The Corner

Torture and Pacifism

Over the weekend Marc Thiessen likened opponents of waterboarding to radical pacifists. He writes that both groups’ opinions should be respected but that neither should get their way. It’s an interesting comparison. People who oppose waterboarding but aren’t pacfists will be outraged by it, of course. But the two positions do have something in common: They insist in principle on a moral rule that has to be respected even if respecting it has very bad consequences. So the proponent (of war or of waterboarding) can stand against absolutism and for taking consequences into account and reap the rhetorical advantages.

I’m not arguing here for or against Marc’s conclusion that sometimes we ought to waterboard. I’d only note that most people believe that there is some line we can’t cross regardless of the circumstances. A person might be willing to waterboard a suspected terrorist under some circumstances without, for example, being willing to see his son’s fingernails pulled out to get him to talk. Marc presumably draws a line of his own somewhere. There is some rule he wouldn’t break though the heavens fall. (I hope so! He’s in my parish.)

The view that waterboarding should never be done is thus like pacifism in its non-consequentialism. But it’s also like absolute support for any aspect of the just-war tradition or for any moral rule at all. Perhaps Marc is right that waterboarding doesn’t fall into the class of actions that could be taken against suspected terrorists that we should consider torture and thus abjure in all circumstances. But if so that has to be because of a judgment that something about the act differentiates it from torture, not just that we need it to avoid really bad consequences. (I’m not sure that Marc disagrees with anything I’ve just said: He might just say that the anti-waterboarders have drawn the line in the wrong place, just as the pacifists have.)

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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