Torture and Nuclear War:

As I've noted before, there are lots of things I don't blog about because I know little about them, I find them difficult, and they're quite important. Since I know little about them, I'm not sure I have much to add (but I have lots of opportunities to screw up). Since they're difficult, I don't think I can just give a quick answer from general principles. And since they're important, there's a good deal at stake in getting it right: An off-hand comment that might be right or might be wrong might cut it for a trivia question, but not for important issues. That's one reason that I've blogged very little about torture as a means of extracting information from suspected terrorists; the chief exceptions are here, here, and here.

A lot of comments criticizing my (and others') not talking about the subject respond by challenging the "difficulty" element: Torture -- often defined to include a wide range of harsh interrogation techniques -- is just patently depraved, the argument goes; the ends don't justify the means; any decent person should be able to see that and denounce provisions that allow such techniques; end of story.

But for me, this easy moralism just doesn't cut it. Perhaps after a great deal of thinking and research I might come around to this view. But I'm not prepared to accept it as a categorical, supposedly obvious moral assertion. (The theory that the means are sure to be ineffective is a separate matter. For reasons I noted in the posts linked to above, I'm unpersuaded of that as an empirical matter.)

Here's what I keep coming back to in my head. I still remember, as I'm sure most of you do, the nuclear balance of terror. (It still exists today, but it's a less prominent issue than it was when I first started noticing the world.) The Soviets had nuclear weapons pointed at us, which included both our military installations and our cities. We had nuclear weapons pointed at their military installations and their cities. It was understood that if they annihilated one of our cities, we'd annihilate one of theirs.

There was none of the carefully calibrated attack-only-military-targets approaches that we likely can afford to use in small wars. There was no serious provision for minimizing civilian casualties. One can come up with some defenses about most cities containing at least some militarily significant targets and the like, but let's face it: The real mechanism of deterrence was "you kill our people, we'll kill your people," both as to all-out nuclear attack and as to a more controlled "take out one city at a time until the other guy blinks" strategy. It was understood -- by Carter as well as by Reagan, by Kennedy as well as by Nixon -- that to keep the peace, we had to be prepared to slaughter millions of Soviet civilians.

A few people did talk about unilateral disarmament, the only real way of avoiding the commitment to mass-butchery-should-the-need-arise. I don't think most of us took them seriously, for obvious reasons. Reagan, as I recall, did push missile defense as a means of avoiding the balance of terror, but even if you think that missile defense might work, the Reagan Administration certainly supported the balance of terror as acceptable doctrine until missile defense could be created. One can imagine some alternative tactics, such as a pure counterforce rather than countervalue strategy -- if you bomb us, including our civilians, we'll only bomb your military targets. But I highly doubt that it would have worked.

Would you say: Look, killing millions of civilians is just patently depraved, the ends don't justify the means, any decent person should be able to see that and denounce strategies that rely on the commitment to use such techniques; end of story? I know I didn't. Maybe I should have. Maybe after a good deal of reflection and research I would conclude that such a strategy should have been abandoned. But, boy, I'm not prepared to just say that as a matter of general moral principles, no matter how obviously heinous nuclear bombing of civilian targets might be.

Now I don't want to overstate the analogy: The U.S.-Soviet balance of terror involved the willingness to do a vastly horrific act, in order to deter a vast harm, though fortunately a willingness that didn't have to be acted on. Harsh interrogation of detainees involves the actual doing of many bad things, in order to prevent a lesser harm, but the bad things are much less horrific than a retaliatory nuclear bombing.

There are, I'm sure, lots of other differences. It may be that careful study would lead one to different answers in these two cases. But once our innocence is lost by our willingness to at least contemplate the balance of terror, it becomes very hard for me to just operate on a hard-line "I don't need to hear a lot of facts or arguments, the ends don't justify the means and that's that" approach.