Bruce Thornton: Sloppy Thinking About ‘Torture’

Torture is one of those topics that often overwhelm sober reason with lurid emotion. Even people who usually are clear-eyed and rational sink into sloppy thinking and incoherent argument when it comes to torture. Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal column about the Senate report on the CIA’s interrogation techniques illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.

Noonan is usually an astute analyst, but her column on the report is riddled with received wisdom and unexamined assumptions. For Noonan, the “important lesson” of the report is not that progressives, as usual, are shameful hypocrites and partisan hacks who will damage their country’s interests for ideological or political advantage. It is not that when fighting a brutal enemy who obeys no laws of war, things are done we’d rather not do in order to save lives. No, her “lesson” is that the enhanced interrogation techniques, “torture” in her view, are “not like us” or “part of the American DNA,” and that, quoting John McCain, such techniques damage “our reputation as a force for good in the world.” These assertions, however, are based on simplistic psychology and flawed reasoning.

First, with very few isolated exceptions, none of the interrogation techniques meets the U.S. Code’s legal definition of torture, which requires the intent to cause severe suffering “other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions,” in the words of the statute. Noonan may think the EITs are “what I believe must honestly be called torture.” But what Noonan, or I, or anyone else “believes” does not trump what the law actually says, and it is the law (Title 18Part IChapter 113C, § 2340) that our officials must follow, not subjective perception or even international laws that conflict with our own. As I said before, if people disagree with the law, then there is a political process for changing it.

The begged question that the EITs are torture undermines by itself the rest of Noonan’s argument. But it suffers from other problems as well. She also makes the fuzzy but simplistic statement that it “won’t help us fight it [war against jihadism] to become less like ourselves and more like those we oppose.” This is a version of the progressives’ mantra since 9/11 that the “terrorists win” if we do certain things that the critics believe are immoral or contrary to our “values”––as if our crisis of national identity is more important than destroying the enemy, the only way we “win.”

Noonan’s argument, however, falls to pieces on analysis. First, it ignores critical distinctions, such as intent: the reason why we do what we do, and the moral superiority of our reasons compared to those of the enemy. Again, with a few exceptions, the intent of the interrogators was not to inflict pain just to indulge their sadism, but to extract information to save American lives, which they did. Second, there are critical differences between the techniques used by the CIA––which were vetted by the Department of Justice, usually overseen by physicians, and subject to precise rules governing their application––and the horrific torture going on in countries like Iran. It is childish to fail to recognize that being slammed against a wall or deprived of sleep or confined in a coffin is nothing even close to the genuine torture going on all over the world. I haven’t heard any of the journalists who volunteered to be waterboarded asking to have their fingernails wrenched out with pliers, or electrodes attached to their genitals.

Third, ignoring the different purposes of what a country does in war leads to the facile moral equivalence of the naïve pacifist or the anti-American critic. During World War II the Allies’ strategic bombing campaigns destroyed almost all of Germany’s major cities and killed up to half a million people. Some historians today call the strategic bombing campaigns war crimes. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which probably saved a million American and Japanese lives that would have been lost with an invasion of Japan, remain popular bywords for American brutality.

But the noble purpose of all that destruction was to hasten the defeat of two of history’s most brutal regimes, whose triumph would have created a world deprived of freedom and human rights, a world of oppression and misery. Achieving that purpose required the “awful arithmetic,” as Lincoln called it, the tragic but necessary calculus that some must die now so that more don’t die later. Noonan needs to explain why incinerating and blowing up hundreds of thousands of people––including women, children, and the old––during the “good war” is “like ourselves,” while the CIA’s interrogation program––in which a grand total of two terrorists died––isn’t.

Finally, there is the obsession with our country’s “reputation,” and the implication that we should concern ourselves with “the world’s regard.” Just which country in the world has the moral authority and clean enough hands to sit in judgment on what our country does? Russia? Iran? China? The British, who in India strapped rebellious sepoys to cannon and blew them to pieces? The French, who killed a million and a half people during the Algerian War, and used torture to dismantle the National Liberation Front’s terrorist cells? And does Noonan really care what the thug regimes sitting on the U.N. Human Rights Council think? Or even our so-called allies in Europe, who carp and criticize our behavior even as they enjoy the free security ride we provide because we are willing to spend the money and do the dirty work they get to avoid?

As for the brutal men who run most of the world, our concern for their opinion is a sign not of strength, but of weakness. It is a marker of our cultural failure of nerve, and our doubt about the rightness of our motives and purposes, the reasons why we have to do what we’d rather not do. But the fact is, our rivals and enemies don’t hate us or oppose us because of what we do. That canard is psychologically reductive, as if other nations and peoples don’t have their own interests and beliefs and aims that they actively pursue, but just passively sit around until we provoke them to react to our bad behavior.

Of course, our enemies will use our actions as the camouflaging pretext for their own behavior, since they understand that too many Americans are predisposed to believe the worst of their own country and thus will counsel retreat and appeasement, or even damage their own country’s interests and security, as the release of the Senate report has done. Bin Laden was the master of such propaganda, employing a whole specious catalogue of American offenses against Islam as the pretext for terrorist attacks based on his religious beliefs about the divine right of Muslims to dominate the world. But in reality, as the world’s greatest military, economic, and cultural power, we will be envied, resented, and hated no matter what we do or how much we anxiously seek the rest of the world’s high “regard.” Rescuing millions of Muslims from violent oppression in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan has not cut any ice with the scores of jihadist gangs actively trying to kill us.

Contrary to Noonan and McCain, and despite the dishonest rhetoric from our resentful allies, rivals, and enemies, the Senate report does not diminish America as a “force for good in the world,” a beacon of freedom, tolerance, and opportunity. That is why the U.S. is the emigrant’s favorite destination, why the U.S. is the go-to power for those countries in need when stricken by natural disasters or violent aggressors, and why the basic attitude of most of the world’s peoples is “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” The United States is in fact the “city on the hill,” the only world power in history that has used its power more for good than for ill. To think that reports of interrogation techniques used to save lives challenge the reality of American exceptionalism bespeaks a lack of confidence and faith not in our perfection, but in the fundamental goodness of America and its aims despite our occasional imperfections.