Politics & Policy

Tortured Logic

Hypocrisy and moral absolutism.

It’s funny, for years now Bush’s critics have denounced the president for his “moral absolutism.” His “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric was too “black and white.” The French, intellectuals, liberals, diplomats–these are the enlightened who can see in shades of gray. John Kerry, the master of nuance, was the real statesman because he understood that one must draw fine distinctions and grasp the “complexities” of every situation.

Well, we now have a situation where the Bush administration is asking for liberals–and some conservatives–to see beyond the spectrum of black and white. But the supporters of the McCain Amendment, which would ban “coercive” measures and impose constitutional strictures of due process on the war on terror, insist that there are only two choices. Either you can agree with them and support the bill or you must love torture. Complete and total moral absolutism is the order of the day.

This inconsistency–or hypocrisy, if you’re so inclined–is itself instructive insofar as it demonstrates that almost all political arguments boil down to moral absolutism at some point. It’s just that we have disagreements about where we should be absolutist and where we should make compromises with necessity.

Hence the need for making distinctions. Making distinctions is the first step toward making choices. If you can’t tell the difference between option A and option B, you cannot make serious choice between the two.

I didn’t mind Bush saying “You’re either with us or against us” after 9/11 because anybody who celebrated or supported that attack was, as a matter of simple logic, against us. But I would reel back in horror if Bush said the exact same words in a less stark situation–say, in a debate over wheat tariffs. We need not divide the world into friends and enemies over the price of Frosted Flakes. But prudent statecraft, it seems to me, involves identifying those who, given the opportunity, would kill us and treating them differently from those who would not.

This raises the first of a very long list of important distinctions to be made. Who gets tortured or, to use a less-loaded term, “coerced”? Everyone can agree that even minor coercion–shoving, verbal abuse, detention and so forth–is absolutely unacceptable if it is directed against law-abiding people who are under no suspicion of wrongdoing. All of these nasty things are perfectly legitimate, however, when used against a Jihadi nutter in the caves of Tora Bora. Similarly, I believe that torture is obviously and always wrong when employed simply for enjoyment or punishment. If you don’t believe a detainee has truly useful information of a pressing nature, lock him up, but lay off him.

Such distinctions are not good enough for some. Indeed, my friend Andrew Sullivan’s moral absolutism has led him to make sweeping comparisons between captured al Qaeda terrorists and dissidents in totalitarian regimes. As if one Solzhenitsyn equals one Zarqawi. He writes, “You cannot raise or lower the moral status of mass murderers with respect to torture.” This strikes me as nonsense. It is a moral crime of a very high order to throw a man in prison simply because of what he believes. It is a moral necessity of a very high order to throw a man in prison if what he does involves mass murder. Death or lifetime imprisonment for writing a novel is surely torture for the novelist. But society cannot call these measures “torture,” for then they would be unavailable for mass murderers and the like.

Sullivan responds by calling me a relativist and arguing that torture is a line that cannot be crossed for anybody, at any time, for (almost) any reason. I think it’s relativistic not to distinguish between evil men and heroic ones.

Regardless, if torture is axiomatically evil and impermissible in all circumstances, we’d better hurry up and define it.

Nobody thinks it’s ever torture to get bonked on the head with a Nerf bat. Everyone agrees a hot poker in unaccommodating places is always torture. Within this broad range, arguments over what is or is not torturous are to be had. The most debated technique is “waterboarding,” which terrifies its recipient into believing he is drowning. Apparently, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded until he gave us a bounty of information. Technically, the McCain amendment would ban such treatment.

But, as Charles Krauthammer notes in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, there’s reason to believe even McCain would endorse a “sliding scale” that would allow the Khalid Mohammeds to get roughed up under certain circumstances. In other words, McCain makes the sorts of distinctions mentioned above–he just doesn’t want them written into law. Indeed, under the “ticking time bomb” scenario, McCain believes the president should willfully break the law McCain has authored. That’s a pretty Kerryesque position: He’s for it, except when he’s against it. So much for absolutism.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


The Latest