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Agonizing Over Torture

The left wing editorial page of The Guardian agonizes today over the revelation that much of the intelligence used to bust up the bomb plot last week was allegedly obtained using torture:

Reports from Pakistan suggest that much of the intelligence that led to the raids came from that country and that some of it may have been obtained in ways entirely unacceptable here. In particular Rashid Rauf, a British citizen said to be a prime source of information leading to last week's arrests, has been held without access to full consular or legal assistance. Disturbing reports in Pakistani papers that he had "broken" under interrogation have been echoed by local human rights bodies. The Guardian has quoted one, Asma Jehangir, of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who has no doubt about the meaning of broken. "I don't deduce, I know - torture," she said. "There is simply no doubt about that, no doubt at all."

Set aside for the moment legal questions about whether such evidence would be admissible in court and let's focus on the morality. Last December Charles Krauthammer argued the following in a Weekly Standard cover story:

However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Michael Kinsley responded the following week, calling Krauthammer's argument a case of "salami-slicing:"

You start with a seemingly solid principle, then start slicing: If you would torture to save a million lives, would you do it for half a million? A thousand? Two dozen? What if there's only a two-out-of-three chance that person you're torturing has the crucial information? A 50-50 chance? One chance in 10? At what point does your moral calculus change, and why? Slice the salami too far, and the formerly solid principle disappears.

If the reports out of Pakistan are true, this theoretical debate just became much more interesting, because we now have a very real slice of salami. If more than four thousand lives were saved as a direct result of intel obtained using torture, does that make it justified? I think it's clear what Krauthammer would say. But what about Kinsley? Are four thousand innocent lives a big enough slice of salami for him?