Two Republican candidates for President - Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann - said in a recent debate that they do not consider waterboarding to be torture and would return to the practice of waterboarding prisoners if they were President.
Two Republican candidates said that they opposed waterboarding - Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.
A number of people raised objections to waterboarding and torture following the debate, almost all of which can be put into two categories:
Category 1 - It makes America look bad.
Category 2 - It doesn't work.
These are stupid reasons to oppose torture.
If this is the best we can come up with, then waterboarding or torture really isn't bad. Either it merely appears bad to others - for no reason, it just does - and America doesn't want to look bad. Or, it's a waste of time. Waterboarding or torturing prisoners is a bit like watching football - it doesn't accomplish much, but some people may find it entertaining.
The first half of Jon Huntsman's response in the debate was an example of a Category 1 response. "We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture."
The second half of that answer puts the principle of refusing to torture prisoners alongside the values of liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets. This is a better response, but is lacking in justification.
However, on the issue of "diminishing our standing," that is consistent with saying, "If people just gave torture the respect it deserves, we wouldn't have this problem. The problem isn't that torture is bad. The problem is that other people don't like it when we torture - and we shouldn't be doing things other people don't like."
As if America's number one foreign policy objective is to do what other people like and not do what they dislike.
Ron Paul gave us a Category 2 response. In addition to saying that it was illegal, he said, "[I]t's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence."
On the legal issue, we still need to ask whether it should be illegal. Unless it should be illegal, we can address the fact that it is illegal by changing the laws.
On the issue of impracticality, this puts torture in the same category as trying to use a psychic to read the prisoner's mind. It's a bit silly, really. There's nothing really wrong with it. If it only worked it would be great! But, alas, it doesn't." *sigh of disappointment*
In all of the comments I have read about the debate on this issue, I have actually not found a single instance of somebody explaining why it is wrong - why it should be prohibited.
Even President Obama's response - saying that it is simply wrong - does not offer an explanation.
"Anybody who has actually read about and understands the practice of waterboarding would say that that is torture. And that's not something we do -- period."
Well, here is my sound-bite answer to the issue of torture.
"As president, I will put others on notice that any abuse of Americans taken captive will not be tolerated. However, the only way I can maintain the moral authority to do that is if I also take that same position on the abuse of prisoners BY Americans. Any President who says we may torture also tells the rest of the world that they may torture Americans."
At this point, I would like to hear my opponent answer the question, "Do you think that the waterboarding of Americans taken captive is torture?"
Let's put the defenders of torture on the defensive. "What is your position on the waterboarding or torture of Americans – soldiers and civilians - taken captive?"
Now, we can get to the question, "What is your definition of torture?"
Answer: Consider an American taken captive. Torture is any treatment of that prisoner that we have reason to take harsh action against - that we tell the world, "Think long and hard before you do this because we will do what we can to make you answer for this."
The implication being - any treatment that we would seek to protect Americans from suffering if they are taken captive is treatment that we should not impose on those that we take captive.
What reason do we have for this universal aversion to torture?
It begins with the reasons we have not to be tortured - or to have people we care about being tortured. A way to protect people from torture is to use social forces such as praise and condemnation to promote an aversion to torture. Thus implies the moral condemnation of those who would support torture, and the praise of those who oppose it.
In fact, Bachmann and Cain, merely in virtue of expressing their opinion at this debate, have done harm. They have told the world, "Go ahead and waterboard Americans. Go ahead and waterboard anybody you take prisoner. I really have no objection to that. Which means, you should not have any qualms against it either." The commentator broadcasting the same praise on a cable news program or in an internet blog is also giving others moral permission to abuse Americans.
One tool for protecting Americans and others (because, face it, in morality - it is not just the torture of Americans that has moral weight) is through a chorus of condemnation. That chorus can bring about a widespread aversion to torture. That aversion, in turn, protects Americans and others from these forms of abuse.
However, that chorus of condemnation also implies a decision not to practice that which is condemned. Practicing torture implies accepting torture. It means telling the world that these forms of torture and abuse are legitimate. It explicitly contradicts the message in this chorus of condemnation – which means that it is something that, itself, needs to be condemned.