Sunday, March 09, 2003

The Game of "What If?"

There's a standard rhetorical technique that I call "the game of 'what if?'". You use a series of "what if?" questions to put your opponent on the defensive, where he has to come up with sensible answers to a series of increasingly unlikely questions. This is an application of the old saying "A fool can ask more questions than a wise man can answer".

An example, from the idea of torturing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to get details of al Qaeda operations might be "What if al Qaeda had a nuke set to blow in an American city. Would you support torture then? What if it was your city?". If you say "no", then the questioner says "So you'd let millions of Americans die because you're a little squeamish. Just goes to show how shallow, stupid and evil people like you are! You'd deliberately let New York be wiped out to save one crummy Arab and your delicate conscience."

It's hard to counter. Saying (with Jim Henly of Unqualified Offerings) Because we're the fucking United States of America! walks right into this trap. The only way to counter this argument is to refuse to play:

  • There is no evidence whatever that al Qaeda has a nuclear weapon or has any prospect of getting one on the forseeable future.
  • There is no reason to believe that torturing KSM would get us any more information than is already in his notebooks, cellphones, and computer.
  • This isn't the first time we've gotten KSM. This time, we got him alive. Exactly how sure are we that it's really him? Fingerprints? DNA?

Torture, as I've said before, is great for getting "confessions" -- having your victim agree with what you already know -- and useless for real police work. Even the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, usually given as an example of a "successful" torture session, seems to have simply involved having him confirm information that had been found on his computer. Also note that it took several weeks to get even to this point -- in a "Dirty Harry" scenario, whatever was going to happen would have already happened by the time he "talked".

Anyway, the assumption is that "torture works". It doesn't. Real police work works. It's time consuming, difficult, and often dangerous. But it's the only way to get answers that we don't already know. Or, even worse, think we know.

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