The Corner

Three Points About the ‘Torture Report’ and Morality

When I speak about enhanced interrogation — or indeed virtually all of our controversial tactics in the war on terror, including the drone program — I tend to begin with three moral propositions.

First, it is immoral to establish legal doctrines that would provide unlawful combatants with all the same protections as lawful prisoners of war. The reason for this is simple. As I said yesterday, doing so provides a terrorist or other unlawful enemy with an incentive to keep violating legal norms and thus provides them with enormous tactical advantages. The laws of war originated in moral norms that aspire to limit combat to the combatants. Terrorists disrupt these legal and moral norms not just by intentionally targeting civilians but also by intentionally mingling with civilians. 

But it goes even beyond incentivizing terror tactics. Providing the same protections incentivizes the war itself. Terror apologists respond to the jihadist war crime of concealing themselves within the civilian population by asserting that’s their only choice if they wish to fight the U.S. or Israel — they’d be slaughtered in open combat. Yes, they would. And the laws of war dictate that utterly futile combat is a needless waste of life and a further violation of international legal norms. So, in short, don’t initiate a war that you cannot lawfully win. 

When a Western pundit excuses jihadist war crimes and rebukes Americans or Israelis for tactics that distinguish between lawful and unlawful combatants, they are not only incentivizing war crimes, they are incentivizing the war itself. 

Second, when American pundits or politicians demand that we provide protections for jihadists beyond those required by law, we are selling American lives cheaply. Decisions about restraint do not happen in a cost-free environment, where our forbearance is applauded, potential enemies are won over, and actual enemies can be magically defeated anyway, through tactics that meet the approval of the Harvard faculty lounge. As I’ve said many times before, Americans have died because of our absurd rules of engagement — rules that accomplish nothing on the battlefield, alarm our allies in harm’s way, and empower the enemy. When we create and try to enforce moral norms that provide real battlefield advantages to our enemies, we are perversely violating moral obligations to our friends and neighbors, to protect them from forces they can’t possibly face alone.

Third, there are still lines we cannot cross. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, reports of freezing a prisoner to death as he was chained to a wall, or reports of forced rectal feeding, represent two examples where — if true — the CIA went too far. There are other examples. Lines can shift depending on the stakes and magnitude of the danger, but lines still exist. We can’t ever reach the point where we just say, “War is hell” and excuse all the conduct that follows. This is a common-sense moral proposition, and I don’t know any serious moral thinker who believes there are no norms for human conduct in war. Yet I’ve heard those who support enhanced interrogation accused of just that, of believing “anything goes,” with inevitable comparisons to history’s worst criminals. Here was an actual question in a Salon interview of Glenn Greenwald:

The more you look at just how many people and institutions were involved (either actively or by looking the other way) — the doctors, the psychiatrists, the media, members of Congress — the more it starts to sound like a society-wide failure. It reminds me of what Arendt wrote about Germany (and Europe in general) in the interwar and World War II periods, how she described it as a kind of civilizational collapse. Tell me if you think I’m going too far.

This line of thinking isn’t just “too far.” It’s unhinged. 

It is moral to treat unlawful combatants differently — and worse — than lawful prisoners of war. It is moral to value American lives and use all lawful means to honor and defend those lives. And believing those two propositions doesn’t lead to moral anarchy but instead punishes criminality and can even deter war itself.

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