Jay Severin doesn’t understand hypotheticals

Jay was discussing torture yesterday. He’s for it, of course. He trotted out one of his favorite hypothetical situations, which he attributes to Alan Dershowitz:

A child is locked up somewhere with only an hour’s worth of air remaining and you have in custody the guy who put the kid there. Do you torture the guy to make him reveal the kid’s whereabouts?

Jay thinks the answer in this case is obvious. Of course you do. You do whatever is necessary to save the kid’s life. (Jay doubted whether President Obama would be willing to inflict torture in order to save his own children’s lives, though.)

Now if the situation were really that simple, I imagine a large majority of Americans would agree. Saving a kid’s life gets a higher priority than honoring the rights of a depraved criminal. Jay insinuates that since torture in this situation is fair game, torture in just about any situation is fair game if it’s done with the intention of saving innocent lives and preventing innocent suffering.

But the situation is rarely that simple, and it’s certainly not that simple when it comes to the interrogation of suspected or even confessed terrorists. So I called Jay and asked how he would handle the situation under a few additional conditions:

A child is locked up somewhere with only an hour’s worth of air remaining and you have in custody the guy who put the kid there. You have the option of torturing the guy, but if you do, there’s only a 50% chance that he’ll give you the information you need to save the kid’s life. Also, if you torture him, his brothers will take revenge and kill four additional children. And the guy who you order to perform the torture will go insane, beat his wife, and leave his children.

My point, of course, was that an act of torture doesn’t affect only the results of the specific interrogation in question. Torture has the potential to breed all sorts of other problems which may turn out to be worse than the problem you were trying to solve in the first place.

Jay didn’t get it. His response was that my hypothetical was invalid because in real life child killers don’t have brothers who will take revenge on other children, and it’s not that hard to find people willing and able to torture prisoners without risk to their own mental health. (Jay, naturally, would be happy to spend his days torturing criminals and then go home to a sound sleep.) He quickly hung up on me before I was able to elaborate.

But Jay, the point of discussing hypothetical situations is not to debate how likely or unlikely the situations might be. The point is to make you think about the implications of your decisions. The idea that you’d have a kidnapper locked up while his victim is trapped with an hour’s worth of oxygen is by itself rather preposterous. Adding a few extra conditions as I did doesn’t invalidate the hypothetical. It merely complicates it – apparently to a point beyond Jay’s mental capacities.

By the way, it’s not at all clear that Dershowitz himelf would actually approve of torture in the kidnapped child scenario or even in what context the hypothetical was raised. If you Google {Dershowitz torture warrants} you’ll find a lot of material, most of which don’t even mention kidnapping. For an interesting response to the kidnapped child scenario, see this post from Amnesty International. I hadn’t seen this when I called Jay yesterday afternoon, but it makes some of the same points that I did.

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