Sunday, November 13, 2005

McCain and ethical utopianism

There is a post on Zacht Ei, about John McCain's so-called anti-torture amendment (link from the Belmont Club). It concludes with the resounding declaration:
I for one refuse to let my moral standards be defined by those whom Mr. Bush aptly described as 'thugs and murderers'.
What a load of ethical utopianism. The bad guys always chose the level of violence. Punching someone is generally wrong, but when faced with a bully, sometimes you have to punch. Killing is generally wrong, but when faced with a homicidal threat, sometimes you have to kill.

The same principle holds true at all levels of violence. It's generally wrong to kill large numbers of people who are only protecting their homeland, but that's what most of the German and Japanese soldiers in WWII were. We had to kill them because they left us no choice. Would it have been better for President Roosevelt to portentously announce that he would not let his moral standards be defined by those nasty Nazis and Japanese Imperialists?

What about all the civilians who were killed in WWII by the allies? Weren't we letting our moral standards be set by Hitler? Didn't our generals judge the relative morality of bombing enemy civilians against the morality of greater risk to our own people and come down on the side of bombing enemy civilians? And wasn't that a good moral choice? Would it have been better to let those civilians live, to go on supporting the infrastructure that was making the planes and bombs that were killing people in London? Would it have been better to sacrifice the lives of more young American soldiers to protect the families of the men that were trying to kill them?

The bad guys always set the level of violence. The good guys have only two choices, escalate along with the bad guys or accept more death and destruction in the name of being morally superior. And make no mistake: our refusal to use harsh interrogation methods will lead to more death and destruction.

How many mothers are you willing to see weeping over dead children because American forces could not use sleep deprivation to find out where the terrorists are making their bombs? Let's see: sleep deprivation/dead children ... sleep deprivation/dead children. Hmm. That's a tough moral choice, all right.

And that, of course, is all that we are talking about here: practices like sleep deprivation, close constraint, dunking people upside down in water. We aren't talking about sticking hot pokers into eyes or crushing testicles, or disemboweling a woman while forcing her husband to watch. That's torture, folks. And that's already illegal.

What the McCain amendment does (practically, given the political situation) is not stop torture. What it does is prevent interrogators from doing anything at all to make the prisoner uncomfortable, even in an effort to save lives (or, as Wretchard argues, it may actually lead to more torture).

This kind of law is just wrong. It is wrong morally because it creates an inverted sense of importance. It says that our own fastidious self image is more important to us than the lives of innocent people. And it is wrong strategically because it lets the enemy operate more openly and therefore more effectively. They can let more people know what is going on with less fear that the Americans will be able to find out.

This amendment is wrong because it trades the lives of innocent people for the comfort of guilty people.

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