The Corner

On Shortcuts and Torture

Several readers have asked what my response is to Christopher Hitchens’s column on Churchill and torture since it seems to contradict my column on the topic. My short answer is that it doesn’t. Hitchens’s argument is historically narrow. On that, I think Ron Radosh’s response to Hitchens beats anything I can offer. But even if Hitchens wins the historical debate and proves that Churchill never, ever, countenanced or endorsed harsh interrogation techniques and/or torture, it wouldn’t really rebut my argument. My column focused on what Obama called “shortcuts.” He wants to put certain shortcuts in a box and say “these things we will never do, even though they work.” And as I said, that’s an honorable position. But part of my point was that war is always about shortcuts. War is a shortcut. Some argue that waterboarding a surely evil and guilty man in order to get vital information must never happen, but bombing civilian centers is “just something that happens in war.” To me this is problematic. I don’t have any great answers here. But it’s very hard for me to understand why one shortcut to victory is never, ever, acceptable while the other is a regrettable cost of war. Surely none of the families being firebombed would prefer the bombing to the waterboarding. That should tell us something. What it tells us, beyond the fact that war is a horrible thing, I’m not sure. 

If it helps clarify things, I’ve never in my life understood the principled argument against assassinations of foreign leaders in the context of preventing a war (i.e. if we’re merely talking about murder, I’m morally opposed). The practical arguments against the practice, by the way, are often very strong.

But if one could demonstrate that assassinating Saddam Hussein in 2002 should have prevented the war and defanged Iraq, I would have been awfully sympathetic to the idea. Of course, there are all sorts of potential collateral costs and unintended consequences at stake. But as a matter of simple moral logic and principle, why is it better to kill tens of thousands of men who are just following Saddam Hussein’s orders (as well as kill innocent civilians) rather than kill Saddam Hussein himself, if that shortcut would do the trick?

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