Moral Equivalence: Why We Are Not the Same

Amid news about the recovery of the corpses of two American soldieres, and that the soldiers may have been tortured before decapitation, I've seen a troubling pattern here on the home front. People seem to be going beyond blaming President Bush personally for the deaths of the two soldiers; now, with none other than Andrew Sullivan leading the charge, critics of the President are now claiming that the torture of hostages by terrorists is somehow morally equivalent to the torture of enemy combatants by U.S. personnel:

Some people wonder why I remain so concerned about torture, and the surrender of our moral standing with respect to this unmitigated evil. Maybe the news of captured, tortured and murdered Americans will jog their conscience. Or maybe it will simply reinforce the logic of torture-reciprocity endorsed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales.

While I share Andrew's concern about the use of torture, I must disagree with his faulty logic that Islamoterrorists torture because we torture, in some hocus pocus, smoke-and-mirrors "cycle of violence" that is so much en vogue among many members of the Left. Even a passing glance at the video messages from terrorists, such as the late and unlamented Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, will show that fighting Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, basing troops in Saudi Arabia, enacting sanctions against Saddam Hussein, invading Afghanistan, are all nothing more than raisons du jour for the terrorists. Their aim is nothing more than the complete takeover of the world by their extremist version of the already-intolerant Wahabbi sect of Islam. Pay attention, and you'll see calls by Osama bin Laden for the reconquest of al-Andalus, and calls by Zarqawi for the extermination of Shiites whom he sees as apostates, and therefore far more deserving of hell than even "infidels and crusaders". No, Andrew, the torture of non-Muslim hostages predates even the Iraq War. But I guess that would throw off the "everything is Bush's fault" tint to your world view.

This sad lapse in reason is even evident in another fellow I had a discussion with. After I had made the following comment in a bulletin board:

Yay. More emotional hyperbole from the moral equivalence crowd. Two of our soldiers are beheaded by fanatics in the Iraqi desert, and their response is, "So what, we do the same exact thing." Way to demonstrate cognitive dissonance.

He answered thus:

my point is we can't take the high ground on this because we do it to, torture, that is. its a part of the "dark side" techniques darth cheney said in an interview after 9/11 that we must use to battle terrorism, and i'm not talking about the abu grahib pix. i'm talking about people who disappear/are made to disappear or die in captivity under questionable circumstances. our own govt has said the geneva convention doesn't apply to us re: terrorism. [sic]

Here was my reply, with a few edits made for redaction of information about the individuals on that bulletin board:

  1. The Geneva Conventions only apply to uniformed soldiers of state agents. They do not apply to un-uniformed insurgents fighting in the name of amorphous transnational extremist movements.
  2. There is a debate as to what constitutes torture, and the positions tend to shift depending on the definition:
    1. Hardcore Torture.
      1. Drills through the eyes. Only a small minority here seems to think that that's okay. I highly doubt that our civilian and military leaders would condone that level of torture. Of course, some people think Bushitler is the fucking devil, and that he takes pleasure and masturbates to footage of such torture. Those people need help. Fast.
      2. Crushing fingers and toes. Oh, right, that was Saddam's people that did that. Even though there's no external bleeding here, again I'd stipulate that most people would not condone this.
      3. Cutting out of tongues. Nope, we don't do that one either.
      4. Stapling the disembodied head of the prisoner to his widow's front door. Nope, that was Saddam, too.
    2. Psychological Torture. This is a greyish area, and the shifts in support are the largest here. This ranges all the way from loud rock music, to bright lights 24/7, to the controversial practice of "water boarding", which is when a prisoner's face is dunked in water just long enough to give him the sensation of drowning. This area is problematic, because while some people think this is too cruel, others think that some fraternity hazing rituals are even worse. The Bush Administration seems to have condoned psychological torture up to and including "water boarding". Again, this is the area most ripe for debate.
    3. Humiliation. This is where the sexual hijinks get in there, but also includes the panties over the head, and the group nudie shots.
      1. The Geneva Convention prohibits using photos of POWs for political propaganda. However:
        1. As discussed [above], the current enemy combatants are not covered under the Geneva Conventions.
        2. The photos are taken mostly by grunts. IIRC, all of those punished so far have been enlisted men and NCOs, not commissioned officers. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the officer class is covering its ass and scapegoating the enlisted men, the empirical observation is that the enlisted class tends to have a higher proportion of personnel that's willing to do that. Notwithstanding my respect for our military forces, the ranks of enlisted men do often include some who are not fit for normal society. Also, it probably takes a certain kind of mentality to be a prison guard ...
        3. What publicity those photos got were part of media exposes against the government, rather than government efforts to whip the citizenry into a rabid killing frenzy. While there is a beneficial side effect to such exposure, in that interrogation and detention policy is continuously refined to meet higher standards, there is a downside in that the transgressions of the past are held against the military's present state of affairs. It's as if, even though you've learned to drive more responsibly after a collision and half a dozen speeding tickets, the cops and insurance company still treat you, 10 years later, as a menace to society. In fact, the next time you're rear-ended, you're assumed to be at fault. Sure, maybe you shouldn't have been driving so slow, but is that really any consolation?
      2. If many techniques of psychological torture are already dismissed as analogous to hazing rites, humiliation can hardly be expected to elicit sympathy. Almost everyone has suffered a wedgie or some similar bullying tactic in grade school. Most of us get over it eventually. Some of us credit it for giving us an incentive to work out, or take self defense classes, or learning to laugh it off, or whatever.
    4. The problem is, whatever the merits are of arguing against using some of techniques of psychological torture that border on hardcore torture, when the media goes to press showing pictures representative of humiliation, Americans become desensitized to what's really going on. An episode of Fear Factor is more dangerous than being made to stand with a black hood for a photo.
  3. The foregoing definitions of torture are separate again from the question of "why". Why might we humiliate someone? Why might we deprive someone of sleep? The answer given has always been, "to get intelligence". While some, including me, question the efficacy of even humiliation in intelligence-gathering, there are a large number of people, many quite well educated, that think the other way. Given how many movies and shows there are that feature humiliation and psychological torture by the likes of Jack Bauer or some actual authorized police officer, it's little wonder many Americans feel that it may just work. When even Tom Cruise's character eventually tells the secret in M:I3, and when Harrison Ford initially gives in to terrorist demands in Air Force One, one can forgive the average person for thinking that psychological torture might just work. Of course, most of these enemy combatants have forsaken all they know, and a large number would prefer a glorioius martyrdom. I'm not too sure they'd be easy to crack.
  4. Leaving aside the more controversial fine-line areas, the American system at least brings some semblance of justice. There are those who'll go on forever about how grunts are always scapegoated; and there are those who are absolutely convinced that the President personally encourages such action. I would say they're wrong.
  5. There is a difference between a true pacifist or antiwar believer, who doesn't care who's President; and an opportunist or a partisan, who only protests because his political enemy is in office. The first are only dangerous to themselves.
  6. America is not perfect. No nation, no state, that is comprised of humans can ever be perfect. We can do our best, and our best may not even be enough. But it's still more and better than nothing at all. Leave Iraq out of this for a moment. Consider only the enemy combatants from Afghanistan. And consider the case of Daniel Pearl. Daniel Pearl was in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to try to do a story on Osama bin Laden. Daniel Pearl worked for the Wall Street Journal; like most of the news department staff, he was a liberal. While in Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, he paid a visit to an informer. He was then beheaded, and the event was taped. The United States had not attacked Afghanistan. Why? His last name gave him away: He was a Jew. Worse, he was an American Jew.

    His killers reveled in his death, even though he had caused them no harm. Accompanying many of the later beheading videos from Iraq is the message, "You love life, but we love death!" Against such a message, of a system of values so alien to our own, is it any wonder many Americans are less inclined to be polite to enemy combatants?

    And yet, many of our citizens protest the government when we hear or see reports of far, far less. And, if sometimes belatedly, our military and civilian bureaucracies swing into action to correct such mistakes as best they can.

    It is that which gives us the moral high ground. If you honestly think there is no objective difference, I invite you to take arms against the United States.

    Oh, that's right. Life's too comfortable here, and nobody's threatening to behead you.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

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