Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hyman Puts the Screws to Common Sense

Mark Hyman’s recent commentary on the “angriest cities” in America (as ranked by Men’s Health magazine) is unworthy of much comment, other than to note that Hyman’s own Baltimore came in at number four. Personally, I think that’s entirely unfair, given that on his lonesome, Hyman must skew the anger-o-meter (“angrometer”?) mightily.

What’s more worthy of inspection is
Hyman’s take on terrorism. Hyman mentions that there are reports that some of the intelligence that might have thwarted a terror attack on airliners flying from Britain to the U.S. was gotten through torture of a suspect in Pakistan.

In response to these reports, The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. (which Hyman says is “Britain’s version of the New York Times”)
editorialized about the dangers and moral bankruptcy of using torture in the “war on terror.” In particular, the paper states that “This battle must be won within the law. Anything else is not just a form of defeat but will in the end fuel the flames of the terror it aims to overcome.”

Hyman goes ballistic at this, asking, “Does any reasonable person believe these kinds of terrorists will moderate their actions based on whether Pakistan follows western norms of prisoner interrogation?” While torture might make some people “squeamish,” according to Hyman, it’s well worth the thousands of lives that might be saved as a result.

Hyman’s main argumentative tactics here are the straw man and the false dilemma. Hyman creates a cartoonish version of the Guardian’s argument by saying the paper’s claim that terrorists will be mollified if we use gentler tactics is unreasonable. That’s not the argument the paper is making. The point is not that active terrorists will alter their behavior, but that by using torture, we encourage people who aren’t terrorists to become terrorists.

As Tom Ricks details in Fiasco, this is exactly what happened in Iraq. The mental, physical, and emotional abuse (often targeting people who ended up being completely innocent) drove people who could have been allies to become active enemies. For every terrorist “broken” by such means, we risk creating 10, 20, 100, or more to take their place. Hyman is either creating a straw man version of the Guardian’s argument, or he’s simply too insipid to understand it in the first place.

The false dilemma comes in the framing of the issue in terms of a choice between condoning terror OR allowing terrorist attacks to happen. There’s no reason to think this is the choice facing us. In fact, there is good reason to think the opposite.

As noted above, torture has the effect of creating more animosity. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay . . . people across the world pay attention to these things and frame their attitudes toward us accordingly.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that torture provides helpful information. This realization goes back as far as Aristotle, who notes that the testimony of slaves coerced by torture cannot be taken to be reliable, since many will simply say whatever they think their captors want to hear. We would be much better off cultivating connections and good relations with people who might be willing to provide information on suspected terrorists than using torture.

And we can’t simply say, “We’ll try to cultivate good relationships, but if we need to, we will use torture of suspects as well.” The use of torture will undermine those attempts to cultivate good relationships. The sort of people who are likely to A) know something about the actions of terrorists, and B) be ambivalent enough about them that they would willingly inform on them, are exactly the sorts of individuals who are most likely to turn their backs on us if they knew we used torture.

The usual scenario invoked by people who favor the use of torture is the “ticking bomb” situation, in which a suspected terrorist knows exactly when and where an attack will take place, and the only way to stop the plot is to get the terrorist to talk.

But this is a hypothetical situation that has little to do with the realities we face. It certainly wasn’t the case in the arrests made recently in London, in which the group involved had been under surveillance for some time. And even if such a situation actually happened, is there any reason to think the suspected terrorists would say anything of value? Even if authorities knew for certain that the suspect had the information (an assumption made in the hypothetical situation, but almost never the case in real life), what reason do we have to think the suspect wouldn’t give false information, partial information, or nothing at all?

And these points are simply the pragmatic objections to torture. We haven’t touched on the moral implications (which, I assume, don’t concern Hyman). That use of torture makes us like the very people we rightly despise for their brutality, that it runs counter to international convention and our national history, and that it is, from any spiritual perspective, a sin—these are all apparently non issues for Hyman and his ilk.

At least that’s what seems to be the case. It’s worth noting that Hyman is praising the use of torture of a suspect in Pakistan. But is Hyman willing to endorse torture by the U.S. itself? And if he has a moment’s hesitation about that, what does that suggest about the morality of allowing others to do what we ourselves shrink from?

I’m just wondering.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.13


At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great job Ted.
I don't believe that even Mark Hyman is stupid, idiotic, dumb-assed or ignorant enough (although he does possess all of these characteristics in great abundance) to actually believe that torture is acceptable when it comes to terrorism suspects or any other suspected criminals.
What I do believe is that knowing that his president and the leaders of his party have used and endorsed torture, he must do all he can to rationalize the use of torture to the sheeple to avoid facing the political fallout that would surely result from his righteous condemnation if it.
In short Mark Hyman is a quivering Neo-Fascist coward propagandist and he shrinks and slinks away from anything that resembles truth or reality.
Thanks Ted, and keep bustin' Hyman.
Mike B. in SC


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