The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Moral Plateau

Before all of the facts have been determined and prior to the conclusion of congressional investigations into the “harsh methods” that the CIA has used with a small group of captured terrorists, Reuters reports:
The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted on Thursday to outlaw harsh interrogation methods, such as simulated drowning, that the CIA has used against suspected terrorists.

On a 222-199 vote, the House approved a measure to require intelligence agents to comply with the Army Field Manual, which meets the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of war prisoners and prohibits torture.

Of course, terrorists are not covered by the Geneva conventions, but I suppose that’s a legal quibble.

CIA operatives have testified that these “harsh measures” have succeeded in uncovering information from al Qaeda and other terrorists and that the information has allowed the US to disrupt terrorist attacks again US citizens. But no matter.

It appears that the members voting in favor have seized a moral plateau—an imaginary place where moral certitude reigns and fanatic killers are treated oh so gently. Recognize that those few people who have been subjected to “harsh measures” have sworn to kill us. The same people, if given the opportunity, would murder every one of the 222 members of congress who voted in favor of the measure and every one of the 199 who voted against it.

It’s interesting that on this subject, the Dems, particularly, live in a black and white world — you know, the one they roundly condemn when binary options are suggested by the Bush administration. On the moral plateau, “harsh measures” are always wrong—no matter what the consequences. There’s no gray area, no situation when waterboarding, for example, might be a necessary practice. No situation in which a “ticking bomb” scenario might cause us to do what has to be done. No situation when thousands might die because a CIA operative became worried that he or she might be indicted on felony charges for doing what was right in the circumstances.

Mark Davis, discusses the debate on waterboarding, makes the following comment:
We have heard much from the portion of America that grows queasy at the thought of tough treatment for al-Qaeda detainees. But I'll share what makes me queasy: my countrymen in tattered clothes perched at windows a thousand feet high against the Manhattan skyline, their lungs burning with jet fuel, making the decision to jump to their deaths because it was a better fate than what awaited them if they did not.

So, for just a moment, let’s climb off the moral plateau and return to the real, messy, harsh, ambiguous world in which we live.

It’s September 10, 2001. You, a CIA agent, have captured someone who, you’re told, knows of an imminent attack that’s going to occur in the US. But you would never consider using harsh measures, so you ask for the information nicely and get nothing. Later that day, corroborating information is obtained. You learn that the captive terrorist knows about the attack, but you need specifics.

But harsh measures are a crime, you think. Still, you pass it up the chain of command. Maybe waterboarding might work, maybe a superior might okay it. But your boss and his boss and his boss all fear the consequences, the congressional inquiries, the indictments—all career-ending events. So they all delay or say no.

And then, the next day you watch as your countrymen jump to their deaths as the twin towers fall. Could you live with yourself? Could you justify staying on the moral plateau? I wonder.