Having finally gotten around to reading Sam HarrisThe End of Faith, I was surprised to discover a lengthy digression on torture as relates to the prosecution of what we still called, in those benighted days, the War on Terror.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to say that Harris stood in favor of torture as such. However, he did argue powerfully that our revulsion to torture is essentially hypocritical, extending as it does from a sort of moral blind spot. Harris’ argument is too lengthy to quote directly, so I will summarize it as fairly as I can.

  1. We are resigned to what we call in warfare “collateral damage,” meaning the unintended destruction of non-military targets and the injury and death of civilians.
  2. The toll in pain and death exacted by collateral damage is as gruesome as that of any other wartime horror: men, women and children are blinded, crippled, mutilated or killed, or suffer thirst, starvation and sickness in the wake of attacks that destroy local infrastructure and services.
  3. The pain and suffering of the collaterally damaged is, in fact, qualitatively of little to no difference to that suffered under torture.
  4. The preceding premises being true, one cannot morally object to one but not the other; anyone willing to accept collateral damage in wartime has no basis from which to declaim torture as immoral.

Harris made this argument to illustrate the limitations and biases inherent in our moral reasoning, particularly the human tendency to respond to individual suffering while remaining relatively unmoved by the suffering of a great many people. There is a component of torture — perhaps the way in which it is reducible in our imaginations to a dichotomy of victim and tormentor, the latter holding the former utterly in his power — that seems immediate and visceral. Yet Harris, while admitting even he found his own conclusions unsettling, was not simply arguing as the devil’s advocate. Those who have read The End of Faith will know that Harris has a very large axe to grind against Islamic fundamentalism; unlike most thinkers of essentially leftist bent, Harris has no compunction about denouncing Islam as a religion of ignorance, hatred and cruelty, nor does he balk at describing its war on the West in essentially neoconservative terms: that is, as a clash of civilizations, a zero-sum game in which compromise or rapprochement is out of the question.

As a person repulsed by the torture that has been carried out by my government ostensibly on my behalf, I was brought up short by Harris’ arguments. Had I been too quick to give in to my instinctive reaction of horror and outrage? How can one argue with any conviction that slamming a man’s head repeatedly into a wall is worse than, say, burning a little girl with napalm while denuding the forests surrounding her village? Is one of these things really worse than the other?

Upon reflection, I came to the conclusion that yes, one of these really is worse than the other. The reason lies in an argument that Harris used earlier in his book but forgot, or omitted, to apply to the torture debate. That reason is intention.

The End of Faith spends considerable time discussing of Noam Chomsky, who has argued that the United States routinely commits atrocities of the magnitude of September 11 and that we are, at best, no worse than the terrorists who struck back at us; in fact, our arrogance and self-righteousness actually make us worse. Harris has no time for this facile moral equivalency. Citing Chomsky’s example of the U.S. bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical laboratory in 1998 (which Chomsky claims doomed hundreds of thousands to die of otherwise treatable illnesses), Harris points out an obvious, and significant, distinction. The U.S. attack came as part of an effort to destroy sources of biological and chemical weapons. It was not the United States’ intention — nor was it even in its strategic interest — to destroy a vital source of medicine for the civilian population. The September 11 hijackers chose precisely the opposite tactic, one designed to cause the maximum possible civilian destruction, and concomitantly, the maximum amount of horror, grief and revulsion.

It may be — and is — cold comfort for thousands of bereaved Sudanese to be told, essentially, “We didn’t mean it when we consigned your children to die of malaria and dysentery.” But as Harris points out, intention forms the very foundation of ethics. And ethics, I might add, forms the very foundation of justice. The modern justice system is based on the understanding that motivation is the key to understanding crime and properly administering punishment or redress. Two people might be brutally run over by cars on the same night; one may be the victim of an enraged ex-husband, the other of a sudden and fatal impulse to run into the street after a dropped $20 bill. Although the result in these two situations is the same, as is the sense of loss experienced by the bereaved families, they are not the same crime, and there is no ethical argument for treating them as such.

This is the difference between a girl blinded in a bombing and a man driven irreparably mad by physical and psychological torture. We go out of our way to ensure that the bomb will not injure the girl, continually improving the accuracy and precision of our weapons to ensure only strategically significant targets are destroyed. The purpose of any attack in war is to limit or destroy the enemy’s capacity to fight back, not to murder and terrorize civilians; indeed, the latter effect might well work against the former. Exceptions can, of course, be cited throughout the history of our country and our world, from repugnant aberrations such as My Lai to deliberate wholesale destruction, such as Sherman’s March. But as a general principle of warfare, the axiom is sound: attacking military targets and avoiding civilian ones is the most effective way to wage war.

This is sound military strategy, but it is also a sound moral position, one held by generals as much as by civilians on the home front. We maintain a distinction between civilian and military targets because it is a crucial way of maintaining our humanity in the midst of the harrowing pressures of war. War may be hell, but it is a hell we have tempered through mutually agreed-upon rules for civilized conflict: capturing instead of slaughtering troops who surrender; refraining from the use of chemical or biological weapons; honoring neutrality; and affording all those within a war zone a measure of basic human dignity. Civilized nations do not sell prisoners into slavery, prostitute them or hold them for ransom. And civilized nations do not torture.

Torture deprives human beings of their humanity in a way that mere imprisonment, even in harsh conditions, does not. It is not the randomness of flying shrapnel or the error of shelling the hospital instead of the munitions factory. It is an act of calculated cruelty, a deliberate stripping away of the mental and psychological resources that are the bequest of civilization itself. There is a very good reason why torture strikes such a deep chord of horror and unease within us, why most of the Americans who insist on the benefits of this practice still can’t bring themselves to drop the mealy-mouthed euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Only a sociopath — or one who has completely excluded the enemy from their moral universe through racism, nativism or simple abject fear — can remain unmoved by the spectacle of one human being reducing another to a state of infantile helplessness through the application of pain. It is simply not who we are.

This is not, as Harris maintains, the result of some facile moral blindness. The capacity to treat even our enemies with a modicum of respect is the quality that, to be blunt, makes us better than them; it is a component of our cultural identity far more valuable than any transient strategic advantage that torture might confer. (That there is little evidence that torture confers any such advantage is beside the point.) We as Americans may not be — may never have been — as exceptional as we claimed. But we entered this conflict with a clear moral advantage, one which I, at least, clung to over the last turbulent eight years. I believed that the ideals which my country maintained even in war were worthy ideals, and that we could never truly be defeated as long as we held fast to them.

Now my country is afraid — so afraid that it couldn’t shed those ideals fast enough, as long as their loss granted a feeling of safety and control; exercising our power and our cruelty gave us the heady rush of charging into battle full-bore, all guns ablaze, redeeming ourselves for the torpor that allowed the attacks to succeed in the first place. Too few people stopped to ask if this crack-cocaine rush of bogus courage was worth the price; and while many people still insist ours is the greatest nation on earth, they are at greater and greater pains to explain why.