Difficult Choices

I sometimes ride my bicycle on a strikingly lovely road in a pretty town on Connecticut’s coast. The road has a long hill that I generally find myself riding up – so I ride slowly and have time to think. Most of the way to the top on the right sits a well-kept, prosperous-looking house that for years had a Jeep in the driveway with an attached, bright yellow snow plow; on the plow, prominently painted in black, were the words “Impeach Bush/Torture Cheney”.

I wonder about the attitudes, and the person, behind that slogan.

Presumably, the owner of the Jeep – and home – thought that President Bush was overstepping the line with the Patriot Act and the prison at Guantanamo Bay; as to Vice President Cheney, I guess he thought that the use of water boarding on three detainees was so horrifying that the man who was thought to be behind its authorization deserved a dose of his own medicine. Or maybe he thought the idea of torturing Cheney was simply funny. I wondered whether this exurban gentleman’s neighbors agreed with his sentiments.

If so, what are they thinking now? Guantanamo Bay remains open, President Obama signed the reauthorized Patriot Act and aggressively asserts Presidential prerogatives on domestic surveillance; and, while he has renounced the use of water boarding, he has made profligate use of drones to kill enemy combatants and the relatives and neighbors of enemy combatants who happen to be with the intended targets at the wrong times.

Let’s think about the moral thinking behind our two most recent Presidents’ respective approaches to the war with Al Qaeda. We do not wish to be at war with Al Qaeda; but you may be assured that they are at war with us, so – demonstrably – these issues will be faced by whoever is President.

Why was there such outrage about President Bush’s use of water boarding to extract information from three prisoners but almost no public consternation over the much greater numbers of “collateral damage” innocents (and the guilty, no doubt) who die in drone attacks authorized by President Obama and his staff? I am not asserting that drone attacks are always wrong; no doubt each such attack involves terribly difficult decisions being made by somebody. But it’s bizarre to condemn President Bush’s policy as horrifying and think that President Obama’s is not morally questionable.

If, God forbid, you were Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would you rather have been water boarded, or killed along with everybody else who happened to be too near by? Even if the water boarding frightened you out of your wits – maybe to the point where you revealed important information – you would still be alive if you were water boarded rather than droned. (Of course, he may well have preferred to have been “martyred”, but he lost the ability to make such a choice when captured. In any event, I’m guessing that in the reciprocal position you or I would choose to have endured a few hours of terrible fright, followed by long years of life).

And from the perspective of our national interest, which outcome is better? On the one hand we would have killed a mass murderer, along with others less guilty or wholly innocent – the latter deaths presumably making us look bestial to the innocent decedents’ countrymen and others – and learned nothing from KSM. On the other, we would have him as a prisoner and potentially have extracted valuable information from him, maybe helping to capture Bin Laden or avert future slaughters. How is this a close question?

The movie Zero Dark Thirty occasioned much anger on the part of the left by hinting that information extracted by water boarding might have been decisive in the process of finding and killing Bin Laden. But whether or not the information he provided was decisive is almost completely irrelevant to me. If the information that KSM provided after having been water boarded might have helped, I’m all for having pried it out of him in that manner. Are we really supposed to think that it was monstrous to have roughly treated a sworn enemy of our country and culture who had participated in planning the biggest mass murder ever committed on American soil? That it would have been morally better to have just killed him (as we subsequently did with Bin Laden) even if had we not water boarded him we might have missed a chance get Bin Laden or to stop a future attack?

Take it to the extreme: would it be ok to water board somebody if by doing so you knew you could extract information that would allow you to stop a ticking nuke in Times Square? Of course! And to treat the individual a good deal more roughly than that. In fact, there is nothing I wouldn’t be willing to do to a person to stop the slaughter of innocent millions. To assert that the torture of a plotter would be wrong under such circumstances would be an act of insufferable moral vanity.

But of course you never know what information you can extract from somebody until you have done it (and sometimes not until much later, when you piece together all the relevant threads). And, without opining on whether or not water boarding constitutes torture in any legal or metaphysical respect, torture is monstrous.

So shouldn’t we want to have a President who uses extreme interrogation techniques, or even torture, in only a tiny number of extreme, hand picked and Presidentially approved cases, as did President Bush? President Bush made his water boarding decisions in the kind of limited, personal, hands-on manner that showed that he knew he was making terribly difficult moral choices. By all appearances, President Obama uses lots of drones without giving it much of a second thought.

In President Obama’s approach, succinctly described by Glenn Reynolds as “More rubble, less trouble”, the difficult ethical dilemmas seem to disappear if we kill people. Apparently, the instructions were to kill Bin Laden rather than bring him to the US – I guess the latter course would’ve been too complicated. Who knows what we might have learned from him?

Salaiman Abu Ghaith – Bin Laden’s son-in-law and a senior Al Qaeda official – was captured in Turkey (where I’m guessing droning wasn’t an option) recently by Turkish and American intelligence agents and brought to the US to be tried in the civilian court system. Presumably he was read his Miranda rights, and his lawyers have told him to say nothing; he has pled not guilty. I would like to think that the Administration got him to spill what he knows while he was en route to the US, but given the President’s posturing on enhanced interrogation techniques and civilian trials, I doubt it.

Even if Abu Ghaith is convicted, the chances that we will get any useful information out of him in the civilian criminal system are vanishingly small. And while I am willing to guess that he doesn’t know about a nuke in Times Square, he may well know some quite horrifying things – probably does.

I still think about that fellow in Connecticut. Does he think that it’s morally better to kill, often indiscriminately, than to water board a few carefully chosen enemies? Does he not care about what we might learn from the most committed and knowledgeable of our enemies, and who that information might save?

Does he even think about it?


M.H. Johnston

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