THE TORTURE DEBATE brings out a similar absolutism from torture opponents. They tend to casually assume that people who support “coercive interrogation techniques” do so because they’re congenital sadists who have just been waiting for this moment in history so they could begin water-boarding Muslims with impunity.
What’s most infuriating about the anti-torture people is their tacit assumption that you can fight a war without making moral compromises. War is all about moral compromise. It’s not in the normal order of things to kill others. The very aim of war is to do just that. In World War II, we did terrible things like the fire-bombing of Dresden, the massive bombing of Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While all these actions were terrible, they were also necessary. And justifiable.
Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, McCain stated that we can reclaim the moral high ground in this war if we close the Gitmo detention center and cease our use of coercive interrogation techniques. This comment makes the ludicrous assumption that we’ve lost the moral high ground because of these things.
The logic here would be akin to saying America lost the moral high ground after bombing the civilian center of Tokyo in World War II. While that bombing cost America any claim to moral perfection, no one was making any such claims in the first place. America still held the moral high ground because it wasn’t us that wanted to establish a global totalitarian dictatorship and exterminate inferior races. Similarly, just because our current struggle causes us to engage in ugly tactics doesn’t mean that we don’t have the moral high ground. It’s not us calling for the annihilation of those who practice a different religion than we do.
And then there’s the persistent intellectual incoherence of the anti-torture voices. They can’t decide whether they’re against torture because it doesn’t work or whether they oppose it solely on moral grounds. This confusion belies their own sense of their argument’s weaknesses. If you add up the consensus of informed opinions, torture sometimes gets you some really useful and actionable information, and sometimes gets you utter rubbish. Torture opponents know this, which is why they cherry-pick experts who argue that torture never works. Because if a consensus formed that torture produced any good information, and the media acknowledged that consensus, torture opponents know their position would become politically untenable.
The anti-torture argument sits on a fragile branch of moral vanity. The torture opponents’ entire premise rests on the erroneous notion that one can successfully wage war without cruelty and savagery. I wish they were right. But they’re not.
Moral authority and torture
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