A Modest Proposal for Richard Cohen


Richard Cohen has written a column asking that we have an open-minded fair consideration of torture. sure, he admits, Cheney has been a liar. But what if he was right?

"If Cheney is right, then let the debate begin: What to do about enhanced interrogation methods? Should they be banned across the board, always and forever? Can we talk about what is and not just what ought to be?"

I agree. The point Cohen is making is that this is a utilitarian calculation, we need to balance the value of lost human lives against one human feeling pain. Which is the least undesirable of bad choices? It seems a question for which we ought to set aside partisan posturing and engage in honest conversation.

Cohen is right, but we need to enlarge the context. If we are willing to engage in legitimate discourse about techniques that will stop terrorism, we need to also consider slavery. The evidence convincingly points to the ineffective nature of torture in preventing terrorist acts, but slavery is much more effective. Acts of terrorism require four things: planning, available funds, willing people, and the ability to purchase the materials needed (vehicles, weapons, explosives, etc.). All four would be beyond the grasp of possible future terrorists if they were enslaved. Hypothetically then, given that we know that there are likely to be terrorists from a population who will attempt to strike at the United States or its citizens or interests, and we know this with the same degree of confidence we would have in a ticking bomb scenario or in the cases Cheney has obliquely pointed to, then if it is an open-question as to whether it is acceptable to torture in this case, shouldn't it be equally conceivable to allow slavery?

Indeed, slavery ought to be seen as preferable to torture. We don't have to think of slavery in terms of pre-Civil War South. There don't have to be whips and the separation of families. We can prescribe meaningful work, livable work hours, cultural events, and good wholesome food. Where torture causes unfathomable pain, this would not. Indeed, it is not much different from a cancer survivor with a job she doesn't like in our culture. With the pre-existing condition, she would either be outright rejected for the health insurance that she needs to stay alive or it would be prohibitively expensive. She's just trapped in a job, they're just trapped in a job. What's the real difference?

Of course, there's the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. But as we saw from Guantanamo, our laws end at the border. The US government can do anything it wants as long as it is on another country's soil. If habeas corpus and indefinite detention without charge in violation of the 5th amendment are allowable, then the 13th should be no different.

Further, the work of the enslaved potential terrorists could be selected to help the planet and the most vulnerable on it. We could have them growing food to feed the hungry, manufacturing solar panels, or any other work that could serve future generations. Where nothing but pain and possibly information that prevents a terrorist attack comes from torture, the prevention of terrorist attacks and any number of beneficial results could come from selective slavery. We have precedent for US supported slavery in the Marianas Islands. Now, instead of having it for mere profit of a few sweatshop owners, we do it for the good of the Earth, for our grandchildren.

If done right, slavery could prevent torture. The Central Intelligence Agency is not the only one using these techniques. We know that the drug gangs in Mexico also torture in addition to murder, running drugs, and smuggling people. If we opened "nuevo plantaciones" in border towns, we would not only end much of the illegal immigration and turn the tide in the war on drugs, but we could save the environment. If we move farmers from California's Central Valley down to run these Mexican mega-farms, we would no longer have to divert water for agriculture in a region that is in deep trouble, causing ecological damage and threatening to wipe out endangered species. Add to that the fact that the lives we could give those who now live in fear of the gangs and in squalor could live lives of contentment. Surely, we should prefer benign slavery to torture.

So, I think Richard Cohen has a point. What if Cheney is right? If he is, then maybe we ought to have an open, honest conversation about torture and if so, then we ought to also consider slavery in the same way.


Crossposted at Philosophers' Playground

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Cohen's argument in a nutshell.