Friedman on Obama and the Memos

Thomas Friedman thinks President Obama has taken the most pragmatic approach regarding the Bush Administrations “torture memos.” But he also explains why fighting a unique enemy, al Qaeda, brought us to this point. And he wonders what the attitude towards “torture” would be had another attack on American soil occurred.

[T]herefore, the post-9/11 environment remains perilous. One more 9/11 would close our open society another notch. One more 9/11 and you’ll be taking off more than your shoes at the airport. We have the luxury of having this torture debate now because there was no second 9/11, and it was not for want of trying. Had there been, a vast majority of Americans would have told the government (and still will): “Do whatever it takes.”
So President Obama’s compromise is the best we can forge right now: We have to enjoin those who confront Al Qaeda types every day on the frontlines to act in ways that respect who we are, but also to never forget who they are. They are not white-collar criminals. They do not care whether we torture or not — bin Laden declared war on us when Bill Clinton was president.

There are plenty of people who know more than I debating the topic and that there is such a debate indicates to me that we are dealing with a gray area here (not over the killing of detainees, but over what is acceptable–and to what degree–as “interrogation” nee “torture”). Does waterboarding and other methods seem unpleasant. You bet…I wouldn’t want to go through it. Is it torture? I don’t know. Like many others, when I think of torture, I think of the rack, pulling fingernails, beating people up, etc. Methods that don’t leave physical damage don’t seem to rise to that level. But just because a method is more psychological than physical, does that mean it’s not torture? Like I said, it is a legitimate point to debate. So reasonable people can disagree (or go back and forth with themselves, as I’ve done…) without any of them being “war criminals.”
And though we all want our country to listen to the “better angels” on our shoulder and take the high moral ground, in this new age of “pragmatism”, what if dancing in the gray area achieves important, life-saving results? To some, such pragmatism–or moral compromise–is worth the lives saved. Others would say no, not at any cost. It’s a personal line and tough to implement as policy. For myself, I’ll take a little psychological discomfort for some terrorists over alternative (that doesn’t mean I want to see detainees humiliated a la Abu Ghraib). Interestingly, Friedman doesn’t credit these techniques for keeping Al Qaeda out of the U.S.: he credits the Iraq War.

I believe that the most important reason there has not been another 9/11, besides the improved security and intelligence, is that Al Qaeda is primarily focused on defeating America in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world — particularly in Iraq. Al Qaeda knows that if it can destroy the U.S. effort (still a long shot) to build a decent, modernizing society in Iraq, it will undermine every U.S. ally in the region.
Conversely, if we, with Iraqis, defeat them by building any kind of decent, pluralistic society in the heart of their world, it will be a devastating blow. Odd as it may seem, the most dangerous moment for us is if Al Qaeda is beaten in Iraq. Because that is when Al Qaeda’s remnants will try to throw a Hail Mary pass — that is, try to set off a bomb in a U.S. city — to obscure its defeat by moderate Arabs and Muslims in the heart of its world.

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13 years ago

I can’t think of very many people who wouldn’t resort do doing *anything* if it was their child at the other end of a gun or near an exploding bomb or receiving some other biological threat. And that really is “anything”. I know I would. But when it is someone else’s child, as everyone is someone’s child and family member, then it’s more ok to them. Let’s ask the spouses and children of those who died on September 11 if they’d torture someone to prevent that from happening and they can have their loved one back. How many do you think would say “No, I’m an American and we’re above that.”
Not many.

13 years ago

Situational ethics is not morality since no universal principles may be issued from such an attitude.
I’m afraid that you are not talking morals or ethics here. You seem to be urging actions from fear or paranoia – no morality involved there at all.
One either stands with his/her personal code of ethics or one shifts them to appease or please mutable circumstances, in which case there is no morality.

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