Minimizing What Torture is


Sam Harris defends the use of torture:

I say somewhere in The End of Faith that if you can't imagine any situation in which depriving someone of sleep, playing loud music, water-boarding them - doing something which leaves no lasting physical damage other than making them exquisitely uncomfortable for the moment so that they talk - if you can't imagine a situation in which you'd be willing to do that or sanction that, then you're just not thinking hard enough. There are people who are intending to destroy the lives of millions, render cities uninhabitable - that's what's scary, frankly.

Andrew Sullivan counters:

I find the way Sam phrases this to be revealing. Note how he minimizes what torture is.

What the Bush administration did against mere suspects was not making anyone "uncomfortable for the moment". Try being deprived for sleep for weeks. Or subjected to deafening noise day and night where there is not even day or night. Or being waterboarded 183 times - that's a lot of "moments."

To me, Sam Harris epitomizes the typical armchair warrior - an upper middle class intellectual with zero first hand experience of war or violence. The intellectualization of torture is one of the most worrying aspects of educated elite discussion as it helps remove responsibility for acts of brutality committed in our name.

To Harris, war happens on the television set. He has never killed a man, shot a man or lived through the instability and terror of real violence. While Harris has a right to voice his opinions, his authority on the subject is close to zero. I'd like to see how Harris reacts to waterboarding, but I doubt he'd ever get that close to the real world.