Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wrestling with Torture

Damon Linker at The New Republic, unlike so many journalistic commentators on both Left and Right, resists the easy answers and actually wrestles seriously with the ethical questions involved in the use of torture. He writes:

I've pondered for years what to say about the Bush administration's use of torture in the years after 9/11. So far I've remained quiet about the issue because I'm so uneasy about it -- not just about what the United States has done, but also about the reactions of nearly everyone who has commented on it. On one side, the right mocks those concerned with our actions in that insufferably smug, proudly parochial tone that has marked nearly all conservative commentary about foreign affairs for the past seven years. As far as the right is concerned, we haven't tortured anyone, even though the definition of torture accepted by liberal-democratic nations around the globe (including the United States until the day before yesterday) clearly tells us that we did.

Meanwhile, on the other side, critics (often but not always on the left) work themselves into an indignant rage. I share much of their disgust as well as the conviction that torture rarely works as a means of procuring information. At the same time, I find much of their fury -- like their tendency to describe senior members of the Bush administration as war criminals -- much too easy. The United States did not engage in torture because the Vice-President's office and the Justice Department under Bush were populated by sadistic would-be totalitarians. On the contrary, we engaged in torture for reasons deeply rooted in the troubling nature of politics itself.

In the end, the statesman needs to rely on his judgment - on what Aristotle called practical wisdom and President Bush ... called his "gut" - in making the decision about whether and when and for how long and in what ways to deviate from what is normally right in order to "preserve the mere existence or independence of society" against its mortal enemies.

We all know what President Bush and his advisors decided. In the wake of 9/11, they (along with writers such as Charles Krauthammer) judged militant Islam to be an existential threat to the United States. And an existential threat is perhaps the clearest example of a case in which normal justice has to give way to the preservation of the common good at all costs. If we were truly confronting an existential threat -- a perpetual undetected ticking time bomb -- then it would have been immoral for those responsible for defending the common good of the United States not to torture a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative such as Abu Zubaydah in order to extract every last bit of information from him. (Even if torture rarely works, the fact that it sometimes does would be quite enough to justify its use in a genuinely dire situation.) Judging the justice of the Bush administration's policies on torture thus requires answering a single (extremely difficult) question: Was the administration right to believe that militant Islam posed (and perhaps still poses) an existential threat to the United States? If the answer is yes, then its policies may very well have been justified and even demanded by the circumstances. If the answer is no, then its leading officials may well have been guilty of bending or breaking the law for no good reason -- most likely out of a combination of ignorance, fear, and paranoia.

So what's the answer?

Linker confesses that he doesn't know the answer to his question. This is an honest and well-thought out essay by a liberal writer, and I agree with much of what he says. I agree, for instance, with the basic point of his piece that torture is almost always a moral crime, but that it's not absolutely wrong. There are circumstances under which it would not only be right, but would, in fact, be a moral duty, and to decline that duty would itself be morally criminal.

One thing he states about which I have my doubts, though, is his claim that torture rarely works. It may have worked more often than some opponents think and much to our good fortune at that if this article by Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post is correct:

In releasing highly classified documents on the CIA interrogation program last week, President Obama declared that the techniques used to question captured terrorists "did not make us safer." This is patently false.

The proof is in the memos Obama made public -- in sections that have gone virtually unreported in the media. Consider the Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005. It notes that "the CIA believes 'the intelligence acquired from these interrogations has been a key reason why al Qaeda has failed to launch a spectacular attack in the West since 11 September 2001.' . . . In particular, the CIA believes that it would have been unable to obtain critical information from numerous detainees, including [Khalid Sheik Mohammed] and Abu Zubaydah, without these enhanced techniques." The memo continues: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques . . . KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.' " Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations have led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.

Both of these columns should be read by anyone serious about grasping the moral difficulties surrounding the issue of torture and the arguments that have been flying around in the wake of the recent release of the Bush administration memos.


Unintended Consequences

Prior to the election some well-intentioned folk, like Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, argued that Obama's policies would be better for the poor than would his opponent's, and that therefore the Illinois senator merited the vote of all who care about the underprivileged and destitute. Well, I wonder what Mr. Wallis thinks now after the release of a World Bank report prepared for the G20 summit. First Things (subscription only) reports:

Given the worries expressed in the background paper the World Bank prepared for the March meeting of the G20 finance ministers, there is a plausible case to be made that the huge expansion of the U.S. government is about to suck the globe dry of available credit, leaving the third world stalled for years in the murderous effects of the current financial situation. "Preliminary analysis shows that...infant deaths in developing countries may be 200,000 to 400,000 per year higher on average between 2010 and ...2015 than they would have been in the absence of the crisis," the World Bank reported. "Unless reversed, this corresponds to a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million excess deaths during the period."

Because of the need to borrow to pay the massive debt into which President Obama and Congress have plunged us, there will be very little money available for third world borrowers who need money to buy necessities like food and medicine for their people, and, as usual, the children of those countries will bear the brunt of the financial famine.

There's an irony in this tragedy. People like Wallis made the argument during the campaign that Obama's economic policies would benefit the poor and thus reduce the felt need among poor women for abortions. Obama would thus do more, substantively speaking, to reduce the incidence of abortion than would John McCain who could be expected to only appoint Supreme Court Justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade. This seemed like a peculiar argument at the time, but I wonder what Wallis thinks of it now that those very policies that he was so enthusiastic about may result in the deaths of almost three million born children in a span of only five years.