Orwell Revisited

An excellent article in Yahoo News by Walter Shapiro raises a number of important questions about why there was virtually no discussion about the ongoing drone attacks in the recent Presidential debates. In a word, it is because “they” don’t want us to know what is going on “over there,” and both Presidential candidates support the attacks in the name of protecting America. So it’s not an issue that separates the candidates. But Shapiro asks a couple of troubling questions:

The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration is developing a “disposition matrix” for its next-generation terrorist assassination program. (The adjective Orwellian is over-used, but it is undeniably apt for a kill list being euphemistically reworked as a “disposition matrix”).

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

It is a very weak moral system that weighs costs against benefits. But it is done in business routinely — which simply tells us how the business model has permeated this culture. Such a calculation results in strange ethical conclusions, such as the continued production of the Pinto automobile after it has gone up in flames killing or maiming a number of drivers in rear-end collisions. And it “justifies” drone killing in the name of the “national interest.” Weighing alternatives may be realpolitik but it is bad morality: it ignores the victims — like the 16 year-old American son of a terrorist suspect who was in the country looking for his father and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time thereby becoming part of the “residual effect” of a drone killing in Pakistan not long ago.

It has been said, and rightly so, that the President has to make tough decisions and we are not privy to the information available to him through his various secret agencies. All too true. But we like to think that America takes the moral high ground whenever possible and every citizen with a brain and a conscience should join in asking with Walter Shapiro “when will this end?” Let’s face it, it’s terrorism in the name of defending ourselves against terrorism. It is wrong and it is not clear that it is even in the national interest when there are other ways to deal effectively with terrorism. Further, it strikes fear in the hearts of our allies as well as our enemies, and it promotes the image of America as the Big Bully on the block who is out to knock over anyone in his way.

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Justifying Torture

A recent Senate study revealed that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the C.I.A. on al Qaeda did not produce measurable benefits in the war on terror. As a story explains, at the start, (Reuters) – A nearly three-year-long investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats is expected to find there is little evidence the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used on high-value prisoners produced counter-terrorism breakthroughs.

Official sources insist upon using the euphemism for “torture,” which means they don’t want to call a spade a spade. It sounds better if we refer to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, not to mention making people crouch or stretch in stressful positions and slamming detainees against a flexible wall, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some people call this “torture.” Our country chooses elaborate euphemisms. Welcome to “Newspeak.” In any event, whatever we call them, this committee has determined that they didn’t produce any benefits in the war on terror.

There are a number of interesting implications here. To begin with, that argument implies that  if there had been benefits, that is American lives had been saved or bin Laden had been captured or killed as a result of these measures (as Dick Cheney insisted at the time), it would have been justified. The end justifies the means., Machiavelli would be proud.

A second implication is that American lives are more valuable than non-American lives. All persons do not have equal moral value. This is a very serious implication, since it flies in the face of one of the very few sound moral precepts that underlies the fabric of this nation and allows us, from time to time, to claim the “moral high ground.” We can no longer do that if we insist that the lives of Americans are superior to the lives of other people. If all persons are not morally equal, then many, if not all, of the moral “advances” that have been made in recent years — equal rights of all persons regardless of race, color, gender, or creed; laws against discrimination; extension of suffrage, etc. — fall by the wayside.

I honestly do not see how we can morally justify torture, even if we call it something else. It most assuredly defies the Geneva Convention which was supposed to inject some semblance of morality in wartime — if such a thing is possible. Articles 13 to 16, for example, state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely without any adverse discrimination and that their medical needs must be met. But it also lowers us to the level of the people we fight against who also refuse to acknowledge that all persons are morally equal and none can be claimed to have moral privileges. That is the axiom that has been tested in the fires of the war on terrorism and has failed. That is a serious matter indeed.

The one bright note in this dark story is the comment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who noted that the lack of evidence that torture benefitted this country in its war on terror is not really the issue.  Only days after the commando raid in which bin Laden was killed, Feinstein told journalists: “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and, in my view, nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.” She was right. Nothing justifies them.