Wednesday, June 21, 2006

[Iraq, War Crimes]

Becoming Our Enemy.

The torture and
killing of two Americans yesterday has re-opened the old debate: when responding to terrorists who flout international law, what behavior is permissible. In comments to my post about this yesterday, Idler wrote:
But beyond the perversity there is also an element of stupidity. Terrorism is perpetrated in order to provoke certain psychological reactions, not to achieve material tactical gains. You apparently don't see that these ruthless, two-legged vermin are aiming these acts directly at the likes of you, who can be counted to respond not with wrath and determination but with self-flagellation (though not really, rather it's a kind of sanctimony that finds the fault with moral inferiors within one's camp, not with oneself) and a determination not to resist, but to give in to their demands.
This kind of debate is not new; it's been playing out since long before the founding of our country (see "just war theory"--also discussed at length here and at Notes on the Atrocities) and as a response to the horrors of 20th century war, leading to modern mores around international law (including, but not limited to, the Geneva Conventions).

The morality is pretty clear here: certain behaviors are wrong and can in no way be mitigated by the behavior of whom we battle--as Idler suggests. But that's not really the argument hardliners are offering. They believe there's a higher purpose and that fudging our morality to win the larger battle is justified because our values will then carry the day. For example: "Sure, we firebombed millions of Japanese and reduced the country to ashes, but hey, in the end they became a civilized democracy and one of our closest allies."

But this mistakes the actual larger picture. When we descend to the practices of terrorists to defeat terrorists, we lose the war to win the battle. By recognizing terror as a legitimate tool of engagement, we might possibly win a limited battle (though I find the idea that torture has any useful purpose wholly unpersuasive), but we empower terrorists, terror regimes, and even legitimate regimes to employ it against us.

Our battle in the Middle East and South Asia is not a singular battle. The Taliban, the Sunni insurgents in Iraq, the Hamas patrons of suicide bombing in Israel--all of these groups have very different values and goals. What they share is the technique of terror. Once the US begins to employ the same technique, we have lost the one tool we have against the technique of terror--our own values of equality, liberty, and peace.

Idler made a comment I've heard often in this debate: "And, again, the degree of inhumanity perpetrated at Abu Ghraib is nothing compared to what happens every God-forsaken day in various dictatorships in the region." It's true, we aren't as bad as the terrorists. Is that any kind of mission statement from the most vaunted, idealogical democracy in the world? People wonder why Americans would criticize their own country. Hey, bad people have always threatened our way of life. But we only have our way of life because we refuse to act like those bad people.

1:50 pm. I should also note, although the main discussion continues in the previous thread, that this is the kind of discussion it would be lovely to see play out on a national level. This is the kind of discussion we were bullied into avoiding before the war, and it has made it much more painful since. It is possible to feel passionately about something and discuss it honestly without resorting to invective.


Idler said...


I appreciate your taking my comments seriously enough to include them in a further thread.

The point I think that needs to be made, yet again, is that I think a truly dispassionate reaction to the news of what happened to those two soldiers would be unqualified outrage at what was done to them, based on our notions of the norms of civilized socitey.

You say, "It's true, we aren't as bad as the terrorists." This is a tremendous understatement. You might call it "damning by faint praise." The fact is that the Americans are nothing like the terrorists. It takes a certain highly artificial and biased way of thinking to even begin drawing comparisons.

I don't see how you assert that I suggest that "certain behaviors... are mitigated by the behavior of whom we battle." My point is simply that confronted by two sides whose behavior is starkly different, you not only have a hard time observing those stark distinctions, you focus your criticism on the side whose behavior is vastly more humane.

I enthusiastically support American citizens' (or anybody else's) willingness to criticize their country. I just demand that such criticism be scrupulously fair.

Bri said...

I was in Mosul, at Camp Freedom, when the Abu Ghraib story broke. It was horribly demoralizing for the troops there.

This is just my impression, of course - I didn't take a survey. The implications to me in country seemed vast, rather than trivial. An officer evaluated the implications pretty quickly as we watched the story in the dining facility. "Soldiers are going to die because of this."

Idler said...

The implications are huge despite the nature of the acts. That's just a symptom of how the Arabs succeed in the propaganda war, with the seemingly enthusiastic cooperation not just of resentful Europeans but also Americans who don't seem to be able to say, "Yeah, it sucks, but have a little perspective."