Monday, May 9, 2011

Moral Clarity About Waterboarding

Have a look (via Mediaite) at this portion of Chris Wallace’s interview of Obama Administration National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Donilon’s happy to bend your ear off explaining why it was morally permissible to disable Osama bin Laden from committing future terrorist acts by killing him, even when he presented no imminent threat to the Navy SEALS who could have taken him into custody. But you’d think that, when Republicans are turning the bin Laden killing into an argument for enhanced interrogation, Donilon would be ready to tell us why it would have been morally impermissible, had bin Laden been taken into custody, to prevent future terrorist acts by waterboarding him. That’s hardly a question out of left field since bin Laden’s apparent readiness to allow himself to be captured without a fight suggests that, like most people, he preferred being waterboarded to being shot.

The lameness of Donilon’s response is something to behold.

Sorry, the conclusory formula that waterboarding is inconsistent with our values isn’t an answer to Wallace’s question, and garnishing it with the wishful thought that waterboarding is ineffective anyway doesn’t make it one. What would count as a real answer?

As far as I can see, it could only take this form: because an alleged terrorist has a right not to be waterboarded, it's unconditionally wrong to waterboard him even when that really is the best available means to prevent mass civilian casualties. Put differently, it’s better, morally speaking, to run a substantial risk of suffering mass civilian casualties than to subject an alleged terrorist to an interrogation technique that's reasonably likely to prevent them without causing the alleged terrorist permanent physical or mental injury.

Putting things that way doesn't hide the fact that the thesis that waterboarding is unconditionally forbidden is controversial. A lot of people have a lot of trouble believing that we could have owed moral duties to bin Laden. Yet even the Bush administration acknowledged the plausibility of the idea that we did.  Otherwise it wouldn't have demanded elaborate assurances from Department of Justice lawyers that waterboarding could be administered legally, reserved it for only three detainees who were especially likely to have information about imminent terrorist attacks and decided in 2006 not to use it going forward.

There's no denying that waterboarding is either torture or near-torture.  Is it too much to ask that Donilon and other high-ranking administration officials show that they have the courage of the administration’s stated convictions by explaining themselves?


Dave said...

To me, Donilon's most telling remark is his "wishful thinking" that waterboarding is ineffective (he actually uses the better formulation of "not necessary"). If this is a simple question of America's morality, why does "effectiveness" or "necessity" even enter the discussion?

Many, especially those on the left, tend to look at torture as a black-and-white morality issue: it's wrong, therefore you should never do it. The world is simple.

The right has its own moral non-starters. Bush, for instance, wouldn't fund stem cell research despite substantial probability that doing so would save lives. In his gut, it was wrong: end of story.

But what if torturing a terror suspect is certain to save 1 billion lives, would you do it? And what if funding stem cell research was certain to save humanity from extinction, would you do it?

I believe only a tiny percentage of fanatical extremists are truly unmovable on these moral questions. Just because something is morally wrong, doesn't mean the discussion is over. There are tradeoffs to be considered; we must determine what's morally preferable.

Thus enters the matter of the effectiveness (or necessity) of waterboarding. If you think it's probably ineffective, then for you the scales tip toward the moral preferability of avoiding torture. If you think it's probably effective, the scales tip toward the moral rightness of saving lives by preventing terrorist acts.

Those who are in the military and in the administration have to understand this to do their jobs. But it's politically impossible to make this argument without sounding like some kind of monster. And if you try, you know your opponents will demagogue against you. Worse, your own president campaigned with a passionate black-and-white moralistic demagoguery that stands in stark contrast to his current moral relativism. So any clear answer to Chris Wallace's question is going to play poorly for the president.

Ultimately, Donilon's pathetic tap dance around the question may well have been his best option.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the Navy seals who performed the raid on Bin Laden's compound and killed him had been waterboarded as part of their training. I just can't believe that our government would rule out something that could save lives and not hurt anyone in the process.