The Corner

We’re The Good Guys

From a reader:

Hey Jonah,

Sorry, I’m yet another lefty (one of a crowd, I’m quite sure) writing to say that I think you’re missing the point in the argument about the Geneva Conventions, and more broadly about the entire war. I’ve always believed that the one of the most important assets we have as a society is that we can believe that we’re the “good guys.” I don’t think that acting as if that is true is something that you do in order to convince the other guy that you might have some moral authority. You do it because you believe that it’s the right thing to do. The moral authority exists whether or not the other guy believes. It’s what we believe about ourselves that matters. Following the precepts embodied by the Conventions, even when they’re not specifically mandated, even when there might be some strategic disadvantage to abiding by them (and I think that that’s an arguable point,) these are the things that provide us with the moral authority that I think we ought to be able to claim. Security at the cost of our collective soul is, I think, a pretty bad trade.

Just to be sure, I’m not arguing pacifism (or, at this point, even withdrawal – we broke it, etc…) I was fully behind the invasion of Afghanistan; although, I tend to think that Iraq has been a pointless debacle. What I am arguing is that there’s a fine line which we don’t seem to acknowledge, currently.

Me: First, a lot of lefty readers complain that I only put up the freak show email. I don’t think that’s actually true and I think this is a good example of a perfectly calm and decent lefty offering a good faith objection.

Second, I think he’s right about the importance of being the good guys for all sorts of reasons, in part because being good is its own reward but also because we need to set an example.

But, third, I think he’s making a common mistake. Lots of well-intentioned readers use the Geneva Convention as a stand-in for “good” or “decent” or “honorable” as if adhering to the GC is the benchmark for rightness and if you don’t follow it — and only it — you’re on the side of torture and cruelty. And this is just wrong. As Rich noted in that column I linked to below, the Geneva Convention requires that we give detainees razors and forbids keeping them in cells. Surely reasonable people can hold the position that applying these provisions to Jihadi fanatics is unwise (does nobody remember Louis Pepe?). In other words, simply saying we’re violating the Geneva Convention doesn’t automatically translate into “we’re not behaving like the good guys.”

I really don’t have any problem with the basic objection that we must have rules for dealing with these detainees. But we do have rules. Hundreds of detainees have been released. One can say they haven’t been released quickly enough, but there are some honorable reasons for that (we don’t want to send them back to countries where they’ll be tortured, for example). And as I’ve already written, I think it’s probably a good thing for Congress to step up to the plate. But I think it’s folly for the Supreme Court to assert that non-signatories to the Geneva Convention, never mind outright terrorists, must be treated according to its guidelines and I think it’s a form of ill-conceived moral bullying to insist that anyone who disagrees is willfully turning his back on decency.

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