Three Points About the ‘Torture Report’ and Morality

Three Points About the ‘Torture Report’ and Morality December 11, 2014


When I speak about enhanced interrogation — or indeed virtually all of our controversial tactics in the war on terror, including the drone program — I tend to begin with three moral propositions.

First, it is immoral to establish legal doctrines that would provide unlawful combatants with all the same protections as lawful prisoners of war. The reason for this is simple. As I said yesterday, doing so provides a terrorist or other unlawful enemy with an incentive to keep violating legal norms and thus provides them with enormous tactical advantages. The laws of war originated in moral norms that aspire to limit combat to the combatants. Terrorists disrupt these legal and moral norms not just by intentionally targeting civilians but also by intentionally mingling with civilians.

But it goes even beyond incentivizing terror tactics. Providing the same protections incentivizes the war itself. Terror apologists respond to the jihadist war crime of concealing themselves within the civilian population by asserting that’s their only choice if they wish to fight the U.S. or Israel — they’d be slaughtered in open combat. Yes, they would. And the laws of war dictate that utterly futile combat is a needless waste of life and a further violation of international legal norms. So, in short, don’t initiate a war that you cannot lawfully win.

When a Western pundit excuses jihadist war crimes and rebukes Americans or Israelis for tactics that distinguish between lawful and unlawful combatants, they are not only incentivizing war crimes, they are incentivizing the war itself.

Second, when American pundits or politicians demand that we provide protections for jihadists beyond those required by law, we are selling American lives cheaply. Decisions about restraint do not happen in a cost-free environment, where our forbearance is applauded, potential enemies are won over, and actual enemies can be magically defeated anyway, through tactics that meet the approval of the Harvard faculty lounge. As I’ve said many times before, Americans have died because of our absurd rules of engagement — rules that accomplish nothing on the battlefield, alarm our allies in harm’s way, and empower the enemy. When we create and try to enforce moral norms that provide real battlefield advantages to our enemies, we are perversely violating moral obligations to our friends and neighbors, to protect them from forces they can’t possibly face alone.

Third, there are still lines we cannot cross. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, reports of freezing a prisoner to death as he was chained to a wall, or reports of forced rectal feeding, represent two examples where — if true — the CIA went too far. There are other examples. Lines can shift depending on the stakes and magnitude of the danger, but lines still exist. We can’t ever reach the point where we just say, “War is hell” and excuse all the conduct that follows. This is a common-sense moral proposition, and I don’t know any serious moral thinker who believes there are no norms for human conduct in war. Yet I’ve heard those who support enhanced interrogation accused of just that, of believing “anything goes,” with inevitable comparisons to history’s worst criminals. Here was an actual question in a Salon interview of Glenn Greenwald:

The more you look at just how many people and institutions were involved (either actively or by looking the other way) — the doctors, the psychiatrists, the media, members of Congress — the more it starts to sound like a society-wide failure. It reminds me of what Arendt wrote about Germany (and Europe in general) in the interwar and World War II periods, how she described it as a kind of civilizational collapse. Tell me if you think I’m going too far.

This line of thinking isn’t just “too far.” It’s unhinged.

It is moral to treat unlawful combatants differently — and worse — than lawful prisoners of war. It is moral to value American lives and use all lawful means to honor and defend those lives. And believing those two propositions doesn’t lead to moral anarchy but instead punishes criminality and can even deter war itself.

This article first appeared on National Review.

Read more on the Patheos Faith and Family Channel and follow David on Twitter.

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  • Well said; and only those who have “been there, done that” have a right to criticize and question. All others under the protection of those who make the ultimate sacrifice have no such rights.

  • praxagora

    You are truly a bad person. Nothing in the Christianity you claim to follow has ever made the slightest impact on you. Repent

  • J. Inglis

    The same sort of justifications that WWII German soldiers made are being made now by you and other American excuse makers. At the Nuremberg trials soldiers were not excused for following the orders of their superiors. Instead their American prosecutors held them to the same common moral standards as the rest of the world.

    Furthermore, Japanese soldiers were prosecuted by Americans for the war crime of water boarding American soldiers. And convicted. And hung. Facts known to be true–just ask John McCain. Yes, waterboarding was only part of the crimes for which they were prosecuted, but it was part of the list.

    Lastly, ever since WW1 war has been about total war, war on civilians as well as soldiers. Americans and other allies attacked the civilian population of German cities with fire bombing that killed thousands of civilian noncombatants, including women and children.

    America expressly intended psychological shock when it dropped nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities, killing 10s of thousands of noncombatants. The reasoning? To scare the Japanese into wanting to end the war early. No advance leaflets were dropped to warn specifically of the atomic bomb, and no demonstration of the bomb was made–specifically because it was decided that there would be a greater shock value on the Japanese if there were no warning.

    America, and you, have lost the moral high ground on this issue. I find it despicable that any person who is required by Jesus to give his life for others–including enemies–as Jesus himself did can even countenance making the sort of arguments you have in the wake of the torture revelations.

  • Key

    Are only politicians allowed to have political opinions, or to criticize political decisions? Are only scientists capable of pointing out unethical research practices? Can you not criticize someone’s theology unless you yourself are a priest or minister? Should the jury of a murder trial be populated only by murderers?

    Seems like a very dumb way of doing things.

  • Is Julias Streicher your mentor now? Have you forgotten that Americans hung Japanese who waterboarded? It is you who is unhinged.

    At least John McCain has some moral clarity about the issue.

    John McCain has moral clarity about CIA torture report

  • Donalbain

    Fuck that. Fuck that with every fibre of my being. Fuck that more than words can describe. EVERY single person can have an opinion on the indisputable fact that the USA committed acts of torture. And if you come down, with the piece of shit who wrote this article that torture can be morally excused, then FUCK YOU.

  • Dorfl

    Deciding that only members of profession X are allowed to criticise the actions of profession X has never turned out to be a good idea, but for some reason people keep suggesting it.

  • Matthew

    lawful or unlawful … the SAME morality should apply.

  • Jesus said, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and “love you enemies and do good to them”. And God said through the prophet Isaiah, “Woe unto them that call good evil and evil good.”
    America is only different from the ‘terrorists’ in this regard, she has better weapons.

  • So says the Taliban.
    Jesus alone made the ultimate sacrifice by dying a death He did not deserve to save those who deserved to die, like you and me.
    I was in the military (SAC) during the Cold War, the bombers were constantly in the air and the missiles ready to launch. If war became hot we had about 30 minutes to live. You all would die later. I’m tired of all this glorying in soldiers as heroes and how we owe our freedom to them. We owe our very existence to God and His grace alone.

  • JohnE_o

    Mr. French, from your writings, it seems that your only interest in the teachings of Jesus is how they can be twisted to serve American Right Wing Conservative ideology.

  • JohnE_o

    I hope you are a troll…

    My right to criticize and question are very clearly stated in the US Constitution and over two-hundred years of case law.

    The ACLU has done more to protect my rights than have any soldier.

  • Andrew

    Point 1: There are only two regimes for handling captured terrorists: Prisoner-of-war, or criminal defendant. I honestly think you are right that most combatants captured by the United States in the war on terror do not qualify for POW status, but such prisoners must then be treated as criminal defendants, with all the substantive and procedural protections due to one.

    Point 2: There has never been any evidence that compliance with standards of humane treatment has negatively affected America’s ability to prosecute war. Furthermore, torture cannot be excused by any emergency under the Convention against Torture, implementing federal legislation, and customary international law.

    Point 3: “Enhanced interrogations technique” is Orwellian doublespeak. All or nearly all of the so-called “EIT” are torture, and therefore morally and legally indefensible in any circumstances. The entire program crosses the line.

  • ahermit

    And what do you say to innocent victims like Maher Arar Mr French? He was illegally detained by American intelligence agents and sent to Syria where he he was imprisoned, beaten and tortured for a year. On your behalf.

    He was an innocent man whose rights were violated using the reasoning you have outlined above.

    This is why we must have inflexible standards when it comes to rights; not to protect the terrorists but to protect the innocent.If they can do that to Maher Arar they can do it to you or me.

    We are supposed to be better than the terrorists who kill and maim indiscriminately. We are supposed have standards and morals and principles.You would throw away all of that out of fear.

    You are a coward sir. A despicable coward.

  • Donalbain

    Interesting that the Evangelical portal on Patheos has not a single post lamenting or criticising the use of torture by the American government..