Reasonable people may (and do) disagree on the morality of what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation techniques. Just as reasonable people may disagree on what constitutes torture. But there is more than a whiff of moral superiority coming from critics of whatever the CIA did to head off another 9/11. Many of those critics come off as smug – and not especially thoughtful.
I have in mind those who say “never again” when it comes to what they see as torture and the trashing (again in their view) of American values. But “never” is one of those absolutes that don’t leave much room for, well, reality. And “never again” is not a policy; rather it’s an attempt to capture the moral high ground.
A lot of critics see the drama that has unfolded in the wake of the release of the “Torture Report” as a morality play between good and evil. But it’s more complicated than that. Much more. As Peter Wehner, one of America’s most thoughtful writers, puts it in a piece for Commentary Magazine: “It might elevate the public debate a bit if critics of enhanced interrogation techniques wrestled in an intellectually honest and fair-minded way with a set of questions they like to avoid, such as: If you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that could stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer ‘never’ are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer ‘sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.’”
And what if it isn’t thousands of lives that are at stake, but only a few? What if 25 children are on a field trip, riding on a yellow bus from school to the museum? What if terrorists are planning to blow up the bus unless some demand is met? Maybe they want all the prisoners released from Guantanamo. What “American values” would we be upholding if we didn’t waterboard a terrorist we had in custody who had details that would save the children’s lives?
And then there’s another prickly question regarding morality: Why is it immoral to waterboard a few terrorists who come out of the ordeal alive but somehow morally acceptable to launch drones on terrorists who wind up dead? That’s a question a lot of people are asking, including James Mitchell, a psychologist known as the architect of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program. In an interview with Vice News, he said this: “To me it seems completely insensible that slapping KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] is bad but sending a Hellfire missile into a family’s picnic and killing all the children and killing granny and killing everyone is okay for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is what about that collateral loss of life and the other one is that if you kill them you can’t question them.”
Here’s another question from Peter Wehner: “Are targeted, lethal attacks that kill many more innocent people, including many more innocent children, really that much of a moral improvement from what came before it?”
Critics of the CIA program believe they have taken the moral high ground, a place liberals like to call home whether the issue is enhanced interrogation, race, income inequality or just about anything else. But if this really is about American values, as they like to tell us, then the burden is on them – to explain why America should “never” resort to “torture” no matter how many lives it would save. The burden is on them to explain what great American values they’d be preserving if a few thousand more Americans were killed – when their deaths might have been avoided.
I’m against so-called enhanced interrogation — but only 99 percent of the time. For the 1 percent of the time it would save lives, count me as a supporter. That, to me, is the morally superior position.