Two weeks ago, in this column, I suggested that Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, would have difficulty wooing conservatives because of his "anti-torture positions." Commentator Andrew Sullivan immediately pounced on my phraseology: "Good to see plain English being used on the right. Pity the use of torture is now a plus for some in the Republican primaries. But, hey, that’s what American conservatism now stands for."
Sullivan is perhaps the leading proponent of a blanket ban on torture of terrorist detainees. In an article he wrote for The New Republic back in December 2005, he elucidates his position. "Torture is the polar opposite of freedom," he states. To this platitude he adds that the development of Western civilization is a progression from torture to freedom; that if we turn our enemies into monsters to justify torturing them, we will dramatically increase the amount of torture we inflict generally; that we blur the line between our own values and those of the terrorists we fight and, in doing so, alienate potential allies in the Muslim world.
These are not empty arguments. Nevertheless, they remain unconvincing. No one doubts that arbitrary torture is wrong. Were we to pull random American citizens from their homes and drag them into a cell for a bit of waterboarding, we would undoubtedly be destroying our own moral fiber and discrediting our history. We would be no better than the Islamists we fight. But there is a fundamental difference between our treatment of non-citizens and our treatment of citizens. There is a fundamental difference between how we treat our friends and how we treat our enemies.
What distinguishes us from our enemies is not how we treat our enemies, but what we fight to ensure for our friends. We seek to make the world a freer place, a safer place. We fight against the jackboots arriving in the night to steal away religious or political minorities. Our enemies seek to destroy us, and our way of life. They fight for the rape rooms, for the public beheadings, for the murder of religious and political minorities. They seek to make torture the rule, not the exception.
Western civilization, and American civilization in particular, is based on opposition to torture. But Western civilization has never been based on the idea that we must treat enemies of Western civilization with the same care we treat allies. Outsiders are not members of the social pact that guarantees them the rights insiders enjoy.
This does not mean we should treat all outsiders as terrorists. We should treat outsiders with civility as long as they do not threaten our civilization — this in and of itself distinguishes us from our enemies. If, however, outsiders threaten our civilization, we should do what we deem necessary. If we must sometimes get our hands dirty to protect Western civilization, so be it. Western civilization is not a fragile edifice, infinitely susceptible to fruits of fascism. We will not become Nazis because we torture terrorists. We can safely fight our enemies without destroying that which makes us what we are.
In deciding how to treat our enemies, then, we must answer one question: Do the benefits of torture in this case outweigh the harms? In the case of uniformed soldiers, the answer is clearly no. Treating uniformed soldiers with care encourages enemies to identify themselves as soldiers rather than civilians, keeping civilians safer and thereby greasing the wheels for post-war reconstruction.
In the case of terrorists, however, the answer is that torture will often serve a useful purpose. The "ticking time bomb" scenario, wherein torture is necessary to save lives from imminent destruction, is an obvious example. But it is not the only example. If a terrorist has information about sleeper cells; if he has information about future attacks; if he has information about locations and identities, we should torture him.
Sullivan, citing Abu Ghraib, questions whether the benefits of such information outweigh the negative impact on our perception in the Muslim world. This is a reasonable concern, but it is not the only concern. If torturing a particular terrorist is useful — if we engage in the complicated calculus that tells us that the benefits outweigh the harms — torture is not only justified, it is morally right.
This does not mean we must treat our enemies as subhuman, opening the door to widespread abuses. Our enemies are eminently human in their evil; only humans can be evil. But their status as homo sapiens should not shield them and their allies when it comes to preserving Western civilization. The first duty of Western civilization is self-preservation. Self-immolation, not torture, is the polar opposite of freedom.
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