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I’ll take the high road by fluffly
April 29, 2009, 11:28 am
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I don’t know how I feel about Richard Cohen’s piece on torture yesterday.  He comes out and condemns it as abhorrent and I particularly like his part at the end that “before you can torture anyone, you must first torture the law”, but he says that the moral high ground argument isn’t a good one for rejecting torture.  He says that our being a morally superior country wouldn’t make us safer, but I disagree.

The image of America as a beacon or a city on the hill or whatever has, in my opinion, been incredibly important to our national psyche and globally.  Its part of the reason we get so many great immigrants looking for a better life, and its why other countries are happy turning to us as a friend and for support.  Sure, we’re an economic powerhouse and the largest military, but I like to think that our friendships globally depend on more than that.  If it were just the first two, we’d be a bully, garnering allies and security through sheer force or necessity.  But that’s not how I read it.

In Cohen’s words,

…it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called “our moral compass.”

For many, I’m sure thats true.  For those willing to kill themselves or murder civilians, their minds are clearly made up.  But is that our only rubric for safety?  There are many other factors in assessing our security.  For instance, taking the moral high ground is not all we need to do to stop recruitment into terrorist camps, but it is certainly a contributor.

Our safety also depends on the cooperation of myriad, often unlikely, allies.  This is an instance where not just our military or economy can suffice in gaining support.  If working with America is perceived to be the immoral route, or no more moral than not cooperating, then we will see stiff resistance from the populations of countries like Turkey or Pakistan who are so vital to our efforts and security.

Cohen goes on to say that “nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer.”  But safety is not just in preventing terrorists.  Safety is limiting our potential enemies and growing in potential friends.  I’m going to take a page from Pierre Atlas and end with a quote from the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision on banning torture:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and allow it to overcome its difficulties.

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I was actually going to make a blog post along these lines prompted by a very good Megan McArdle post on the subject of “to torture or not to torture?” Basically, she says, if you’re against torture for moral reasons, you really shouldn’t be getting into effectiveness arguments. And makes the humorous parallel that it’d be like supplementing Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal with saying, “besides, babies aren’t a healthy source of sustenance anyway.” The gist:

“I’m against waterboarding. It’s wrong. The state should not do this, for the same reason the state should not pull the wings off of flies. But I’m against it with the knowledge that this might, at least in some circumstance, result in some innocent person dying from lack of information.”

Comment by A Milder Despot




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