Saving Lives

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3 Responses

  1. He didn’t say he would “torture” again, he said he would waterboard again…meaning he doesn’t consider waterboarding per se torture, consistent with his administration’s viewpoint that waterboarding, as applied, was not proscribed torture.

    New question: Can the kicking of ass of foreigners (say, BP officials from England) by a person holding executive power of the United States in order to induce those foreigners to do something be construed as a form of torture?

  2. Logan says:


    I actually wrote a paper about this topic in graduate school for a humans right class…so I have a couple question/thoughts.

    First, what do you mean by “it’s about preserving power?” Do you mean to preserve the ever-expanding powers of the Executive Branch or something else? Don’t get me wrong, I agree that waterboarding is torture and we shouldn’t do it but I don’t think President Bush did it to preserve power.

    My reasoning is that the President’s power wouldn’t really be diminished if he decided to stop using torture as a means to save lives. Further, all of this is highly subjective. In my paper I looked at the acceptability of torture based on the number of lives it might save. I found that torture became more acceptable as that number went up. I believe this has to do with a hierarchy of rights (like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but with rights instead of needs).

    The most basic human right is the right to life (not in the pro-choice/life sense). At the most basic level, this right to life doesn’t include a right to a certain standard of living, per say, just the ability to live. Somewhere along the pyramid of human rights would be some sort of negative right to not being tortured (along with speech, assembly, etc). Thus, the question becomes “when is it acceptable to violate one human right for the most basic human right?” And, of course, this question can never really be answered definitively.

    So far, we’ve accepted that there is a standard definition of torture and terrorism but there really isn’t. International and domestic law doesn’t define what torture/terrorism is, which allows for the parties involved to frame the activity to their pleasing. As the saying goes with terrorism, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter (Check out Al Jezeera’s mini-series “Dining With Terrorists” by Phil Rees…it’s on YouTube). So we essentially have two highly subjective and undefined terms central to the debate. Which means one’s circumstances greatly influences their definition of torture and/or terrorism (playing into your idea of social imaginary).

    Thus, in my opinion, it’s not about preserving power but the circumstances he found himself in and judged that it was acceptable to torture.

    Why doesn’t he extend that same executive authority to the private realm and regulating business practices more? Well one, GOP ideology is about “free markets” and “tough on national security.”

  3. Thomas Crocker says:

    Well, the good news for President Obama is that President Bush left him with lots of executive power for kicking ass.

    Logan, my main question was what analytic work does the goal of “saving lives” do in creating a principle that would justify executive actions such as waterboarding. Given other occasions where an imperative to save lives does not take priority, my question is then why does it do so regarding terrorism suspects, especially where its taking priority leads to actions violating existing laws. To think about these questions we need to move beyond quibbling over whether waterboarding is torture (I think there is a broad consensus that it is) or whether waterboarding KSM “saved lives” (there is no evidence that it was causally efficacious in doing so). Otherwise, we can never make progress in thinking through these problems if we never get beyond the question is X torture (or does X save lives). By reasoning that “saving lives” does not seem to do any analytic work in Bush’s declaration, I concluded that the goal was to preserve power — that is, the power to decide when to act to save lives with what means (relatively) unconstrained by positive law. We could sum this up in President Bush’s words: “I am the decider.”

    But let me add that just because terms are contested does not make them subjective. Reasons for adopting one meaning over another must be responsive to evidentiary and public inquiry. There will always be borderline applications of a term or concept, but that does not mean that the term and its application are “highly subjective” or “undefined” as you suggest. That is, unless you are going to advance some kind of meaning skepticism (we can never know/agree on the meaning of anything), but then “torture” would hardly be a unique concept. Politically, such a view has its attractions for an Administration that wants to torture while saying it doesn’t torture. But such self-serving linguistic abuse does not alter how language ordinarily works.