Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Response

A terrible thing happened to our country 5 years ago. For a brief moment I thought our country could respond with both strength and compassion. Yes, we needed to take strong action to improve security and disrupt Al Queda. But I was sure others would see that the best way to drain the swamps of hatred and frustration that nurtured extremists (and terrorists) involved greater international cooperation and a massive investment in international development. The old carrot and stick approach, but this time offering a serious carrot which could amount to billions of targeted development aid and assistance. After all we already have the biggest stick. Unfortunately the reaction of our nation's leadership was a poisonous combination of fear and arrogance. Fear is a very natural reaction to what our country faced, I mean if some unshaven dude with an unpronounceable name, wearing a cloth on his head, and living in a cave halfway across the world could cause us this much harm...well it was clear that we were not as safe as we had imagined.

Weather or not they shared this fear our leadership saw in this fear a chance to reshape the domestic and international landscape to their partisan benefit. And they took it with both hands. Believing that world superpower status granted us moral as well as military authority, we declared war (rightly) on terrorists and those who harbor terrorists.

Sadly and for the most part unknown to many of us at the time, the administration also used the situation to engage in an unprecedented power grab by the executive branch. As commander-in-chief our president said it was ok to use torture, cruel and degrading treatment against our enemies, because they did not belong to a recognized state, they had not agreed to the Geneva Conventions that were designed to protect military personal in combat. They used extreme and absurd hypothetical arguments, such as the ticking bomb scenario to argue that any interrogation methods including torture were justified to save lives.

The ticking bomb scenario posits that a known terrorist is in custody and furthermore that it is known with absolute certainty that this terrorist knows the location of a bomb that is set to go off (killing thousands if not millions) in the very near future. Given this premise it is further assumed that under aggressive interrogation (i.e. torture) this terrorist will disclose the true location of the bomb (all in time to defuse it and save the innocent otherwise victims). Isn't it ok to bend the rules a bit? Play a little rough with one guy since we know we can save so many? Aren't we in fact morally obligated to torture one person (or maybe a dozen) and justifiably so to save so many? What would you do in such a situation?

The problem of course is that this fictitious hypothetical scenario assumes as given every possible point of ambiguity. Like, how do you know there really is a bomb? And how do you know this character is an actual terrorist? And how can you be certain he knows where the bomb is located? And why do you think he will tell anything useful (like the true location) under torture rather than send you on a wild goose chase? One could just as easily assume the interrogator already knows the location of the bomb.

The whole notion of predicating actual policy on fictitious hypothetical scenarios is morally bankrupt.

Not content to simply occupy the moral low-ground, we immediately began to alienate necessary allies with crisp moralistic pronouncements like "you are either with us or against us" and "axis of evil" and perhaps most unfortunately "crusade". Using swift and flexible forces we quickly and (perhaps too) easily ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, successfully disrupting Al Queda and forcing the remnants to go to ground. Inexplicably we didn't use our military forces to capture Bin Laden when he was cornered in Tora Bora, instead we relied on proxy forces of questionable loyalty who somehow allowed the man we wanted "dead or alive" and with a $25 million bounty on his head to escape apparently unharmed.


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