Sunday, April 26, 2009

Torture and the Coalition of the Living

The Volokh Conspiracy - truly one of the most interesting and informative blogs in the 'sphere -- published the results of a recent poll.

  • 77 percent of voters say they have "followed news reports about the release of government memos about the Bush administration’s interrogation of terrorism suspects" either "Very closely" or "somewhat closely."

  • 42 percent of voters believe America tortured terrorist detainees; 37 percent disagree.

  • 58 percent of voters oppose further investigation of the Bush Administration's treatment of terrorist detainees.

  • 58 percent of voters believe the recent release of memos describing interrogation techniques "endangers the national security of the United States."

I also found this question particularly interesting.

Some people say that there is a natural tension between protecting individual rights and national security. In the United States today, does our legal system worry too much about protecting individual rights, too much about protecting national security, or is the balance about right?

37% Legal system worries too much about protecting individual rights

21% Legal system worries too much about protecting national security

33% Balance is about right

This is interesting stuff, and it confirms some of the attitudes I've seen in Americans, both students and otherwise. I'd be curious as to what the results would be if that last question were asked of Canadians. The comment thread at Volokh is, as usual, good reading.

Now, what can we say? Lately, I've been considering the following kind of argument: democratic citizenship has a certain logic to it that will almost always eventuate in the torture of foreigners. The only question is whether the torture will be done in the shadows or whether it will be done under the obscuring aegis of the legal bureaucracy.

This is not to say that non-democratic states will never torture, nor even that they'll never torture foreigners. It is to say simply that democratic citizenship, as such, makes torture rational as a response to perceived threats to the political community. A monarch tortures for pleasure, or because he is simply insane. A democracy tortures for the most pedastrian, economic reasons. That is what I mean when I say the logic of democratic citizenship implies the torture of foreigners.

My argument for this position is not complicated. In brief, to gain power in a democracy, one needs to build a coalition around a set of common interests. Shorn of its romantic trappings, the candidate in a democracy makes his coalition a deal: support me, and you'll get X, Y, and Z. The candidate who can build the biggest coalition will probably win.

Now, one of the largest coalitions a politician can call on is the coalition of people who do not wish to die in terrorist attacks. Call this the coalition of the living. As a practical matter, this coalition includes virtually everyone. But it doesn't include non-citizens, for the very simple reason that they can't vote. Given the choice, a politician in a democracy will choose to kill foreigners before he risks losing the support of this very large coalition.

You might ask: don't politicians sometimes kill their own citizens too? Of course. And they will do this as long as it can be done economically: that is, as long as they can retain effective control over a large enough coalition to maintain their power. Thus, despised minorities can be sacrified, beecause the rest of the coalition truly doesn't care about their welfare, nor does it see their sacrifice as a risk to its own interests.

But I think that there is such a thing as democratic citizenship. Citizens are motivated to care about other citizens, at least to some degree. So there is always some disadvantage to sacrificing citizens. To a much, much lesser extent, this is also true of foreigners. For example, some Americans care about some Canadians. Some Americans know that their own interests are entertwined -- to some extent -- with the interests of those in other nations. But these ties are, relatively speaking, weak. Given the right amount of stress, they can break, and -- under the right circumstances -- the coalition can demand that they be broken, for its own safety.

Note that I am not making a moral judgment of the politician who chooses to sacrifice foreigners for the safety of those in his coalition. If you accept democracy, you should think that this is what politicians ought to do. The president of the United States is morally obligated to serve American citizens -- not foreigners. This logic, endemic to the notion of democratic citizenship, is what makes torture rational in a democracy.

The monarch, to return to the example, may torture for fun, or because he is insane. But he is certainly not morally obligated to torture, for the simple reason that he has fewer, weaker obligations to his subjects. On the other hand, the monarch can uphold transcendent moral principles, and declare, without winking, that he will not torture foreigners.

In a democracy, only Barack Obama's impressive charisma allows him to say such a thing, and even then, I think most of us are well aware of the wink (the poll results seem to indicate that.) Torture is how democratic politicians live up to the legitimate expectations of their citizens.

Citizenship makes you a member of a club, in some cases a very elite one. It places you under the protection of the state. For all that libertarians criticize the state and its disingenious representatives, they should also admit that, at least in some cases, for citizens of the right skin color, the state takes its obligations very seriously. It will protect its citizens, even if this involves shackling, drowning, and flaying foreigners.

Don't get me wrong: the absolute monarch may also recognize such obligations. But their basis is not the same. In a democracy, the state owes citizens because (in some sense) the citizens give up some of their autonomy. The obligation is based on reciprocity, not in divine edict. And, in our age, this makes the ruler of a democracy take that obligation even more seriously than he might otherwise. In the United States, a nation founded on the morality of exchange and consent, we should not be surprised to find that the torturers take their obligations very seriously indeed.

Thus, the logic of democratic citizenship makes the torture of foreigners a rational response to perceived threats. If you doubt this, consider the following thought experiment I stole shamelessly from the comment thread at the Volokh Conspiracy:

Imagine a terrorist attack takes place sometime in the not-to-distant future. A bioweapon attack. Tens of thousands of American citizens die. For whatever reason -- and, really, they don't need a reason -- many citizens come to believe that the government could have prevented the attack, if only it had not taken the torture of foreigners off the table as an interrogation option.

What is their response? They would believe, I think, that the government had not upheld its end of the social contract. The state would have failed to follow through on the implicit deal it makes to each and every citizen: give up your autonomy, and I'll protect you. Feeling this way, there is hardly any reason at all for the citizens not to reassert that autonomy, in whatever way they deem necessary, up to and including the termination of all the politicians who failed to do their jobs.

I make no moral judgments about the outcome of this scenario, but I trust we all can see that it is one politicians would like to avoid.

Torture, then, is never really off the table. And no one really believes it is. But it makes some feel better to think that it won't be used. For the basest of economic reasons, it can be kept to the shadows, where it is likely to be used even more efficiently, without threatening the consciences of those in the coalition of the living.

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