Jared at Bottom-Up Change responds to my post on Krauthammer's recent defense of torture.
I'm particularly interested in this important argument:
This is a version of what we might call the Pelosi Is Irrelevant Argument. Now, I have no interest in Nancy Pelosi one way or the other. She's never really inspired me, nor inspired much confidence in me, and if she's guilty of something, she's guilty. I have no interest in stretching to defend her, especially not on partisan grounds. I don't have any particular loyalty to the Dems.
What Krauthammer concludes from Alter’s piece, and Nancy Pelosi’s awkward position about waterboarding, is that all the outrage over the torture memos today is really “false”. Our correct intuitions about torture were the ones we had immediately after 9/11, when many people, including liberals like Alter, were considering the use of torture to extract information from terrorist suspects.
But the problem with this argument is the following, and it’s not hard to see. Just because many people, including possibly Nancy Pelosi, were not as disturbed about torture shortly after 9/11 as they are today does not mean that these intuitions were correct back then. I concede that if there were a very significant terrorist attack tomorrow, the percentage of Americans who would support torture as a method to gain intelligence would increase dramatically. Perhaps Pelosi would go back to not speaking out against torture. But that does not prove that these “aftermath” intuitions would be correct. It is often the case that our intuitions about right and wrong are distorted when we are angry or have recently been harmed. One reason why we have laws, I believe, is to check the darker emotions of individuals that may lead them to act in uncivilized ways.
However, I'm skeptical about the Pelosi Is Irrelevant argument. Here, for example, is an argument to the effect that Pelosi's immediately-post-9/11 judgment is relevant here:
Suppose that Pelosi is not an overtly unreasonable person. Suppose also that she judged e.g. waterboarding to be permissible immediately after 9/11. This is some evidence that such judgments are the kind reasonable people might make under such circumstances. Consequently this shows that decisions to waterboard were reasonable in a very ordinary and straight-forward sense: that is, in the sense that a reasonable person might very well make such a judgment under those circumstances. That is, this provides some mitigating/excusing evidence in defense of those who tortured and those who ordered torture.Needless to say, the fact that any single person judged that p never gives us conclusive evidence that it was reasonable to judge that p...but the more people who do so judge, and the stronger our antecedent reason for thinking them to be rational, the stronger evidence of reasonableness is their judgment. (And, of course, none of this could show that the decision to torture was optimal...only, at most, that it was excusable.)
Personally, I've never had a very high opinion of Pelosi; she has never struck me as being particularly smart. (Which seems to make her about par for the course in Congress...) So I'm somewhat less impressed by the allegation of her complicity. But those who think highly of her should be impressed--if, that is, it turns out to be true.
It's become fairly common on the left to say that Pelosi doesn't matter, that the GOP is simply throwing up a distraction. And, of course, they are. They seemt to care more about the fact that a Democrat when along with the plan than that Republicans engineered it. (This, again, is par for the course in recent years: Republicans boldly lead us down the road to perdition, Democrats meekly follow, thus getting us to perdition and giving Republicans cover for having masterminded the whole affair...)
But ignoring the motives and well-known characther flaws of the GOP, Pelosi's complicity would matter, in that it would give us a little more reason to think that there is significant difference between what seems reasonable now and what seemed reasonable in the crazy days immediately after 9/11. It's not clear how weighty it would be if she did acquiesce to torture...but the fact cannot be dismissed as evidentially weightless without further argument.
I think it's hard to find our way through this tricky terrain...but that's my thought on it for today.