the fission of uranium or plutonium. Nuclear war is bad because it kills people.
Similarly, torture (or “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity“) is not bad because it is done “obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person” or “with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.” Torture is bad because it hurts people.
Other things hurt people too. Putting people in prison hurts people, and their families, for extended periods of time, too. But where are those who want to abolish jails? Or those who say that this or that person did not commit a crime, and yet was not imprisoned?
The self-congratulatory subtitle of the article minimizes out the pain and death, as if it is somehow less evil or less awful to kill as long as people weren’t hurt beforehand.
Torture may or may not be wise in this or that situation. I don’t claim the expertise that such a decision would require. But the current stylish condemnation of torture is crazy, as it pretends that torture is somehow worse than all the other acts of violence, state and non-state — that exist in our world