India Uncut

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The price of torture

The New York Times reports that George W Bush has expressed his confidence that he and John McCain can reach an agreement over the way in which captives in the 'War Against Terror' are interrogated. Well, I hope that agreement comes about with Bush moving over to McCain's position.

McCain essentially wants "cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees" -- in other words, torture -- to be banned. The typical argument to keep torture legal is the hypothetical ticking-time-bomb scenario, in which a suspect is known to possess information that will help authorities find and defuse a ticking time bomb. Well, even keeping aside the plausibility of such an extreme scenario, there is a counter-argument that Alex Tabarrok stated superbly in Marginal Revolution a few weeks ago:
By making torture illegal we are raising the price of torture but we are not raising the price to infinity. If the President or the head of the CIA thinks that torture is required to stop the ticking time bomb then they ought to approve it knowing full well that they face possible prosecution. Only if the price of torture is very high can we expect that it will be used only in the most absolutely urgent of circumstances.

The torture victim faces incredible pain and perhaps death at the hands of his torturer. If these costs are to be born by the victim then we had better make damn sure that the benefits are also high and the only way we can do that is to make the torturer also bear some of the costs.
Quite. I hope McCain prevails.

(MR link via Patrix.)
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