Robert's Random Ravings


In the last decade, especially since the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11/2001, the American government has had to grapple with some difficult issues in what has come to be known as the “War on Terror.”

This war is a very real thing, but the enemy that we are fighting in this war is not so easy to pin down. We have called out specific targets, such as Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, President Bush’s “axis of evil” (Iran, Iraq and North Korea), and a few others. The problem that we face is that we are not fighting a typical army. We are fighting an ideology, religious fanaticism and a nebulous, ever-changing group of people whose one and only mission is to destroy our way of life.

America’s military might is really not in question. We have the strongest, most effective conventional military in existence now (and probably that has ever existed). But this military is completely ineffective in the battle that we are now waging. It’s not about dropping bombs an eliminating an opponents’ army. When people are willing to load themselves with explosives and become suicide bombers, how do you fight that?

We have tried to drop pamphlets on people. We have tried to broadcast information, whether through the radio, TV or the internet. None of this seems to be working.

Osama bin Laden in the December 2001 video
Image via Wikipedia

Something that has come more and more to the forefront in recent years is the use of torture techniques to try to gather information on different terrorist cells and impending operations. There is a lot of question about the effectiveness of such techniques. And there is even more question about the legitimacy of any information that is gathered in this manner. I really don’t know the answer about that and I doubt that we will ever see real proof that torture works. When it comes to National Security, sometimes there are things that we in the general public just do not know and can’t be told. I understand that.

So I am forced to think about what my own position is on torture. I thought this would be an easy thing. Simply put – I consider myself to be completely against the use of torture on another human being. I had always looked at it in this way: if we have to resort to the bad deeds of our enemies, what makes us any better than them.

US leaflet used in Afghanistan.
Image via Wikipedia

But the more I think about the issue, the less sure I am about my stance on it. Like many other things in life, it is not a black and white thing.

Let’s take an example. If I KNEW without doubt that hurting someone or even killing someone will positively save the lives of thousands (or even just hundreds) of people, would I consider that a fair tradeoff? What if someone is being suspected of trying to put together and detonate a dirty nuclear bomb over an American city. And let’s say that the only way to find out for sure involves extreme measures of interrogation. Is that OK? Well, I would have to look at that situation and think that it IS in fact OK because it would save so many lives.

Now let’s take that a step further. Let’s say that the person suspected of having this information is someone in my family that I love very much. Now that would complicate matters a whole lot. Cause of course now I would not want that person to be tortured or subjected to extreme measures of interrogation because of my relationship with him or with her.

Taking it even further, let’s say that this person is in fact subjected to torture and then it is later determined that it was the wrong person and that this person did not, in fact, have any information and was not even involved in this alleged plot. This is where things get sticky for most us, I think. As long as it is a guilty person then we can look away and act as if it is not happening. That’s the trouble with the kind of unchecked powers that the previous administration employed (wire tapping American citizens without obtaining warrants, extreme rendition, etc.) There will always be innocent people caught up in the web. Is that a risk that we are willing to take?

Again, I do not know the answer to this question. It seems that it is necessary to allow the potential risk to a few to save the many. But it also seems to me that it still needs to be done in a way that is accountable to someone (that is the purpose of the secret FISA court – it grants accountability but also preserves the necessary secrecy).

So, at the end of this discussion, where does that leave me? It’s still not a question that I can answer for myself. I still am opposed to torture in theory, but I totally understand the potential that it can have for preventing terrorist acts on the scale of what happened in New York in 2001.

What do you think?

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03/30/2009 - Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What do I think?

    First off, the argument that taking steps that reduce oneself to the level of the monster one is trying to destroy is very noble but impractical in war. Generals Sherman and Grant didn’t fight a mere war by attrition — you win wars by trading evil for evil. That’s what makes war such a terrible thing to undertake. People die in war. Innocents in the crossfire die in war. It’s the biggest reason NOT to charge into it the way George W. Bush did. War is the soberest and scariest choice a leader should ever make.

    An old expression is that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like nails. Never is this truer than in war. Torture, like mass killing, should be undertaken soberly and after really exhausting options. The previous administration with the self-righteous hypocrites like Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and Cheney immediately treated torturing detainees as if this was THE way to go. Brilliant move, guys. Go to the head of the class. Better yet, just go to detention.

    The trickiest part about torture and rule-bending is really the slippery slope it leads into for all subsequent actions. Torture a few? Torture a hundred. Raid some homes to uncover bombers? Raid whole villages or even towns. Sooner than later, your thinking on the enemy changes, as you dehumanize them. That thinking leads to propaganda and prejudice.

    In a normal war, that’s to be expected. In a war of ideology, it creates sloppy tactics and oversimplified thinking. If such a war can be fought quickly, the thinking is less of a problem. But this war is far more frightening in its scope. Torture and blunt tactics have their place, IMHO, but the moment we *rely* on that, the likelier we risk taking action like the Russians did with the Chechens.

    Gotta watch that slippery slope. It’s a long way down and REALLY hard to get back up.

    Comment by Neal Klein | 03/30/2009 | Reply

  2. Thanks Neal for your response. Very thoughtful and well put.

    Comment by rkurzweil | 03/30/2009 | Reply

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