Okay, here’s the scenario: Terrorists have planted a nuclear weapon in a major American city and if you don’t stop it millions will die. If you have any sense of honor at all, wouldn’t you give your own life to stop that? Most of us would say yes, wouldn’t we? What about prison? If you could save them at the cost of spending years in prison, maybe even the rest of your life, wouldn’t you have to make that choice? As bitter as the years might be, could you live with yourself knowing that you allowed a nuclear holocaust just so you could live out your own days in comfort and freedom? Fair? No. But what kind of man or woman worth the gametes that got them going could look someone in the eye and say, "I could have prevented it, but I would have suffered."
So if it’s ticking bombs that worry you, what do we need laws permitting torture for? Do the crime, save the lives, then do the time. Leave possible pardons aside. We are hard men for hard times and we want hard make-believe conundra.
Don’t talk to me about the suffering you’d bravely inflict on someone else. Tell me the cost you yourself would pay. Those are the "tough choices." Next time the subject comes up, ask your interlocutor to make one.
Henley was quite right to discern that the people who argue for the legalization of torture aren't hoping to let it happen, but rather that they want government agents who engage in torture to be allowed to do so without suffering legal consequences. Myself, I tend to agree with the opinion of Mrs. Tilton at A Fistful of Euros, who has written about the case of Wolfgang Dascher, a high-ranking Frankfurt am Main police officer who threatened a kidnapper with torture in order to try to save the life of his victim. After Dascher's conviction and light punishment, Tilton concluded that this outcome, combining the punishment necessary to maintain the rule of law with a lightness suiting the highly unusual circumstances, was the best one possible.
By extension of this principle, I can imagine that one day Canadian government agents may indeed resort to one sort of torture or another--perhaps Ignatieff's permissible duress?--to try to save lives. I would also hope that, after the lives have been saved and normality's return, these agents would then be prosecuted for the crimes that they permitted. The words of the character of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons</i->-"when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide"?--come to mind, as well they should.
The only problem with this fine principled argument is that the people who will be doing the torturing can't be expected to like the necessity of their post-torture harakiri. Ignatieff warned, in his brief supporting a careful and tentative legalization of torture, that if something like this doesn't happen then instead of banning torture we'll see it hidden by our law enforcement agencies. "We got this information carefully through our intelligence division," and someone a body is dumped with weights into a distant lake. I wonder if he has a point.