For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.
What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?
Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.
In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.
But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.
As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.
It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.
So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.