Torture, Slippery Slopes, and Debating the Subject

In his latest post on torture, Andrew Sullivan makes an important point: it wasn’t so long ago that torture advocates justified barbaric interrogation techniques by arguing that they’re needed in ticking time bomb scenarios — usually to prevent an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction — whereas now, having slid down the slippery slope, a majority of Americans favor waterboarding the man who tried to blow himself up aboard that recent Detroit-bound flight, despite the fact that we aren’t in a ticking time bomb scenario, or faced with an imminent attack with weapons of mass destruction.

This is terrible news for those of us who regard torture as morally and strategically counterproductive, and for everyone who has regard for the rule of law, since the practice is illegal under both domestic law and international treaties. It is also an illustration of the populist passions that can arise after an attempted terrorist attack, when long established legal precedents are particularly important to respect.

A peripheral matter worth noting is that the torture debate has inspired the latest round of zings between Mr. Sullivan (a former colleague at The Atlantic for whom I’ve guest blogged on several occasions) and Professor Glenn Reynolds, author of Instapundit, who I once interviewed here and here.

This post by Professor Reynolds puzzles me:

YEAH, BUT WITHOUT ANDREW SULLIVAN’S ANTI-TORTURE BLOGGING IT WOULD HAVE BEEN 56%: 58% Favor Waterboarding of Plane Terrorist To Get Information.

UPDATE: “My conclusion: the debate is over, and Dick Cheney won it.”

Reader Michael Gebert blames Andrew: “If fighting terrorists creates terrorists, surely being an endless hypocritical scold about waterboarding creates Dick Cheneys.” Yeah, I actually agree with Andrew on torture, but the more I read his stuff, the weaker my sentiments on the subject get . . . .

Professor Reynolds has a stunning disregard for his responsibilities as an influential writer if his stance on a question as important as torture is significantly influenced by a matter as trivial as whether he is annoyed by Mr. Sullivan’s prose. My God, man, you’re a successful, middle-aged law professor whose every “heh” is consumed by a large swath of the conservative blogosphere everyday, and you’re telling me that distaste for the commentary of a man you apparently don’t even respect is causing your anti-torture sentiment to wane? Obviously I am in no position to referee disputes between these two bloggers, having a close professional connection to one of them, but whether one thinks that Andrew Sullivan possesses healthy or overactive self-regard, we should all be able to agree that his personality traits haven’t the slightest bearing on the rightness or wrongness of torture, or how vociferously its opponents should write against it.

The same applies to anyone out there who finds his participation in the torture debate being driven partly by personal feelings about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, or any other single individual. Can you imagine how little we’d think of an influential World War II era columnist who revealed in his memoirs that he would’ve taken a harder line against POW torture, or the mistreatment of interned Japanese, or some other morally charged issue, but that he didn’t due to the hectoring tone of another pundit?

People whose argumentative style one finds annoying can be read on both sides of every issue. By all means, attack that style if you wish. But allowing whoever drives you most crazy to influence the substance of what you’re saying? The torture debate is too important for that — so important, in fact, that I’d like to encourage anyone who opposes torture, but doesn’t like how it’s being opposed, to show us how to make persuasive arguments.

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2 Responses to “Torture, Slippery Slopes, and Debating the Subject”

  1. obushidoo Says:

    The problem is Andrew isn’t engaging in debate he is telling people the way it is and is calling them goostepping Khmer Rouge torture mongers if they dissagree. He gives no ground and is massivly hyperbolic and condesending. He considers long term meals of bad tasting albeit nutritious food to be as bad as ripping someones figernails off. The way he puts it if you are willing to do either you are an immoral monster like Hitler. His kind of debate does nothing except harden people’s defences, it is a very common concept in public speach theory. The fact is Instapundit is right if the Andrews of the world had been more persuasive and less self rightious then they may have made a difference, and Andrew is right Intapundit should have been and could be one of the people who could make that better argument.

  2. Cheery Topics For The First Sunday Of The New Decade « Around The Sphere Says:

    […] but somehow we’ve reached a far worse point in the debate where torture is deemed acceptable absent any imminent threat, or else opposing torture is deemed tantamount to pacifism, despite the obvious and […]

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