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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

On Torture and the War on Terror

We will soon be joined in debate on the issue of what constitutes torture. Den Beste in his blog USS Clueless discusses this issue in a thoughtful and provocative way.

Those who oppose all elements of coercion during enemy interrogation find themselves on the same side Secretary of State Henry Stimson who closed down the government code breakers in 1929, observing that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." This stupidity was reversed in time.

Thanks to our code breakers, the US defeated the Japanese in the Pacific, specifically at the battle of Midway, proving that American morality is malleable. For a more recent example: abortion was overwhelmingly perceived as wrong, and practitioners were prosecuted up until the Roe vs. Wade in 1973. In the intervening 32 years, it has become so accepted that children are aborted as they are delivered to the approval of a significant number of Americans and the acquiescence of the rest. It is apparent that morality is “evolving,” in secular as well as religious society.

So it is worth discussing what a country and a people should do when they are faced with an enemy that does not fight using old established rules of armed conflict. Enemies whose primary victims are civilians, who wear no uniforms, kill families to intimidate, whose key weapons are loaded civilian airliners, the suicide bomber and the roadside explosive device, and who stage throat cutting exhibitions of random civilians to terrorize their enemies. This enemy has stated they love death as we love life and has declared their interest in killing us by the millions. Are we to deal with this enemy using the rules of 60 years ago when conventional armies faced each other? What is “right” and “good?”

Den Beste points out that: “…an act can be absolutely good while being wrong if there was an alternative which was substantially more good which was not chosen. Equally, an act can be terribly evil and still be right because all the other choices available were even more evil. It's more or less the same as pointing out that something can be "worst" while being "good", and something can be "best" while being "bad". The right act is the best one; the wrong act is any which is substantially worse than the best one. But if it happens to be the case that the best act is good and all the wrong acts are evil then that's more luck than anything. Life is rarely that straightforward.”

He says some provocative things, but the examples he cites are compelling. Regarding threats against our enemies:

Would I rule out torture, rape, mutilation, mass murder? I won't rule out anything.
Part of the reason why is that any case where I publicly rule out anything, no matter what it is, weakens me in negotiations. The reason that chemical weapons were not used against us in Europe in WWII wasn't that we were moral or because there was a treaty, but because we were ready to respond in kind.

What about the issue of genocide? He points out that the nuclear strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction was – at its root – a genocidal threat. It’s ironic (and telling) that it was Ronald Reagan who saw MAD as an immoral position, and Liberals who are even today clinging to shreds of that strategy, as they ridiculed Reagan from working to remove the threat.

Sometimes you have to accept that you may need to prepare to do some things as deterrents that you'd never consider doing preemptively. You may need to even consider genocide as a deterrent, which is what we did during the Cold War as part of the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in order to deter a nuclear attack against us. That amounted to "mass murder" (leaving aside the question of whether killing in war is "murder").

It is arguable that we are fighting the War on Terror today because of weakness in the past, just as World War 2 may have been prevented by a strong military response to Hitler’s provocations of 1938 in Austria and the Sudetenland.

On one level, our current war is the legacy of such a failure. Four times in the 1990's we were attacked by al Qaeda, and each time our response was small, tentative, relatively unimportant, and brief and – most critically – did not involve men on the ground or direct combat. And this convinced al Qaeda and many others that we didn't have the stomach for war, that our intention was weak and that we were gutless. That emboldened them.

Read the whole thing. It will be a useful preparation for the bluster, posturing and overheated rhetoric we will be hearing in the next few weeks.

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