Like the death penalty and foreign policy and mostly unlike abortion, regulatory rollback, entitlement reform or any number of other conservatarian litmus tests, those on the Right in our political and cultural spectrum disagree on the morality and effectiveness of utilizing enhanced interrogation techniques on captured terrorists.
Is treating a human inhumanely worth the potential life-saving and national defense-bolstering information that might not otherwise be made available? Is the fact that the actions of this human—a terrorist, and therefore almost assuredly a mass murderer or attempted mass murderer—are deplorable alter the moral implications of treating him harshly, both physically and emotionally?
These questions should concern anyone who cares about the ethical actions of our government, not to mention our moral standing in a comparatively immoral—or perhaps amoral—world. If our government’s actions reflect our society’s mores (as we have certainly projected them to be), then what does the use of EIT say about our culture and value system?
Pushing People Around Is Not Torture
To properly analyze the recently stoked but cyclically reoccurring chattering class kerfuffle over the U.S. government treating terrorists a bit…unpleasantly, one must understand an important distinction: not all EITs are created equally. This is a critical point, because it is too easy to lump all forms of interrogation into a vat called “torture” if they go beyond offering the accused a cup of coffee and asking a few questions. That answer is too easy, and not accurate from a practical or ethical standpoint.
I will not split the definitional hairs of “torture,” as some have, to exclude waterboarding or prolonged periods of solitary confinement, cold temperatures, or loud noises. While those methods don’t exactly equate with lashes from a whip, or breaking fingers with a hammer, or any number of other physical torments, they can correctly be considered torturous while hardly stretching the spirit of the word.
But a reasonable line can be drawn, at least on the front end of the “means and ends” debate, between pouring water over a terrorist’s face and branding his neck with a hot iron.
I have been surprised to witness the backlash from most of the liberal media community, as well as many conservatives and libertarians, to waterboarding in particular. In the 2012 film “Safe House¸” Denzel Washington’s character, international criminal Tobin Frost, is subjected to waterboarding by Central Intelligence Agency agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). The catch is that Washington wasn’t acting during this scene. He wanted an authentic portrayal of the experience, and thus actually had Reynolds hold a towel over his face and dump water on him, creating the sensation of drowning. This is otherwise known as waterboarding.
Regardless of where one lands on other manners of torture, if Denzel can do it for a movie, our government should be able do it to captured terrorists who hold information we need to save innocent peoples’ lives.
Ends Can Justify Means
But beyond the settlement of the definitional debate lies the greater question with which we’re faced: Does torturing a terrorist represent a moral compromise we shouldn’t be willing to make?
Doing evil can never be justified, even to bad people, so goes the argument. But I’d like to suggest that when the ends are justified—indeed, even imperative—then the actions to achieve those ends may no be longer evil on their face. As with most of the great questions in life: it depends.
Consider the effort to end slavery in the United States—not a difficult example to conjure when one considers the cruelty the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations inflict upon their victims. Certainly killing another person is grotesque and undesirable, even extremely so. But ending slavery was deemed worth a civil war, both at the time by Northern Republicans and in every historical remembering since.
The ends justified the means, objectionable they may appear to be. Does the same logic apply to EIT, or is the question of stopping terrorist groups and of treating one roughly once captured two separate moral issues? In other words, is torture’s effectiveness immaterial to its morality?
The effectiveness of EIT is material to its morality in the same way the morality of war depends on the cause over which it’s being fought. Certainly, killing another human can be a great evil, but doing so with the legal backing of an organized government in a strategic manner toward the goal of eliminating a specific terrorist threat in the grander scheme of eliminating all terrorist threats creates a proper justification for such killing.
No one argues that it would have been morally preferable to not shoot Osama bin Laden. Given this, surely information-gathering that would prevent the slaughter of hundreds or thousands of innocents creates a proper justification for EIT.
The Morality of a Thing Can Depend on Its Goal
It is not enough to say, from the safety of a keyboard or cable news soapbox, that “torture is wrong,” and leave it at that, although many intelligent commenters have arrived at that conclusion (including some whom I respect and who contribute to this site), any more than it is acceptable to say that “killing is wrong,” while ignoring all context.
Killing is wrong when it’s not justified. Killing is not wrong when it is done to end slavery, to stop Adolph Hitler, or to defeat radical Islamist terrorists hell-bent on killing anyone who isn’t. Neither is torture wrong to prevent those same radical Islamist terrorists from their continued tyranny.
To contend otherwise, one must accept that foregoing EIT could mean not obtaining information that could prevent an attack. In short, refusing to touch a captured terrorist in Guantanamo could, say, mean the death of children attending school in Nishapur. In other words, one cannot separate the reason for using EIT methods from whether they are immoral or not. EITs should be used reluctantly, sparingly, and only when a terrorist prisoner withholds specific information. But they should be used.
Innocent People Shouldn’t Have to Die, No Matter the Year
New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat—whom I hold in high regard and with whom I rarely disagree—wrote recently in an article titled “Why We Tortured, Why We Shouldn’t” that:
The threat to the United States was real, but it was not the kind of threat it seemed in October 2001, or in 2002 and 2003 for that matter. We face a foe that wishes us harm, that has killed and will kill large numbers of people in many places around the world — but that has been unable carry out a single major terror attack on U.S. soil across thirteen years of trying. Forget a nuke a year or a 9/11 a year: Al Qaeda has not even managed a car bombing a year since its great success in 2001, and the domestic terrorism its ideology has inspired (Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon) has mostly been as random as school or movie theater shootings, posing no existential or strategic threat.
Douthat’s argument is reasoned and thoughtful, as always, but I believe he misses the greater gravity of the matter. His point would be acceptable as an argument to discontinue the use of EIT today, tomorrow, and perhaps the next day (if one accepts the presupposition that our moral duty is only to protect our own soil and people, but that is an argument for another time). It is fairly easy to acknowledge, even for the staunchest of pro-EIT hardliners, that if there is no threat, we shouldn’t treat our prisoners of war inhumanely.
But that’s not what this debate is about. We’re talking about using severe methods to garner specific information from captured terrorists that would help actively prevent the death of innocent people. That argument of moral examination knows no timeline. It was directly applicable in 2003, and if it isn’t in 2014, it will be again in ’15, or ’16, or whenever the next great terrorist or foreign enemy threat emerges.
I will concede that the current terrorist threat may loom smaller on the American horizon than in 2001 or even in the panicked aftermath, if Douthat will concede that our principles are hardly kept intact by treating a handful of imprisoned terrorists with kind hospitality while their friends target innocent men, women, and children.
Americans and the World Depend on Our Strength
In his column this week, Charles Krauthammer defended the use of waterboarding under President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 tenure: “A nation attacked is not a laboratory for exquisite moral experiments. It’s a trust to be protected, by whatever means meet and fit the threat.” This is especially true when that nation is ours. Many other nations depend on the militaristic and economic strength of the United States, and some would even struggle to exist (Israel comes to mind) if our enemies had their way with our armed forces and our republic. The threat of terrorism is still strong—here at home but elevated more highly abroad—and perhaps even more pressing than it was six years ago.
We complain about perpetual war, and there is validity to the notion that the United States would be better served by being more selective in its foreign military forays. But as long as there are terrorists, there lies in us—the world’s mightiest force for good—a moral obligation to help stop them.
In general, the American public have no qualms with harsh treatment for captured terrorists in the name of the greater good, as a consistent string of polls and surveys show a majority support EIT when there is the potential to gain critical information. Moral efficacy is, thank goodness, not determined by public opinion polls or majority-think. But on this important moral matter, the people have it right.
Sometimes you have to wage war to stop bad men. Sometimes you have to pour water on their face.