Moral Equivalence: Why We Are Not the Same

Amid news about the recovery of the corpses of two American soldiers, 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 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]

9 thoughts on “Moral Equivalence: Why We Are Not the Same”

  1. I used to read Sullivan, until he started doing this crap. If I wanted to listen to whining like that, I’d go to DU and wallow in it.

    It’s pretty disgusting that, the moment you heard about the torture and death of the two soldiers, you KNEW the ‘equivalence’ whiners would turn loose at high volume.

  2. Demi,
    Thanks for the clarity.

    As you observe, much of the discussion is not just moral equivalence. The assumptions seem to be that A) everyone but the United States is motivated to do anything cruel or bad only by actions by the United States that need to be answered; B) all rank & file human beings are filled with loving kindness and virtue; they act badly only at the behest of someone of superior rank (who is, of course, filled with sadism & evil). This has none of the virtue of the old White Man’s burden (not seeking to instil rule of law, individual responsibiity, etc.) and all of its paternalism. It ignores the difference you point out so well between savagery used to incite followers and savagery that appals followers and leads to courts martial.

    Minimal experience in life (I have not seen much but did work in a mental hospital in the sixties & taught in a prison in the nineties) demonstrates your arguments are about reality as well as respectful of the universality of our ability to do both good & evil. Nurse Ratchets & sadistic schizophrenics are matched by selfless nurses & gentle victimized patients. A good system recognizes both are possible & tries to encourage the latter & discourage the former.

    People who take positions like Sullivan’s, because they are incapable of recognizing the complexity & diversity of humankind, are less likely to develop a system that holds bad behavior accountable – and, ironically, to encourage good behavior.

  3. Well-put. I think I saw James Taranto make a similar point, but this is more detailed and thus that much more damning.
    Taranto’s point, if I remember, was that people who are worried about the U.S.’s behavior (and in some cases, with good reason) think it lowers us morally — and they think the terrorists think the same way.
    But of course, if the terrorists thought the same way, they’d never torture (even kill) anyone, because they’d want that moral high ground. But acknowledging that means broadening a theory, resulting in an outcome that wouldn’t make the U.S. the biggest bad guy.

    This type of thing, like so many others, requires taking a step back and viewing the big picture. Not surprised to see that Chicago Boyz, once again, has done so.

  4. with none other than Andrew Sullivan leading the charge, critics of the President are claiming that the torture of hostages by terrorists is somehow morally equivalent to the torture of enemy combatants by U.S. personnel:

    Could you provide a link to the Sullivan post you are referring to. I checked his blog and only found two. One was referring to how allowing torture to become institutionalized in our intelligence services has the effect of dumbing down our assets, because as Vladimir Bukovsky argued, “When torture is condoned, these rare talented people leave the service, having been outstripped by less gifted colleagues with their quick-fix methods, and the service itself degenerates into a playground for sadists.” The second, referred to another person’s response to this post via e-mail, in which the person argued that having escaped the torture camps under the Iron curtain, he was ashamed that the US was now using similar methods as those used by the Communists in Eastern Europe, including sleep depravation. That post argues, more than anything, for America to move away from the path, which according to Sullivan it is pursuing. I didn’t find any place in those two posts where he makes an argument for moreal equivalence between Jihadists and the US. If there is another post, please link them to.

  5. nykrindc, I may be reading more into Sully’s argument than you are, but it seems pretty clear to me that when he claims that there is a “logic of torture-reciprocity”, he is essentially saying that, but for the “torture” conducted by America, the insurgents and terrorists would not torture their hostages. That is manifestly fallacious, as I pointed out, because there was not even an Afghan War when Daniel Pearl was beheaded.

    As to charges that terrorist torturing of Western hostages occur as a response to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, I’ve already discussed that this is merely a pretext. America could be inhumanly perfect in its conduct of the war, and the beheadings would still continue. Do those who believe in a “logic of torture-reciprocity” demand the impossible from America, but excuse the moral failures of the other side? It is one thing to say that, because we are America, we should do better. It is quite another to say that, beause we are not perfect, we are therefore no better than the other side.

    Sully has not quite said that we should cut and run. But his more “excitable” posts more than certainly dictate the tenor of his blog. I’ve tried to lay out three types of torture, and discuss how public support probably increases as the type of torture becomes less spectacularly cruel. It is not an endorsement of any one form or another.

    I also quoted an undisclosed fellow bulletin board reader. You will note that not a single one of them says, “America is morally equivalent to the terrorists.” But everything else that is said basically points in that direction.

    Even if Sully were aware of the logical implications of his rhetoric, he would never say those words, because that is simply not how debates are done. To insist that someone explicitly spell label his own work a logical fallacy before others can debate it is simply not intellectually honest.

  6. I agree with you, that for those who would argue that what we do encourages jihadist to do it to us, is a fallacious argument. However, I read Sullivan as implying, with his comment about the “logic of torture-reciprocity,” that in this case it was the administration or at least some of its more ardent supporters who would use the beheading of our soldiers to say, we’ll we have to reciprocate with even harsher tactics. That is, the logic that says that because our enemies do not respect any laws of war, we should not be worried about breaking a few of these, if this helps in our overall effort of defeating them. I did not read him as arguing that because we have done it, we should excuse the other side. If he had, I would disagree with it completely as I do not believe an argument to that effect can be made. This I gather from this part of the post.

    Or maybe it will simply reinforce the logic of torture-reciprocity endorsed by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales. As usual, complete silence from Instapundit. Almost radio silence from the Corner, except for the torture-advocate, Mark Levin, who is urging reciprocal atrocities.

    Further, given his previous posts on torture, it is clear that he sees the administration’s stand on torture as a very slippery slope on which to hold the ideals for which we as Americans stand for and defend.

    I would agree with you that there are some people in our country, particularly on the radical left who see everything we do as evil, and hence the actions of our enemies as just, but they are in the minority. Most people on the left understand that Zarqawi, bin Laden and others are our enemies, what they are concerned with is the manner in which fear is being used in our country to undermine our own liberties. As a libertarian, I sympathize with those concerns, while I do not agree with them completely, as I do believe that any time we give up more freedoms to the government (even if for our own good) these should be discussed and debated because one feature of governments, any government, is that once given to them, it is very hard to take it back (even in a democracy).

  7. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s how many read Sully’s posts. While Sully in his quieter moments of reflection is quite good, those moments are in woeful scarcity these days. And, like it or not, Sully’s position on gay issues strongly colors his view of the Administration, such that he’s all too willing to accept a view of them as eager to use terrorist inhumanity as an excuse to perpetrate the same on our side.

    As I’ve diagnosed, the given reason for the use of psychological torture is to gain intelligence data. I’m on the record as being skeptical of the efficacy of such moves; on the other hand, I’m not going to be clamoring for immediate release of enemy combatants, particularly non-Americans. Heck, I don’t particularly think enemy combatants should get halaal meals; that we afford them that luxury, and that we prosecute those who step beyond the bounds of humanity, speaks volumes as to who we are. Once again, that is why, despite our own failures, we can still claim the moral high road.

  8. Admittedly, my affection & daily reading of Sullivan has waned, but he did argue that Rumsfeld should resign because of Abu Ghraib (here for example.)

    Sullivan still argues we should see the war out in Iraq, but his broad criticisms of Bush & all that Bush “means” on the left does make it hard to see this as thoughtful criticism (and his position is undercut by various of his political enthusiasms.)

    Sullivan remains aware the system of law & vision of our opponents is something to be fought. The fact that this is not a view unanimously held by those of his sexual persusasion makes little sense to me.)

    Some of this comes from what I believe to be a basic misunderstanding of American history & America’s complicated attitudes toward politics, religion & the mixing of the two. Of course, the same befuddlement appears in Kevin Phillips’ take on modern life – despite his useful & perceptive history of the importance of religions in forming our history.

    Sullivan’s obsession with Bush’s religious beliefs as well as with the administration’s stand on torture colors a great deal of what he says. His sense that we should remain true to our values & that the church & state separation is one of the most important of those values is perceptive but not nuanced.

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