Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Friday, June 08, 2007

Sometimes my allies scare me

The other day I got one of those pass-along emails from a good friend. The email purported to be (and may well have been) a letter from an angry woman about those who protest some of what has been done in the name of the war on terror.

In the letter, the woman makes the excellent point that we are supposedly at war with terrorism, on a global scale. She points out, quite accurately, that it was Islamic militants who slaughtered literally thousands of innocents on 9/11, who deride and physically assault practically any religion but their own, who deliberately attack and endanger innocent women and children both on their own side and the side of their enemies. They have used torture and indiscriminate slaughter to attempt to force their will upon the unwilling, and have the avowed goal of bringing down the United States and our allies -- and they are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal.

She then objects to our soft-pedaling around that fact. She rails against complaints against the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, saying that we are at war, and it is legitimate to use humiliation, both personal and religious, and even some forms of torture, to get information from our enemies in order to save American lives. To her, the facts of sexual humiliation, denigration of religious items, even the possibility of brutal torture of those being held are no big deal -- because we are at war, and those sworn to destroy us would have no qualms about using those same tactics against us.

There's a problem with that. The very reason we are at war is because we are different than they are. We don't believe that it's okay to deliberately slaughter the innocent. We don't think that just anything goes in order to get our way, or even to protect ourselves. There are moral limits to what the good guys can do before they become the bad guys.

Our goal is not to take over some big part of the world (their long-range goal is actually to take over the world for Islam; the people we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan today have dreams no smaller than Hitler's, and every bit as bloody. I think it's a good thing we're fighting them there rather than waiting for them to come here again.) Our goal is rather to turn the majority of the people inhabiting those areas to our side in opposing terrorism. It's been working -- we get a tremendous amount of our most valuable intelligence from people in Iraq and Afghanistan who are sickened by the oppression and brutality of our enemies. But you rarely make people love you and want to genuinely side with you through torture and humiliation -- you make them fear you, and what people fear, they eventually hate (which is why so many in those countries have turned to us instead of the terrorists or the old regimes). Every story of brutality that goes out to the world does our enemies more good than any car bomb they can set off.

Besides, I'm not sure there's much evidence that it actually works to torture people for information (from what I'm told -- no personal experience here, I assure you). A person who is being tortured doesn't tell the truth -- he says whatever he thinks will make the pain go away. Sure, at some point, he may tell you the truth. But you don't know which time that will be (even if you do actually manage to get it out of him, and there's plenty of people who have died before giving up information).

But even if we assumed that it worked, that we could capture known terrorists and torture them for useful information (and it was morally okay to do that), that makes another assumption -- that the people being held, humiliated, and abused are actually known terrorists with useful information. Now, I have little doubt that the media has successfully blown all out of proportion the misdeeds done to U.S. prisoners, and underestimates the intelligence and ability of U.S. troops -- it's a pattern in the mainstream media these days. I'm well aware that there's no evidence our troops are using blowtorches, acid, and swords on people, and that keeping someone up late or kicking the Koran (however silly that may be) isn't quite the same thing. But some of what I have seen definitely goes beyond any reasonable line of moral treatment. And the information I've seen suggests that the majority of the people being treated in these ways actually were not caught in any terrorist act, have no demonstrable ties to terrorist organizations, and in fact are not actually known to have any really useful information. Maybe they do, and maybe they don't.

I understand the need for protecting our sources of information -- if we had an Al Qaeda informant who was clueing us in on people to grab, and we gave that person's name in a trial as evidence for why we picked someone up, that informant would be most assuredly killed, and probably with far more suffering and brutality than the U.S. has inflicted on any prisoner. But we need some way to identify who we are holding as legitimate prisoners with potentially useful information or demonstrable ties to terrorist groups or activities. And we need to think very carefully before we decide that since we are at war, anything goes -- even the possible humiliation, torture, and killing of the innocents.

How much of that does it take before the good guys become bad guys too?


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