Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Ends and the Means

The Senate confirmation hearings on Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales have brought to the forefront the question of what the American position on interrogation and even torture of terrorist detainees should be. I would paint the question even more broadly: what means are justified by the end, namely, decisively defeating Islamic terrorism? Can the United States achieve this end using the limited means we have imposed on ourselves since Vietnam?

Wretchard has a very insightful post on the nature of the debate. He concludes with this observation:
We ought to be manly enough to authorize the use of a certain amount force on terrorist suspects, but only to the degree consistent with our deepest national values. To strike a balance between the need to maintain certain principles without paying too much for it in terms of military advantage; remembering what cost in blood must be paid for keeping the national conscience clean. It is a cup that will not pass away. We will be called to account not only for our management of captives but also for whether we allowed them to kill the innocent while they grinned insolently before us. Both the tortured prisoner and the child blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb will accuse us on the Last Day. About the only thing we can do is our best. But there is no weaseling out, no escape from choice.
So what means can we use against terrorists while at the same time keeping our national conscience clean? What if the means required for victory cannot keep our national conscience clean? Can our country live with a guilty national conscience?

Deep Space Nine is by far my favorite of the Star Trek franchises. The stories were bigger, with more meaning than the average TOS or TNG episode (TOS = The Original Series, TNG = The Next Generation). The characters were more real, responding to serious situations more like actual people and not cardboard cutouts. And in retrospect, DS9 had many episodes within its classic Dominion War storyline that appear startlingly prescient today during the war against the Islamists.

For your consideration: the season 6 episode In the Pale Moonlight. I highly recommend reading this review of the episode by Jamahl Epsicokhan to appreciate the context of the discussion. In brief, Captain Benjamin Sisko is faced with an untenable situation. The Federation is losing the war against the Dominion. As one character tells Sisko,
Time is definitely not on your side. The Dominion shipyards are operating at one hundred percent capacity. Yours are still being rebuilt. The Dominion is breeding legions of Jem'Hadar soldiers every day. You are experiencing manpower shortage. But most important, the Dominion is resolved, to win the war at any cost. You and I both know the Federation has already put out peace feelers.
Sisko proceeds to resolve himself and set in motion a chain of events that brings the Romulan Empire into the war against the Dominion, turning the tide of imminent defeat. But along the way, he makes choices and takes actions that he finds morally unacceptable. He lies, cheats, bribes men to cover the crimes of other men, and is even an accessory to murder. When he confronts the Cardassian tailor/spy Garak about these events, Garak puts things in perspective:
Well, it worked. And you'll get what you want, a war between the Romulans and the Dominion. And if your conscience is bothering you, you should soothe it with the knowledge that you may have just saved the entire Alpha Quadrant, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer. I don't know about you, but I'd call that a bargain.
The very harsh and unpleasant fact is that in this world of ours we are occasionally faced with the choice between the lesser of two evils. The question is whether we are resolved to make the choice that results in the lesser evil, even if we don't like that choice.

For my part, I do not believe we are at the juncture where we must choose the lesser of two evils. You may hear much from the media and the talking heads about how torture and interrogation are anathema to the American national character. This is absolutely not true. America does not torture or abuse its enemies in war, unless our enemies do so first. This is one of the essential elements of the Jacksonian heritage of our country. We fight by the rules when our opponents do, and we treat them with dignity so long as they do the same to us. However, when the rules of battle are violated, the gloves come off. One of the rules of battle which is central to the American idea of honorable combat is the targeting and brutal treatment and murder of civilians. The last group I can think of who purposely attacked and brutalized American civilians were the American Indian tribes. In response, their entire civilization was just short of exterminated.

I am not arguing here that we should exterminate Arab or Islamic culture. But it is important to recognize the true nature of American character and its historical response when faced with enemies who do not "play by the rules." In this context, torture and extreme interrogation methods are not inconsistent with the American character. If anything, our extremely measured response to the savagery exhibited by the Islamists has been out of character for America. And, I submit, as long as America continues to act out of its character, the behavior of the enemy will continue, and grow even more savage.

So it's time for the Director to go on record: what do I think is acceptable conduct towards terrorist prisoners? Assuming the terrorists are not American citizens, here is what I think:

1. Terrorists are not entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution.
2. Terrorists are not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention.
3. The goal of interrogation should be obtaining useful intelligence, and any means of interrogation should be used with this in mind.
4. Sexual assault or abuse of terrorists should not be permitted.
4. Subject to 3 and 4, any form of indirect non-physical coercion may be used (eg, loud music).
5. Subject to 3 and 4, any form of indirect physical coercion may be used (eg, standing for long periods of time).
6. Subject to 3 and 4, direct physical coercion may be used so long as permanent injury is not inflicted.

Given our enemy's conduct up to this point in WWIV, I believe that they have earned this response, at the very least. As Wretchard pointed out, "torture is the act of substituting the torment of one person for another; the suffering of a suspect to prevent the suffering of the presumed victim." If loud music, small spaces, humiliation, and a beating or two can save the life of an American soldier or civilian, I believe the American national conscience can live with that.

More importantly, I believe the American national conscience should live with that. I'd call it a bargain.