Bin Laden, waterboarding, and morals

I won’t be debating the efficacy of waterboarding and its role in finding Bin Laden. Reports have come out that it has, and the hypothesis is impossible to test.

Let us look, instead, at how the Bin Laden raid makes us reveal to the world our own personal biases and moral foundations. This is important, you see, because some people wouldn’t be worth discussing with depending on how they define certain things.

First: if you think that “waterboarding” and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” constitute “torture,” it’ll be very hard to break past this definition. It’s like the public standards of decency test when it comes to pornography. The definition as stated by UN Convention Against Torture is subject to interpretation: it becomes a question of severity.

So, you would have some people who consider waterboarding to be an acceptable means of discomfort, because it doesn’t cause lasting physical damage, cf. the Spanish Inquisition. We’re not talking about iron maidens here, right Then there are some people who find any kind of discomfort or suffering to be unacceptable, and so the discussion becomes not a question of what to do with an enemy combatant in order to gather information, but whether it’s even acceptable to try to do so.

If an enemy combatant is asked for information and refuses to do so, what do you do? This kind of question has been asked in a number of TV series, Criminal Minds being one example where EIT doesn’t work. Of course it doesn’t, because we wouldn’t want to give anyone any ideas, no?

Second: definition of torture not notwithstanding, this really becomes a matter of the Moral Cost of Civilization, a concept that I sorely wanted to write about during the height of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables fiasco. The sad, sad truth is that States and their Governments will act in a manner that acts in its self interest and hopefully this interest reflects the interests of its Citizenry.

We rendition enemy combatants to nations friendly to torture—not just EIT—because our jurisdictional philosophy isn’t universal. Does it lead to results? We may never fully know. Is this a moral blight upon us? Assuming that it is, what are we going to do about it?

Do we, as a people, relinquish these actions completely, such that we draw the line at merely asking a captured combatant for his cooperation and giving up upon his refusal? There are people who think so and I’m not sure I want them in charge, nor do I want their standards. At the same time, I don’t want anyone who would think that EIT is in itself completely acceptable; that it is a standard to use, misuse and abuse against those we label as enemy combatants.

If asked whether EIT is “acceptable,” I’m afraid I don’t have a clear answer. What I do want, though, is a government that keeps the privelege to do so and yet accepts the heavy moral burden it takes on if it does. Because while it hurts to be a part of a society that embraces these techniques, the hope is that our children won’t have to.

15 thoughts on “Bin Laden, waterboarding, and morals”

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