[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.