Civilization And Torture

Andrew Sullivan posts the following reader comment:

Bush's supporters will inevitably use the fact that virtually all of us can think of some emergency exceptions to an absolute "no torture" rule. ("Ace of Spades" has been yelling for some time about the need to enable it to expose plots that "endanger thousands of lives", and specifically cites the London airliner bombing plot in that regard.)   This argument has real teeth in it, and the only way to counter it is to point out that – in any case where torture really was necessary to stop such a plot – there is no way in hell that the torturer would ever actually go to jail for it; the jury would certainly not convict him, even if the prosecutor indicted him.   (To say nothing of the President's power to pardon.)  It would fall into the category of "justifiable assault."

This is an argument that I've heard repeated among those who believe all forms of torture or "alternative" interrogation techniques should be banned, but it is deeply flawed. On a moral level, if you believe that torture is wrong in all cases, you shouldn't be willing to make exceptions after the fact. This would be like arguing against warrantless searches of people's homes, but saying that if a cop breaks into somebody's house without a warrant, evidence gathered can be admissible as long as it's crucial enough. I don't know how you give mixed-signals to CIA agents that all forms of torture are illegal, but (wink, wink) if you torture someone and your hunch is proven correct, you won't be prosecuted. Furthermore, it would seem to create a moral hazard that could prompt CIA agents to torture someone more aggressively. If a CIA agent tortures a terrorist suspect believed to have information about an imminent attack, but the terrorist doesn't talk, the agent is in legal trouble for torturing somebody without being able to expose a terrorist plot. That may prompt the agent to torture that detainee more aggressively, thinking that the only way for him to avoid prosecution is to get the detainee to talk, by any means necessary.

People who make this argument are trying to have it both ways. Deep down, they know that in certain cases, torture may save lives, so they want to leave the door open to that, but at the same time, they want to claim the moral high ground by saying that they support an outright ban on torture for humanitarian reasons.      

I'm sure that many (if not most) people who oppose an outright ban on all torture are speaking out of genuine ethical concern. I understand that in this war against an enemy of unspeakable evil, each one of us will have to decide where we would draw the line in responding to the threat. And I have deeply considered arguments about the societal implications of condoning torture, or "aggressive interrogation," or whatever else you wish to call it. But personally, I have absolutely zero moral qualms about waterboarding somebody like Khalid Sheikh Mohamed if it could yield information that could save lives, and I'm under no illusions that waterboarding is a pleasant experience. I believe the debate over torture should be about how to craft a law that would allow high level terrorists to be aggressively interrogated in limited circumstances while making sure that the practice doesn't become widespread. This is a challenge, no doubt, but I think there are ways to accomplish this (Alan Dershowitz's idea of torture warrants would be one possible way to add oversight to the process).    

This debate gets to the heart of why I consider terrorism such a grave threat, and why I perceive it as the perfect tool to fight a civilized society that seeks to preserve life and protect human rights. No matter how severe the threat of Nazism was, at least once World War II got rolling, there was little debate among civilized people over what we had to do to fight it. The elusive nature of terrorism, however, causes division as we struggle with the moral and logistical implications of responding to it.    

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Clinton vs. Bush

In a column about Bill Clinton's recent outburst, E.J. Dionne writes:

By choosing to intervene in the terror debate in a way that no one could miss, Clinton forced an argument about the past that had up to now been largely a one-sided propaganda war waged by the right.

It's absolutely preposterous for Dionne to argue that the debate over who was to blame for 9/11 has been dominated by the right. Yes, this month, especially with the controversy generated by the airing of ABC's "Path to 9/11," there has been a lot of conservative criticism of Clinton's record on terrorism. But to say that the debate over the past five years has been one-sided is absurd. How many times have we heard in the mainstream media that Richard Clarke handed the Bush administration a plan for "rolling back" the al Qaeda threat and that it was dismissed? That Clarke couldn't get a meeting on counterterrorism strategy, because the Bush administration didn't see it as a priority? That Bush was too busy relaxing on his Texas ranch to read "Bin Laden Determined To Attack U.S."? That 9/11 could have been avoided if Bush acted on the intelligence we had? If anything Clinton has been getting a free pass on terrorism, especially given the fact that al Qaeda grew for eight years while he was President, and he was Commander-in-Chief during the first World Trade Center bombing, the Khobar Towers bombing, the U.S. Embassy bombings, and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.

With that said, it's important that conservatives don't get sucked into the debate of "who is more to blame for 9/11." In my view, President Bush's record on terrorism in the first eight months of his administration is abysmal. The truth is, prior to 9/11, the nation as a whole didn't take terrorism seriously. Aside from some wise sages, we generally viewed it as a manageable risk. There is a value in pointing out the mistakes that were made by both administrations prior to 9/11, but only to make sure people do not return to the mindset of the 1990s, which is a greater risk the further we get from 9/11 without a major terrorist attack. Already, there is a growing chorus of thinkers, who I have written about before, who simply don't think terrorism is a big deal. We can't let that sentiment become a dominant one. That's the intellectual battle we should be fighting rather than arguing about whose pre-9/11 record was worse.

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The Full Murtha

For those of you who came directly to the blog, I urge you to check out Dave Holman’s piece on the main site, which includes a never-before-seen 1980 videotape of a young Jack Murtha discussing bribes with undercover FBI agents as part of a sting in the Abscam investigation. Parental guidance suggested, as Murtha uses some, well, colorful language.

Late September Surprise

Bob Woodward's latest book on the Iraq War is on the way, and he  gives the  "retired" Mike Wallace a preview. Among his points:

According to Woodward, insurgent attacks against coalition troops occur, on average, every 15 minutes, a shocking fact the administration has kept secret. "It’s getting to the point now where there are eight-, nine-hundred attacks a week. That's more than 100 a day. That is four an hour attacking our forces," says Woodward.

The situation is getting much worse, says Woodward, despite what the White House and the Pentagon are saying in public. "The truth is that the assessment by intelligence experts is that next year, 2007, is going to get worse and, in public, you have the president and you have the Pentagon [saying], 'Oh, no, things are going to get better,'" he tells Wallace. "Now there’s public, and then there’s private. But what did they do with the private? They stamp it secret. No one is supposed to know," says Woodward….

Woodward also reports that the president and vice president often meet with Henry Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, as an adviser. Says Woodward, "Now what’s Kissinger’s advice? In Iraq, he declared very simply, ‘Victory is the only meaningful exit strategy.'" Woodward adds. "This is so fascinating. Kissinger’s fighting the Vietnam War again because, in his view, the problem in Vietnam was we lost our will."

Look for this book to begin to dominate the news cycle.  

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The ‘N’ Word And The ‘M’ Word

Notice that the news coverage of the latest Allen controversy refers to the racial slur he is accused of using as the “N” word. News organizations, apparently, want to avoid printing a word that is genuinely offensive to a lot of people. But during this summer’s Macaca mania, the word “Macaca” was used repeatedly, plastered on television and in big, bold, headlines. If it was such an incredibly offensive racial slur, why wasn’t it referred to as the “M” word?

Re: Allen

Dave, I wasn’t saying that that Allen was the clear favorite pre-‘Macaca,’ but I think it’s fair to say he was seen as a top contender (see this March Rich Lowry column). In fact, his Senate race has generated so much controversy precisely because he was seen to be in the running for the presidential nomination. That he even attained that status I found perplexing. So, I’m not arguing against his being an A-level candidate, I was surprised that anybody would consider him even a C-level candidate.

Tyrannical Times

Classic over-the-top NY Times editorial today on passage of a the House bill on questioning and deataining terrorists, “a tyrannical law that will be ranked with the low points in American democracy, our generation’s version of the Alien and Sedition Acts.”

For comparrison purposes, Alien and Sedition Acts available here.

Barnes on Allen

Fred Barnes has a WSJ column up subtitled, "Don't discount Sen. George Allen's presidential ambitions just yet.'" Unfortunately, most of the piece is a recap of all of the controversies Allen  has found himself in during the Senate race, and Barnes doesn't make much of a case for why he should be viewed as a viable presidential candidate. The best he does is this:


Many conservatives are souring on Virginia's junior senator as a presidential candidate. Still: Should Mr. Allen overcome the media onslaught, effectively counter Mr. Webb's call for a withdrawal from Iraq, finish the campaign without breaking ranks with President Bush, and win a slugfest by a modest margin, he may emerge as a tough-minded survivor. The press won't like him any better, but he might earn the respect of Republican voters around the country. Candidates have been "misunderestimated" before, and stranger things have happened in politics.


Yes, stranger things have happened, but that's not a very compelling reason to believe that Allen has a chance of winning the presidency. Personally, I have always been a bit perplexed as to why anybody would think that he's fit to hold the nation's highest office. Long before the "macaca" incident, Allen struck me as a lightweight who couldn't make a speech without quoting Ronald Reagan, Thomas Jefferson, or using a football metaphor. The events of the last few months have just confirmed that view. If there are any Allen defenders out there, I'm really curious to hear why you think this man would make a good Commander-in-Chief.


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Republican Disease

If a successful steakhouse stopped selling beef and substituted stale vegan sandwiches as part of a strategy to increase its customer base, the restaurant wouldn’t remain in business very long. Yet for some reason, the Republican Party has adopted precisely this strategy for governing.

Instead of rewarding its loyal voters with the limited government they were promised, the Republican Party has decided to increase its voter base by offering the stale ideas of big government liberalism. This tactic is difficult to understand given that in modern midterm elections, voter turnout has hovered around 40 percent, meaning that winning is about having an energized base that will show up on Election Day. Nothing would energize that base more than if Republicans used their power to reduce the size and scope of government, so why doesn’t the party give its voters what they want?

“It’s what I call Republican Disease,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey told me recently. “They want to be loved by the beautiful people. They want the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to say nice things about them.”

At a breakfast hosted by TAS last week, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), one of the few remaining small government warriors in the Republican Party, described the logic behind the Republican leadership’s embrace of big government. As they pushed for a massive expansion of federal control over education in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, Pence recalled Republican leaders justifying it by arguing, “Democrats have a huge advantage on education.” A similar attitude took hold as Republicans added the prescription drug benefit to Medicare, marking the largest expansion of entitlements since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

Expanding entitlements and federalizing education clearly runs contrary to conservative principles, but the programs’ defenders on the right would argue that they were politically necessary in order to win elections. However, it’s difficult to see any evidence that Republicans won over moderates or Democrats as a result of betraying small government conservatives. If anything, the evidence supports the exact opposite conclusion.

According to the exit polls from the 2000 election, those voters who identified education as the issue that “mattered most,” favored Al Gore over George W. Bush by a spread of 52 percent to 44 percent. The No Child Left Behind Act had passed by the time the 2004 election rolled around, and yet, according to exit polls, John Kerry trounced President Bush among voters who thought education was most important, by a margin of 73 percent to 26 percent. The numbers are similar with voters who thought health care was the most important issue. In 2000, Gore had a 64-33 advantage among these voters; in 2004, despite the passage of the Medicare prescription drug law (or perhaps even because of it), Kerry was favored by a margin of 77-23.

Defenders of the policy of triangulation may stress that Republicans maintained their majority in 2002 and 2004, but this was largely the result of national security and values issues, not because of any pandering they did on health care or education. Those Republican leaders who see expanding government as the means to maintain power overlook the fact that they have power in the first place because 1994’s “Contract With America” promised to get government off of people’s backs. They forget that a generation of conservatives was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s eloquent defense of limited government, not by statist gobbledygook.

But there is a much simpler reason why Republicans should once-again embrace limited government: it works. If Republicans believe that conservative ideas are right, the best way to prove that to other people is to institute them.

When we spoke, Dick Armey pointed to welfare reform as evidence that if Republicans persevere and actually achieve something, it will be looked back on as a success. Though conservatives might argue that the reform didn’t go far enough, it was clearly a vast improvement over the system that existed before it.

If Republicans showed the political courage to implement such policies as school vouchers, market reforms in healthcare, and Social Security personal accounts, at a minimum, they would thrill their base, and would likely win over moderates as liberal scare tactics are proven baseless.

Were they to govern this way, Republicans would be a lot more confident going into Election Day, and they’d be able to run a campaign based on more than simply calling Democrats “fraidy cats.” Just as a great steakhouse wouldn’t last long were it to start dabbling in vegan cuisine, the Republican Party will not survive as the party of big government.

As Mike Pence put it: “We will never win by being them, we will only win by being us.”