Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/19/2008 (6:45 am)

Those Who Make the Hard Decisions

Watch the video, above, from a few days ago, in which Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledges that he was consulted concerning the procedure for questioning Khalid Sheik Muhammed.

I got engaged in a conversation with a progressive about Barack Obama’s habitual lying and his possible involvement in Gov. Rod Blogojevich’s Senate seat auction, and the fellow pointed to this event and suggested that I was focused on fairly ordinary human failings when there was significant evil afoot. The man is a Christian, and accused me of “straining at gnats, and swallowing camels;” for those of you not familiar with the New Testament, he’s quoting Jesus’ indictment of religious hypocrites from a sect called the Pharisees, and accusing me of a pretty serious moral failure. It led me to ruminate for a day or two, prayerfully, over what we mean when we use the word “evil,” and how it applies to national leaders. Joe, if you’re reading this, please understand that I did not take your challenge lightly at all, nor is this a reflexive response; but you’re wrong.

Progressives around the country are practically exploding because Vice President Cheney acknowledged that he was involved in the discussion regarding what could and could not be done to the terrorists in custody in order to discover what they knew about al Qaeda’s plans and operations. The discussions were carried out according to the law of the land, with oversight by the appropriate Congressmen, and the program of interrogation was approved, waterboarding and all. Cheney observes correctly that the Bush administration has achieved remarkable success in preventing further attacks against the US by terrorists, once having been delivered a cataclysmic wake-up call on Sept. 11, 2001.

Did the approved procedure include acts that could properly be called evil? I think so.

Harry Truman, as President, ordered men to fly over a foreign city in an airplane and throw an object out of the plane that immediately incinerated the entire city — men, women, children, pets, dolls, hairbrushes, taxicabs, everything burned to a crisp. Thousands of survivors died of horrible diseases in the aftermath, and were continuing to die for about the next 25 years. Truman did this twice. He decorated the individuals who performed this act on his behalf, raising them to hero status.

Was that evil? Ignore the context for the moment, and just look at the act. Was it evil? I hope there’s no question about it. It was an unspeakable evil. Angels wept. So did millions of men and women around the globe. It was so stark an evil that succeeding generations have bent themselves into pretzels to make sure such a thing never happens again. Allow yourselves to feel the enormity of it for a moment.

Franklin Roosevelt, as President, engaged in the planning of acts that included things like this: an American man walked up to a concrete building full of men on the beach in France, stuck a pipe into the room and filled it with jellied gas, and then lit the gas, burning the men slowly and painfully to death (think flame-throwers and concrete bunkers.) Was that evil? If you didn’t think so, I would think you were not civilized.

Abraham Lincoln had somewhat less advanced technology to work with. He planned events that included Americans running up to other Americans on American soil, screaming like banshees, and jamming 18-inch-long stakes of sharpened metal through the other man’s body, causing the victim to die slowly of internal injuries over the next several hours (think of a bayonet charge.) Was that evil? Of course it was. When I think about things like this, I thank God — seriously — that I’ve never had to do such a thing to another man.

Adding the context does not necessarily help, especially if you’re trying to make it sound monstrous. Lincoln ordered this atrocity a hundred thousand times over, simply to prevent several states from carrying out a political decision they had every right to make. He had no Constitutional authority to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union. He ordered men by the hundreds of thousands to burn, pillage, stab, shoot, pulverize, route, and imprison other Americans simply to prevent a political divorce. We celebrate his birthday because he did that. Roosevelt ordered those millions of atrocious acts to stop one European leader from coercing other European leaders. The Germans never attacked us directly, nor were they any sort of immediate threat to us; we could easily have let the Europeans settle their own disputes, and made a treaty with Hitler to keep him on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Truman ordered his atrocity to avoid the unpleasantness of invading another country’s homeland. We could have blockaded them, and continued to engage their vanishing navy indefinitely, rather than incinerate hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It’s easy to make these things sound monstrous because, in fact, they are monstrous. War itself is evil. Never mind the necessity; God weeps when men go to war. The suffering produced by human violence, even violence justified by political necessity, creates an eternal weight of shame so great that God, Himself, had to suffer and die to atone for it. And even among those men whom God accepted, the Old Testament records that God would not permit King David to build a temple for Him because David was a man of war, and had too much blood on his hands. God does not take war lightly.

We do things inside ourselves to accommodate these evil acts, because at some level we believe the causes in which they were committed were just. We elevate the moral necessity of protecting our homes and families. We recognize our obligation to serve the nation that protects our liberties and permits our prosperity. We erect elaborate moral constructs to ennoble liberating enslaved or oppressed fellow-humans in other countries, and imagine that we hope they would do the same for us if our roles were reversed. Soldiers who have served in combat sometimes testify that they committed their unspeakable acts of violence mostly to honor their brotherhood to the man standing next to them. Is this enough? As a civilization, and possibly to our eternal shame, we believe that it is.

For the men at the time of the Civil War, there was a national covenant before God that made the preservation of the Union worth fighting for. We may not understand that sense of urgency from our modern point of view, but we can honor their commitment and devotion (no, the Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery; that was a military tactic and a side effect.) We certainly understand, from our modern point of view, the corrosive evil that Nazi Germany represented, and do not regret the atrocious acts we committed attempting to free the world from that terror (and, yes, American servicemen committed acts like waterboarding, and worse.) The Japanese did, in fact, threaten and attack us, and needed to be pushed back. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably prevented an invasion that would have resulted in casualties numbered in the millions.

None of this eliminates the evil of the acts committed in the pursuit of those ends. Sometimes we call on our Presidents, Vice Presidents, Congressmen, or Secretaries of Defense to engage in evil acts on our behalf, or to order us to commit evil acts. Sometimes it’s necessary. That’s part of living in a fallen world. Ultimately, we permit such evil in order to prevent even greater evils from occurring. As Ernest Hemingway once observed, there are worse things than war, and they happen after defeat.

If Dick Cheney, or any other American for that matter, engaged in acts of cruelty solely for the sake of enjoying the cruelty — if, say, they ordered that Khalid Sheik Muhammed’s fingers be cut off with a pruning shear just because they did not like him — I would want them punished severely. There’s never any reason for sadistic pleasure; schadenfreude is deep sin. That’s not what happened, though. Allowing fierce interrogation of prisoners, as part of a larger program of interrogation aimed at preventing Muslim radicals from hijacking airplanes full of civilians and flying them into buildings, I regard as a sensible part of the conduct of war. Yes, it’s evil. War is evil. I wish we didn’t have to do it, but the 1990s showed us what would happen if we avoided the evil of war; we suffered an escalating pattern of violence against ourselves that was only going to get worse. Those of us who read history recall the Muslim invasions of Europe and North Africa, and recognize that what we’re facing is not so different from what they faced. We’re protecting our homes and our civilization.

There are those tender-hearted souls among us who cannot make themselves watch the horrors of war, and who lack the inner fortitude to do the necessary things to protect home, country, virtue, or humanity from the corrosive evils that attack us. Rep Jane Harmon (D, CA) was the only Congressperson to object to the program of interrogation outlined by the CIA during the legal evaluation of the War on Terror; she is one of those tender-hearted persons, and she has my respect for her stand of conscience. There are others who, out of religious conviction from traditions that condemn violence, refuse to participate in the conduct of war. There must remain a place among us for those whose soul or conscience cannot stand the violence necessary for sound national defense. These people are honorable.

Most of those who are calling Dick Cheney “evil,” however, are not honorable in this fashion. On the contrary; they participated in an 8-year-long, full-throated, whole-hearted attempt to make every ordinary act of governance seem criminal. The biblical name for this behavior is “perverting justice,” and I cannot respect the moral sense of anyone who regards such wholesale perversion of justice as small potatoes. Their goal was partisan; some wanted power or office for Democratic politicians, others wanted to persuade the culture to abandon the Western tradition of virtue in order to produce a different world. Theirs is not conscientious objection; on the contrary, theirs is an act of bald treason. They deliberately, knowledgeably, and systematically, by means of propaganda, attempted to cause our nation to be defeated morally and politically before our enemies in the eyes of the world. They defend their treason by pretending they belong to the group I described in the last paragraph, but they lie; they are as different from those honorable people as night is from day. They are our enemies, and in a sane world, they would be punished.

I honestly don’t know to which group the fellow belongs with whom I was holding the discussion. I hope for his sake that it’s the former, and not the latter. I simply know that there’s no shame, nor sin, in defending the hard decisions leaders have to make in order to protect a nation from its enemies. Sometimes their decisions result in armies committing acts of violence that make the angels weep. Sometimes they make mistakes. Always, the innocent suffer. War is a horrible thing; but wars are fought among men, and not only should we honor the men who have to fight them, we should honor the leaders who surrender their clear consciences to make the hard decisions during those wars. Attempting to make criminals of them perverts justice, and endangers us all.

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18 Comments »

December 19, 2008 @ 1:56 pm #

Sir…

That was some powerful, thought provoking missive you’ve penned.

Bravo.

(Author notes: Thanks.)

December 19, 2008 @ 1:57 pm #

BTW…I’ll bet the average liberal won’t “get it.”

December 19, 2008 @ 2:46 pm #

This was an excellent and thought provoking commentary. Thank you. You are right that these acts are evil. I believe Harry Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justified, but it is good to be reminded of the horror of what actually happened. I don’t think any of the presidents you mentioned made these decisions lightly, and that includes our current president, in spite of what the loons on the left believe. No wonder the presidency ages the holders of the office so fiercely: the moral burdens of their decisions are immense…. That’s why they need our prayers….

December 19, 2008 @ 5:04 pm #

Excellent piece. It’s good to remember too that we never know from day to day when we may call on our leaders to make such decisions again. They know much more about what is happening around the world than we do. We can but pray.

December 19, 2008 @ 9:42 pm #

I have to say, this is one of your most thoughtful columns that I’ve seen, and something I’ve been wondering about, what with Obama’s sound bites about getting out of Iraq in 18 months and closing down Gitmo.

I believe how we answer this question/conundrum you’ve posed (and I’m taking some liberty here in paraphrasing) about how far we go in defending our own interest will be one of the crucial points that determine our viability as a nation over the next decade or so.

Back in Truman’s day we didn’t have imbedded reporters and 24-7 news. It seemed easier to paint these issues in black or white, no gray areas. Here I have to say that the news cycle (and maybe even, gasp, the libs) have done us a service as a nation. Because if we’re going to do these evil things, even if it is neccessary to do so to preserve our safety, I believe we need to be able to look the evil squarely in the eye, acknowledge it, and then do what has to be done, never forgetting the nature of what we are doing.

It is easy to say “We cannot do any of this, we are better then they are, we have to take the high moral ground.” Or to make the analogy that if you could preserve world peace forever by killing one innocent child you cannot do so, because you then build your civilization upon an atrocity as a base.

But part of our duty as thinking adults and protectors of our children and our society is to draw moral lines that acknowledge the presence of irrational evil. And to do what we must to stop it, even if it means crossing some boundaries we would rather not cross.

I can understand struggling over whether waterboarding should be practiced by the US. But I cannot understand and reject the attempt to draw moral equivalency between the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Muhammed under controlled conditions and Saddam pulling out the fingernails of a child in front of his parents for some political slight. One is a reluctant use of deadly (even vicious) force, the other is pure unfettered evil. There is no reasonable comparison and the left’s attempt to draw these analogies cheapens other, better arguments they could bring.

December 20, 2008 @ 12:25 am #

Seldom I write comments but resource really cool

December 20, 2008 @ 12:57 am #

Well put commentary, not only on the leadership decisions involving necessary evil but, on the optional evil involved in the partisan propaganda condemning those leaders from the sidelines.

Thank you.

December 20, 2008 @ 1:09 am #

Phil,

As usual, excellent.

It reminds me also that this principle pertains not just to men against men, but God Himself as he must sometimes choose the greater good (or the lesser evil) in order to deal with man’s fallen state.

Genesis tells us of a great deluge where every man, woman, child and even land-based animal was killed save those few on-board the ark (yes, I believe in a literal flood and a literal ark). But even for those who interpret Genesis allegorically, it clearly tells us that God must sometimes “make the hard decisions.” In this case, to either let the entire race become so corrupt that it is beyond redemption, or start over again with the one righteous man left on the face of the earth. Fast forward to Sodom and Gomorrah. Or the children of Israel moving into the “promised land” and wiping out entire civilizations in Caanan.

Or for that matter sending His own Son to be subjected to the evil of a torturous death for our greater good.

As another commenter pointed out, “progressives” don’t get this concept — and unfortunately never will.

They are quick to quote the Bible, but uniformly incapable of rightly dividing it.

December 20, 2008 @ 3:55 am #

My name is Joe. I am the “progressive” that Phil responded to in the “Those Who Make Hard Decisions” post.

Phil:

There are many things in your post that I wanted to respond to, but I will limit myself to the most important issues.

First, in saying that you were “straining at a gnat, while swallowing a camel,” I was not accusing you of moral turpitude. I was arguing that your ideological commitments had commandeered your faculties of moral evaluation. The fact that you considered Obama’s (alleged) practice of reflexively distancing of himself from politically embarrassing associations worthy of discussion, but did not find Vice President Cheney’s public declaration that he supported the authorization of torture worthy of discussion, was astonishing. Even if Cheney’s actions ultimately prove defensible, your failure to recognize the greater importance of Cheney’s admission demonstrated to me that your ideological commitments are clouding your moral judgment.

Torture is obviously more important than a willingness to abandon one’s friends when politically expedient. That you initially missed this should give you pause.

Second, and far more important, you fail to understand that the term “evil” is equivocal. We sometimes use that term to describe the tragic character of reality and the choices it forces upon us. War is sometimes necessary and justifiable to protect a nation’s security or vital interests. Acts of war require extreme and deadly violence. Such acts are tragic and terribly unfortunate, but may nonetheless be morally justified, provided that they do not exceed certain limitations, and to the extent that the perpetrators are morally justified in engaging in the war in the first place. Ordinary acts of war are “evil” in the limited sense that they are tragic, terribly unfortunate, and to be avoided if at all possible.

However, we also use the term “evil” to describe behavior that is morally impermissible to a degree reaching depravity. Ordinary acts of war, while evil in the “tragic and regrettable” sense, are not evil in the stronger “morally depraved” sense. Violence perpetuated against active combatants during combat operations is, within certain limits, morally permissible. It is “evil” only in the sense that it is extremely regrettable and tragic. To the contrary, violence perpetuated against unarmed non-combatants, or against combatants who have been rendered helpless by capture, is evil in the latter sense.

Your view seems to be that because the violence of war is always evil, we can draw no moral distinctions between the various kinds of violence that a soldier (or a leader) might commit (or authorize) in defense of a nation. But all civilized nations rejected that premise long ago and codified specific moral limitations into the laws of war. Civilized nations have long agreed that certain types of violence are so morally depraved that they must be universally condemned and punished as a matter of law, despite the fact that such measures might prove useful to a nation’s war effort.

You argue that:

“War is a horrible thing; but wars are fought among men, and not only should we honor the men who have to fight them, we should honor the leaders who surrender their clear consciences to make the hard decisions during those wars. Attempting to make criminals of them perverts justice, and endangers us all.”

War is indeed a terrible, tragic, and necessarily violent activity, and hence an “evil.” But there are moral limits to what is permissible, even in war. That means that there are certain “hard decisions” that cannot be allowed because they cross the line into depravity. The torture of captured combatants has long been recognized as morally depraved, and has thus been criminalized as a matter of U.S. and international law for decades.

Individuals (or leaders) who torture (or authorize the torture of) captured combatants make themselves criminals by violating these prohibitions. We recently reaffirmed our commitment to this principle when we prosecuted and imprisoned the soldiers responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib. No one need attempt to criminalize Vice President Cheney’s decision to authorize torture. He made himself a criminal by violating our laws against torture.

Best wishes,

Joe H.

December 20, 2008 @ 5:33 pm #

Joe, it seems to me that you’re far more guilty of what your accusing Phil of. Phil talks about ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and not just soldiers, but men, woman, and children. But you went right on by that, in effect saying that you accepted that necessity, but for some reason just could not tolerate waterboarding. Let’s take a look at this for a moment; this was a non uniformed combatant who fights by ordering attacks on “soft targets”. And what are those soft targets, men woman, and children just going about their daily business. There are no military objectives other than to create terror. In previous wars when men or woman were captured, out of uniformed, and determined to be enemy combatants, they were summarily executed. Although I might add that if it was thought they had any usefully information, that was gotten out of them first, by whatever means. Back in those more sane days, no one even suggested that these people should enjoy the same protections as captured uniformed soldiers.
I’m with Phil on this one, I am far more concerned about a newly elected President who believes that he needs to lie about past associations, over and over again, then I am about a Vice President who candidly admits that he had a part in the decision making process concerning the use of waterboarding, on high ranking non uniformed combatants who conduct their war by no rules whatsoever.

You said, “Even if Cheney’s actions ultimately prove defensible, your failure to recognize the greater importance of Cheney’s admission demonstrated to me that your ideological commitments are clouding your moral judgment.” Joe, are you suggesting that once our Vice President leaves office, he should be put on trial in order to determine if his part in this was defensible? Can you really mean that? This is the kind of thing that goes on in third world countries, not the United States. Unfortunately, I believe that this is the direction that we are going. I believe your side is going to win Joe. At first the taste of victory will be very sweet, only latter will you realize what you’ve eaten. Many years ago I quit smoking, it was not that I was so afraid of death, although I was younger then, it’s that I couldn’t stand the thought of having done it to myself. Good luck Joe.
Sincerely, Dale

December 20, 2008 @ 5:50 pm #

Hi, Joe, and welcome to Plumb Bob Blog.

First of all, please don’t worry about whether or not I was offended by being told my priorities were askew. I’m a member of the human race, just like you. Moral-infractions-R-us. Like nearly everybody, I’m a lot more likely to get upset about a charge like that when I’m convinced, at some level, that it’s at least partly true. Consequently, anybody who takes on themselves the role of prophet for another man’s decisions has to be ready for some kickback.

Fortunately, I’m pretty confident that you’re wrong on this one. Truth is, I wasn’t paying very close attention to the news cycle this week, and didn’t even catch Cheney’s remarks until several days after he made them. I wouldn’t have reacted, though, because I know that the handful of incidents we’re talking about took place in 2003 and not thereafter, that the leading politicians making the most noise about it were privy to the decisions at the time (more than 30 consultations with the CIA) and raised not a single word of objection, and thus conclude that most of the noise about “torture” is pure, political theater designed to inflame the credulous and gain partisan advantage. I didn’t even know his involvement in the discussions was in dispute; I had long since taken it as granted that he was.

Besides, your description of what I was concerned about regarding Obama is off, as I explained in my comments on your blog (for those of you who are interested in the discussion, here’s the link.) My concern is about the declining virtue of the culture, and about a gradually-building, decades-long, culture-wide, habitual choice to call good “evil” and evil “good,” not just the President-elect’s treatment of his associates. I can’t imagine a Christian regarding this as a small matter, regardless of what you think of waterboarding.

Now, concerning war and evil, you say I fail to notice several possible meanings of the word “evil.” This is not correct. Not only do I not fail to distinguish between different meanings of “evil” (the horror of war vs. inner moral depravity,) that difference is the central point of my essay. Perhaps you missed it because I devoted only two sentences to the “depravity” side of the equation.

Sometimes hatred, envy, rage, or a desire for revenge motivate a person to carry out plans to make another person hurt. That’s evil. Sometimes more complex emotional distortions make a person enjoy the pain of others, and they cause pain to entertain themselves. That’s also evil. This sort of evil almost always warrants punishment (although when it shows up on the battlefield it’s sometimes useful. That’s a different discussion.) As I said in the essay, if I thought the Vice President was motivated by something like this, I’d want to see him punished. Here, I was drawing precisely the moral distinction you claim I don’t think is possible.

The point of the essay is that it’s perfectly clear — beyond dispute, in fact — that Vice President Cheney was not motivated by this sort of misguided passion. On the contrary, there was a sober discussion among the involved players to determine which procedures were legal and which were not, and which were effective and which were not. Not only were they motivated by proper concern for the safety of the nation, they were clearly intending to remain within the rule of law, both national and international. There exists not the slightest hint of the sort of depravity that we call “evil.” That the acts themselves caused immense fright to the two prisoners who experienced them is precisely the sort of evil I described in my essay — an unfortunate requirement of war, and no different morally from ordering a soldier to run his adversary through with a bayonet.

The failure to distinguish properly is yours. You fail to distinguish between stepping over legal boundaries and stepping over moral ones. You seem to think that as soon as you see the slightest possibility that a legal boundary has been crossed, you are immediately justified in lumping the offender together, morally, with Josef Stalin and Richard Speck. Legal boundaries and moral boundaries are not the same.

Moreover, you seem to think that legal boundaries are hard, solid, and clearly marked, and never ambiguous or open to interpretation. Legal boundaries are seldom so clearly defined.

My readers here may not know you’re an attorney, but I do, and I find these to be astounding errors for a lawyer to make. You’re not even that far removed from law school; you have to know that the law is a fluid thing, that it’s not fixed, that it’s wildly subject to interpretation, and that the decision whether it’s been crossed or not can turn on tiny distinctions in verbiage, disputes in interpretation, conflicting applications of precedent, or sometimes on the philosophy of the judge.

Consequently, it should be obvious to you that Vice President Cheney’s acts, which were clearly taken soberly and with the intent of remaining within the law, do not come within light years of the sort of depravity with which you’re charging him. You might be able to win a moot court discussion on the definition of “torture,” but I can’t imagine how you can be so exercised over matters of debatable legal interpretation, thinking that your own interpretation of a law that your opponent disputes justifies you in calling him a moral monster. I mean, good grief, Lend-Lease wasn’t entirely kosher, either, and the bombers and ships that we sent were used to pulverize German sailors with whom we were not at war; was Roosevelt a monster, too?

If you had some evidence that Vice President Cheney was motivated by the sort of inner distortion that leads serial murderers to torture their victims and enjoy it, then I could see your moral agitation, and I would be joining it. From where I sit, though, the Bush administration was scrupulous in knowing where the boundaries were, and in pushing right up to them but going no farther. I don’t think we can ask for more from our leaders, and I think the attempt to prosecute them because you disagree with the Attorney General’s legal interpretation, let alone the attempt to paint them as having committed serious war crimes, corrodes the public discourse horribly, and endangers the peace.

December 23, 2008 @ 7:42 pm #

Phil: Hi, Joe, and welcome to Plumb Bob Blog.

Joe: Thanks.

Phil: First of all, please don’t worry about whether or not I was offended by being told my priorities were askew. I’m a member of the human race, just like you. Moral-infractions-R-us. Like nearly everybody, I’m a lot more likely to get upset about a charge like that when I’m convinced, at some level, that it’s at least partly true. Consequently, anybody who takes on themselves the role of prophet for another man’s decisions has to be ready for some kickback.

Joe: That’s very mature of you. But I did want to be clear.

Phil: Fortunately, I’m pretty confident that you’re wrong on this one. Truth is, I wasn’t paying very close attention to the news cycle this week, and didn’t even catch Cheney’s remarks until several days after he made them. I wouldn’t have reacted, though, because I know that the handful of incidents we’re talking about took place in 2003 and not thereafter, that the leading politicians making the most noise about it were privy to the decisions at the time (more than 30 consultations with the CIA) and raised not a single word of objection, and thus conclude that most of the noise about “torture” is pure, political theater designed to inflame the credulous and gain partisan advantage. I didn’t even know his involvement in the discussions was in dispute; I had long since taken it as granted that he was.

Joe: Lots to respond to Phil. First, you seem to think it important that there were only a “handful of incidents” that “took place in 2003,” and the leading politicians now complaining about the program knew about it and affirmed it. Assuming that all these claims are true (which I don’t – we only know what has been publicly acknowledged so far), how is any of this relevant? There is no statute of limitations on war crimes, so the “when” is irrelevant. The fact that a war crime was committed only a “handful of times” is also irrelevant. If other politicians played a role in authorizing waterboarding, they too are guilty of war crimes and should be prosecuted. If they are hypocrites for denouncing policies that they tacitly (or expressly) supported, how is that exculpatory regarding the authorization of torture?

You also dismiss the outrage over Cheney’s admissions as “political theater” designed to “gain partisan advantage.” Of course it is political theater designed to gain partisan advantage, but that’s exactly as it should be. You fail to understand the genius of our political system. Our system bestows partisan advantage when one party exposes corruption and/or illegality on the part of the other party. This practically guarantees that misbehavior in government, or by politicians personally, will be exposed. That is an unmistakably good thing!

Our electorate also tends to punish perceived overreach (think back to the Clinton impeachment and Republican electoral losses). This motivates partisans to level their charges responsibly and to get their facts straight.

Frankly, your dismissive remarks about “political theater” and “partisan advantage” are telling. We all benefit when partisans expose illegality for political advantage. Dismissing criticism as “partisan” is a venerable strategy of those who want to change the subject.

Most importantly, you suggest that there was no opposition to the administration’s torture policies. There you’re dead wrong. In her book “The Dark Side,”Jane Mayer meticulously documented the opposition of many figures within the administration. There were lots of voices within the administration that attempted to stop the torture program (which went far beyond waterboarding). I’ll leave it to you to read the book.

Phil: Besides, your description of what I was concerned about regarding Obama is off, as I explained in my comments on your blog (for those of you who are interested in the discussion, here’s the link.) My concern is about the declining virtue of the culture, and about a gradually-building, decades-long, culture-wide, habitual choice to call good “evil” and evil “good,” not just the President-elect’s treatment of his associates. I can’t imagine a Christian regarding this as a small matter, regardless of what you think of waterboarding.

Joe: I’m not convinced that your criticisms of Obama are legitimate. But if I thought they were legitimate, I would not consider it a small matter. I also agree that calling evil “good” and good “evil” would have a corrupting effect on any culture. However, I could never think that pedestrian character flaws were as important as an admission by our government that it had intentionally tortured U.S. detainees.

Phil: Now, concerning war and evil, you say I fail to notice several possible meanings of the word “evil.” This is not correct. Not only do I not fail to distinguish between different meanings of “evil” (the horror of war vs. inner moral depravity,) that difference is the central point of my essay. Perhaps you missed it because I devoted only two sentences to the “depravity” side of the equation.

Sometimes hatred, envy, rage, or a desire for revenge motivate a person to carry out plans to make another person hurt. That’s evil. Sometimes more complex emotional distortions make a person enjoy the pain of others, and they cause pain to entertain themselves. That’s also evil. This sort of evil almost always warrants punishment (although when it shows up on the battlefield it’s sometimes useful. That’s a different discussion.) As I said in the essay, if I thought the Vice President was motivated by something like this, I’d want to see him punished. Here, I was drawing precisely the moral distinction you claim I don’t think is possible.

Joe: I did not miss your distinction between inner moral depravity and the horrors of war. I thought it irrelevant to the question of Cheney’s criminality, which concerns the character of Cheney’s actions rather than his motives. But you’re correct in thinking that your distinction deserves a response, so here goes.

Moral analysis distinguishes between acts and motives. No one disputes that a person can do morally good things with bad motives, or do bad things with good motives. Ordinarily, we focus on motive when we evaluate the moral status of a person’s character. If you know that I visit my grandmother in her nursing home because I want to encourage her and bring her cheer, you think of me as a good person. If you subsequently discover that I’m after her money, you’ll think less well of me as a person. In both cases my action is the same, but my motive determines the state of my character.

To the contrary, we focus on what a person actually did when we evaluate the moral status of his actions. We operate under the premise that certain acts are morally wrong, unless otherwise justified, and that a person that commits such acts without sufficient justification acts wrongly. (Motives are not justifications. Justifications are circumstantial factors that override a prohibition).

Criminally illegal acts divide into two types: Malum in se and malum prohibitum. Malum prohibitum refers to acts that are illegal by regulation, but not immoral by nature. It is not immoral to sleep in a public park, but doing so is frequently prohibited by law. Malum in se refers to acts that are prohibited because they are intrinsically immoral. Prohibitions against torture are examples of very serious malum in se illegality, given that torture is both morally barbaric and, for that reason, has been made a felony punishable by decades of imprisonment for each offense.

For the most part, the law is uninterested in a person’s motives, except in so far as motive provides evidentiary support for guilt or mitigates culpability for the purpose of sentencing. The law is mainly concerned with what a person did and whether the person did what they did with the requisite level of intent; e.g., did they do what they did knowingly, or purposely, or recklessly, etc., according to the standard specified in the applicable criminal statute.

Your defense of Cheney focuses entirely on his motives. I cannot know Cheney’s motives, but concede that you have good reasons to think he was not sadistically motivated. In fact, he probably had good intentions. This means that I and others calling for his prosecution have no grounds for thinking that Cheney is a bad person, at least with regards to this issue. Fair enough.

What you fail to realize is that the laws of war anticipate that leaders may have good intentions when they order their subordinates to perform prohibited acts. In fact, leaders frequently have good intentions when they commit war crimes. That is why the torture laws contain no “good motive” exception. We decided (democratically) that torture is such an abhorrent act that we simply will not allow it, and we will imprison anyone who is convicted of performing or ordering torture, regardless of their motives.

I’m not claiming that Cheney is an intrinsically evil man. I am claiming that he, by his own admission, intentionally and knowingly violated multiple felony laws prohibiting torture. For this he should be prosecuted, irrespective of his motives, just like everyone else. That’s what the rule of law requires.

Phil: The point of the essay is that it’s perfectly clear — beyond dispute, in fact — that Vice President Cheney was not motivated by this sort of misguided passion. On the contrary, there was a sober discussion among the involved players to determine which procedures were legal and which were not, and which were effective and which were not. Not only were they motivated by proper concern for the safety of the nation, they were clearly intending to remain within the rule of law, both national and international. There exists not the slightest hint of the sort of depravity that we call “evil.” That the acts themselves caused immense fright to the two prisoners who experienced them is precisely the sort of evil I described in my essay — an unfortunate requirement of war, and no different morally from ordering a soldier to run his adversary through with a bayonet.

Joe: In the passage above, you continue your defense of Cheney based on his motives. But you also assert as fact highly debatable propositions. For example, I’m not at all convinced that “there was a sober discussion among the involved players to determine which procedures were legal and which were not, and which were effective and which were not.” Nor am I convinced that Bush administration officials were clearly intending to remain within the rule of law. In fact, I am convinced of exactly the opposite.

There is strong evidence that the administration wanted to engage in practices that they knew were illegal, or thought might be illegal (they certainly knew that waterboarding was illegal, given that we’d prosecuted Japanese commanders who waterboarded our soldiers). There is also evidence that Bush administration officials sought to create legal cover for their torture regime (which, as I said before, goes well beyond waterboarding), by tasking a secret legal cabal to draft secret memoranda redefining “torture” so as to allow previously prohibited techniques. These officials also ignored strong internal criticism from senior military and state department officials who warned that their techniques were both illegal and ineffective (See Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side” for a list of these officials).

More importantly, the claim that Bush administration officials employed their questionable techniques in good faith, based on a reasonable interpretation of the law as supplied to them by their legal counsel, is a question of fact to be determined first by a prosecutor (who must decide if there is an evidentiary basis for charges) and ultimately by a jury. The claim that they acted in good faith cannot preclude an investigation of apparent criminal activity, because the plausibility of that defense is what needs to be investigated. If such a “good faith” claim were able to preclude an investigation into lawbreaking, a president could have the Office of Legal Counsel draft a memorandum telling her that she could do anything she wanted, and then cite to the memo to thwart any criminal investigation as to whether she committed apparently criminal acts in good faith. But that would be absurd.

Phil: The failure to distinguish properly is yours. You fail to distinguish between stepping over legal boundaries and stepping over moral ones. You seem to think that as soon as you see the slightest possibility that a legal boundary has been crossed, you are immediately justified in lumping the offender together, morally, with Josef Stalin and Richard Speck. Legal boundaries and moral boundaries are not the same.

Joe: Not at all. legal boundaries and moral boundaries sometimes coincide, as they do here. Torture is and was legally prohibited because it is, and always was, barbaric. Cheney admitted authorizing waterboarding, which has been a recognized form of torture since the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not concerned, as you say, over the “slightest possibility that a legal boundary has been crossed.” I confronting a blunt and unapologetic admission by our Vice President that he and other Bush administration officials intentionally violated very serious felony statutes. Cheney’s no Joseph Stalin or Richard Speck, but he is, by his own admission, a criminal.

Phil: Moreover, you seem to think that legal boundaries are hard, solid, and clearly marked, and never ambiguous or open to interpretation. Legal boundaries are seldom so clearly defined.

My readers here may not know you’re an attorney, but I do, and I find these to be astounding errors for a lawyer to make. You’re not even that far removed from law school; you have to know that the law is a fluid thing, that it’s not fixed, that it’s wildly subject to interpretation, and that the decision whether it’s been crossed or not can turn on tiny distinctions in verbiage, disputes in interpretation, conflicting applications of precedent, or sometimes on the philosophy of the judge.

Joe: To this I would reply, sometimes, but not in this case. It is true that the law is murky in many areas, and there are often reasonable grounds for dispute about what the law requires or prohibits. But torture is not one of those areas. Prior to the revelation that we’d waterboarded detainees in our war on terror, no one thought or argued that such conduct was legal. Absolutely no one.

Not even you are confident that its legal, since you go to some length to emphasize that we only waterboarded a few really bad guys, a long time ago, and the practice has since been discontinued. If the practice were legal, or even arguably legal, why hide it? Why hide the legal memorandum allegedly justifying it? Why discontinue the practice? Why does it count favorably for the Administration that we’ve done so?

Phil: Consequently, it should be obvious to you that Vice President Cheney’s acts, which were clearly taken soberly and with the intent of remaining within the law, do not come within light years of the sort of depravity with which you’re charging him. You might be able to win a moot court discussion on the definition of “torture,” but I can’t imagine how you can be so exercised over matters of debatable legal interpretation, thinking that your own interpretation of a law that your opponent disputes justifies you in calling him a moral monster. I mean, good grief, Lend-Lease wasn’t entirely kosher, either, and the bombers and ships that we sent were used to pulverize German sailors with whom we were not at war; was Roosevelt a monster, too?

If you had some evidence that Vice President Cheney was motivated by the sort of inner distortion that leads serial murderers to torture their victims and enjoy it, then I could see your moral agitation, and I would be joining it. From where I sit, though, the Bush administration was scrupulous in knowing where the boundaries were, and in pushing right up to them but going no farther. I don’t think we can ask for more from our leaders, and I think the attempt to prosecute them because you disagree with the Attorney General’s legal interpretation, let alone the attempt to paint them as having committed serious war crimes, corrodes the public discourse horribly, and endangers the peace.

Joe: I’ve answered most of these points previously, so I’m going to let most of these remarks pass without comment. With regards to the Attorney General’s legal interpretation (Ashcroft indeed signed off on the “torture memo”), its not just that I disagree with his legal opinion. EVERYONE DISAGREES WITH HIS LEGAL OPINION! That’s what the political dilemma is all about. Everyone knows that waterboarding is torture and violates multiple felony statutes. Cheney is defiantly daring the political establishment to do anything about it (or perhaps attempting to force Bush to preemptively pardon everyone involved by admitting that they authorized torture from the top).

Can you name anyone trained in the law who is willing to publicly defend Yoo’s legal reasoning, reasoning which concluded that torture necessarily requires pain of an intensity and duration similar to that approaching death or organ failure? Of course not. The Bush administration officials have never attempted to defend Yoo’s reasoning. They simply assert that they relied on it in good faith, and should not, therefore, be prosecuted.

That’s, with all due respect, baloney.

Anyway, best wishes Phil

Joe H.

December 26, 2008 @ 2:36 pm #

Joe,

It seems to me that your assertion, that torture is such that a person should be prosecuted for it regardless of any reference to motives and purposes, proves too much. All Special Forces units undergo waterboarding in their training in SERE. And there have been journalists waterboarded for their special reports on it being torture (a strange way to prove it IMO). According to you all these people should be prosecuted for torture.

Now you might say the purposes were different, the consent was different, the duration was different or something like that. But that would be different from what you have posted above: that waterboarding is torture, that torture is torture and that the finer points should only be evaluated in a court of law.

I see a needed distinction in this debate between interrogation technique and torture. You are arguing exclusively from the position that waterboarding IS intrinsically torture (like hot lead on the lips or something), but that is a question very much a part of the debate at hand. Or at least it should be.

December 28, 2008 @ 7:51 pm #

This will be my last post on this discussion; I need to move on to other topics.

I deliberately put Joe Huster’s lengthy comment out of my mind over the holiday so I could focus on my family. When I picked it up afterward, the more I looked at it, the more outrageous most of his comment appeared to me. There’s no way I can comment on all of it — this comment is far too long as it is — but I do want to mention the most important objections. They fall into two categories: evidence that he’s not really arguing in good faith, and claims of fact that are either simply false or not provable. After naming these, I will address the central explanation justifying a progressive scale of increasingly harsh interrogation tactics, and I’ve posted such a defense as a separate article on the blog. Note that since I’m not going to list all my objections to the comment, I’m not granting any claim in the comment simply by virtue of my silence.

First, parts of Joe’s comment that make me question whether he’s arguing in good faith:

1) He pretends that my rebuttal of his original position is my entire position on a much broader subject. He writes: “Your defense of Cheney focuses entirely on his motives.” This is false; so far, I’ve merely been responding to Joe’s complaint that my concern with the deteriorating culture focused on a lesser evil, while “torture” represents a greater evil. My argument has simply been in moral terms, and is limited to suggesting why it’s not such a pressing evil as he says. That’s a much narrower question than whether such acts are either legal or justifiable. Now he’s shifting to the question of legality, and pretending that because that wasn’t part of my rebuttal to his first, hysterical claim, that I have no argument but the one I raised. I’ll give Joe the benefit of the doubt and suggest that this is just an oversight on his part.

2) In an earlier comment, he argued “You’re not aware of the equivocal meanings of ‘evil.’” When I explained that my argument was actually based on exactly that equivocation, he replied in the latest comment “I did not miss your distinction between inner moral depravity and the horrors of war. I thought it irrelevant to the question of Cheney’s criminality.” This is simply false; he did not argue that the distinction was irrelevant, he argued that I failed to make the distinction. I’m not sure how to respond. He leaves me only two possibilities: either he deliberately misrepresented my argument the first time, or now he’s lying about what he understood. Either way, I’m left having to conclude that he’s not arguing honestly, which makes communication impossible, and further discussion a waste of time.

3) I complained that the Congressional Democrats making a furor over “torture” were briefed on the practices dozens of times and approved them, so their objections are merely political theater. Joe, incredibly, defends political theater as something useful, and even something designed into the system. Not only is this historically indefensible, it’s morally unspeakable. The founders of the nation understood partisanship, yes, but they assumed — articulated clearly that they were relying on, in fact — a commitment to common morals as a minimum, morals like “Say what you actually mean.” To assert that it’s appropriate, let alone helpful, for actors in politics to pretend outrage over acts of which they approve, is to advocate that political advantage trump truth. The checks and balances of our political system recognize that even honest actors are subject to the weaknesses of flesh, and recognize that good men can and do disagree on very important matters; however, the systematic use of falsehood to fool the public is NOT what they had in mind, and is, in fact, the poison that is choking the nation to death.

So my question is, what reason do I have to believe that this lengthy argument of his is not likewise pure, political theater, and that he actually believes something different? And given that he feels it’s appropriate to lie about what he believes in order to win political points, what purpose can communication with him possibly serve? The fact that he places partisan advantage over truth in his moral hierarchy means that communicating with him is like communicating with the devil: he’s always going to be seeking my destruction, and the best I can possibly get out of communicating with him is to survive without having been destroyed. His position here simply demolishes civil discourse altogether. So long as he holds this position, discourse is impossible.

Since the “useful” products of this political theater involved clear violations of law (the release of classified information,) this little argument of his also removes whatever force his claim to be defending the rule of law might have had. Clearly he has no commitment to the rule of law, and only uses it in a theatrical manner, to seem principled when it suits him to seem principled. This is typical for leftists, in my experience; they change their principles like they change their clothes, meaning that they’re not really principles to them at all.

I cannot hammer this hard enough. God’s nature is truth. The devil’s nature is falsehood. Anybody who defends lying as an appropriate ploy to gain partisan advantage is defending evil. And yes, I think this is far more serious a matter than whether waterboarding is torture or not. I’m incredulous that a man who calls himself Christian could condone such behavior, or that a man who claims to have read any history can mistake that sort of hypocrisy for the appropriate checks and balances of our political system.

4) He simply refuses to engage the question of the ambiguity of the law, and instead relies on simple repetition of the word “torture” as though that was a simple and clear item (I’ll explain why it’s not, below). He says things like “It is true that the law is murky in many areas, and there are often reasonable grounds for dispute about what the law requires or prohibits. But torture is not one of those areas.” In effect, the emotional content of the word “torture” is his entire argument, which, again, is typical for leftists.

Next, here are several assertions of fact that simply cannot be permitted:

1) Joe writes, “I am claiming that he, by his own admission, intentionally and knowingly violated multiple felony laws prohibiting torture.” Also, “…a blunt and unapologetic admission by our Vice President that he and other Bush administration officials intentionally violated very serious felony statutes.” These are nonsense. There is no such confession. Cheney said he was consulted on the questioning regimen. The assertion that this constitutes violation of law is Joe’s, not Cheney’s, and is largely hysteria. Whether they are violations of law is for a US Attorney to decide, and if they do not indict, we can assume that they find no matter of law worth pursuing.

2) Joe writes of the Bush administration, “…they certainly knew that waterboarding was illegal, given that we’d prosecuted Japanese commanders who waterboarded our soldiers.” How can he assert that the President and Vice President knew this particular detail about prosecutions that took place while they were infants? That factoid is hardly common knowledge.

Besides, I’d really like to see supporting documentation for the claim; I’m willing to wager a fair sum that what he describes as “waterboarding” was only one item in a lengthy bill of particulars against the Japanese commanders that demonstrated a very different pattern of behavior than that carried out by the CIA, and that consequently the claim “We prosecuted waterboarding” is actually disingenuous and inaccurate.

3) Joe wrote, “…their torture regime (which, as I said before, goes well beyond waterboarding…” This asserts practices based on no evidence that I’ve ever seen in public. All the mainstream press indictments of the administration focus on waterboarding as the harshest tactic.

4) Joe accused the Bush administration of “… tasking a secret legal cabal to draft secret memoranda redefining “torture” so as to allow previously prohibited techniques.” That he would refer to President’s counsel as “a secret legal cabal” simply defies credulity. The President is entitled to his own legal counsel, every President has it, and what they discuss is privileged as a matter of professional ethics. Joe knows this. Who do you think you’re fooling, Joe?

5) Joe wrote, “…no one thought or argued that such conduct was legal. Absolutely no one.” I read lawyer’s blogs, and several of them argued that such conduct was legal. Maybe Joe needs to broaden his reading. Allow me to recommend Patterico’s Pontifications, Baseball Crank, Power Line Blog, and the Volokh Conspiracy.

6) Joe shouted concerning John Yoo’s legal brief, “EVERYONE DISAGREES WITH HIS LEGAL OPINION!” Utter crap, but again, typical of the left. I did have a bit of trouble finding articles defending his opinion, but only because a) the discussion took place four years ago, and a lot of content is simply gone by now; and b) the leftists have deliberately created a flood of outrage in order to be able to make arguments just like this one. I had to wade through page after page of florid prose from slate.com, huffingtonpost.com, commondreams.org, and the like — 50 articles, 100 articles, just to get to one by a reasoned attorney. It’s an instance of what I call a “screeching inversion,” in which the level of invective from the immature becomes the argument itself. And it goes beyond the mere volume: students and faculty at UC Berkeley where John Yoo teaches attempted to have him fired because of his perfectly rational brief on interrogation techniques, which he was obligated to write as the attorney for the President. In an atmosphere where one might be fired simply for holding the wrong opinion — which is nationwide, not just at Berkeley — who’s going to endanger their job to write a defense they don’t have to write? The left seems to think they win arguments by imitating gorillas, beating their chests, screeching, and flinging poo. Unfortunately, they often do win by these tactics, which is why the American experiment in self-government is failing.

To Joe’s challenge to name a lawyer who defends Yoo’s argument, though, Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, from the Univ of Chicago Law School, wrote a defense of it in the Wall Street Journal back in 2004 that seems to match my own position, as near as I can tell (the actual article is gone, I had to rely on a quoted segment on Volokh.) Ergo, not everybody disagrees with his legal opinion. QED.

By the way, Hezbollah also agrees with Yoo’s legal opinion, at least the one regarding whether terrorists are covered by the Geneva Convention; they’ve been trying for decades to amend the Geneva accords to include organizations like themselves in it. Until 2006, when the US Supreme Court decided Hamdan v Rumsfeld (and created a monster of bad law, IMHO,) nobody considered terrorists to be covered by the Geneva accords, not even the terrorists; Yoo was correct.

My own opinion is that they should be treated identically to pirates, who are considered “enemies of humanity” and can be summarily executed; anything we do short of killing them is mercy, and to our credit. That we choose, without force of treaty, to treat them consistently with the Geneva accords is very much to our credit, and is in fact the very opposite of a war crime.

7) Joe wrote, “The Bush administration officials have never attempted to defend Yoo’s reasoning.” That’s because they never needed to; Yoo’s reasoning was an internal brief that they asked him to produce for their evaluation, not a policy position statement of the administration. Joe knows this perfectly well. Again, Joe, who do you think you’re fooling?

Regarding the question of when rough interrogation is morally acceptable, and what type of rough interrogation is permissible, I posted a lengthy discussion today at http://www.plumbbobblog.com/?p=2469. Allow me to recommend that you link there for the remainder of the discussion; there are a few links there that clarify the argument nicely.

The general argument, though, is that “torture” begs the question, because the topic is not torture, but interrogation. Most interrogation does not involve torture, and much torture has nothing to do with interrogation. What we’re talking about is list of interrogation techniques requested by professional interrogators from the CIA, that begin with mild acts like placing the detainee in a comfy chair and having a gentle grandmother ask them questions (don’t laugh, one of the reports I read suggested this was one of their most successful tactics), and progress through shouted threats, chest slaps, bright lights and hard chairs, sleep deprivation, prolonged standing, prolonged exposure to wet rooms, and so forth. The order of the progressive list is subjective, and the place in the progression where the line between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” occurs is arbitrary.

If we number our progressive list of interrogation tactics on a scale of 1 to 100 according to their brutality, and arbitrarily say “50″ is the point at which we’ve passed what’s acceptable, the reasonable question is “What tactic, precisely, constitutes 49, and what constitutes 51, and what’s the difference?” The ambiguity of the problem becomes immediately apparent to the objective observer when we ask such questions. It becomes obvious that “acceptable” and “unacceptable” are matters of degree and interpretation, not hard and fast rules. Furthermore, they’re mitigated by such things as the urgency of the need for information (today’s post includes a link to a German case where a subject was struck very hard in an attempt to locate a kidnapped boy and save his life) and by what’s at stake from the information (the post also has a link supporting the claim that harsh questioning prevented the LA Library Tower attack).

The CIA’s interrogation regimen uses a classification scheme very much like what I’m proposing hypothetically. The scale that they’ve implemented traverses a whole range of increasingly rough tactics, and comes complete with levels of oversight and responsibility; the higher on the “hard interrogation” scale, the greater the degree of oversight. The careful hierarchy, the levels of oversight, the necessary approval for harsher means, the internal memos addressing the question of what’s permitted by law and under what circumstances, the relative infrequency of the use of the harshest methods — all of these point to an administration that takes seriously the need to balance demands for information against the limits of humanity and international treaty, and which is doing precisely what we should expect our leaders to do.

Clearly, guys like Joe believe the Bush administration drew the “unacceptable” line in the wrong place on the scale. It is entirely fair to ask them where they, the critics, believe the line should have been drawn, and to make them explain in legal and moral terms the difference between their endpoint (let’s say, 42 on our 1 – 100 scale of brutality) and the CIA’s endpoint (say, 55).

If you examine their rhetoric, though, they’re actually claiming a great deal more than that. Not only do they think the line was drawn in the wrong place, they believe there exists an absolute moral precipice between where they draw the line and where Cheney & Co draw it. They think that at their safe 42, they’re strolling in moral purity, earning the kudos of the moral universe, but that somewhere between that point and 55, Cheney has fallen off an immense cliff, from moral purity into the deepest depths of degradation, so obviously immoral that nations cannot tolerate the very thought of it. Once we’ve taken pejorative terms like “torture” out of the picture and explained that we’re really examining a progressive scale with arbitrary break points, the claim simply becomes a joke; they can’t possibly be serious, no such precipice exists. And if the cowards among them retreat their line to an obviously safe spot — like, anything beyong the Comfy Chair is over the cliff — we snort and put them on “ignore”; again, they can’t possibly be serious, and no nation on the planet adheres to such a standard, nor should they. Interrogation is both legal and necessary.

What’s obvious here is that they’re not engaging in sound thinking at all, but playing some sort of game. For many, it’s just a way of asserting moral superiority for the sake of an ego boost. However, for some it’s a lot more sinister. These began a process about 8 years ago that said this: “The Republicans have made our Democratic President look like a moral cretin. We have to make theirs look worse.” I recall dozens of progressives saying precisely that, in writing. The process has proceeded without ceasing for the last 8 years, with a clear intent to criminalize any normal aspect of governance that could possibly be made to look criminal. Phrases like “a secret legal cabal” to describe ordinary consultation with private attorneys make it clear that that’s what’s being done.

This is precisely the partisan morality play I was talking about before, and it’s the rot at the heart of the tree of liberty. Such people are dangerous. This, and not Cheney’s responsible governance, is an evil worth opposing.

December 28, 2008 @ 7:47 pm #

[...] in the ongoing war on terror. There’s a lengthy discussion attached to the post entitled “Those Who Make the Hard Decisions.” I’m recounting here the final argument of that discussion, making the case that the [...]

January 2, 2009 @ 4:38 pm #

Phil, I’m going to post this response to your criticism of me in your blog because much of what you’ve said is wrong. Instead of trying to convince you that my position on the issue of waterboarding and Cheney are correct, which I think is hopeless, I’m going to target your criticism that I am arguing in bad faith. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to edit your comments in some places. I will make every good faith effort not to edit out anything supportive of your contention that I argue in bad faith. If you determine that I did so, let me state now that it is unintentional.

My comments will be interspersed within your arguments below.

Joe.

PHIL: I deliberately put Joe Huster’s lengthy comment out of my mind over the holiday so I could focus on my family. When I picked it up afterward, the more I looked at it, the more outrageous most of his comment appeared to me. There’s no way I can comment on all of it — this comment is far too long as it is — but I do want to mention the most important objections. They fall into two categories: evidence that he’s not really arguing in good faith, and claims of fact that are either simply false or not provable. . . .

First, parts of Joe’s comment that make me question whether he’s arguing in good faith:
.
1) He pretends that my rebuttal of his original position is my entire position on a much broader subject. He writes: “Your defense of Cheney focuses entirely on his motives.”

JOE: Phil, if you’ll recall the post in which I made that comment, I was interspersing my comments in response to the arguments that you made in your immediately preceding post. I included your arguments in the text of my response to provide your readers context. My aim was to systematically respond to each argument that you’d presented in the order that you’d presented them.

My phrase “your defense of Cheney focuses entirely on his motives” appears near the end of my extended critique of your “motives” argument – the argument in which you argued (roughly – I’m summarizing) that (1) violence in wartime, including torture, is evil only if done with malice and sadistic intent and (2) there is no evidence that Cheney acted with malice and/or sadistic intent. In this context, my statement that “your defense of Cheney focuses entirely on his motives” most naturally means “your defense of Cheney, in the argument that I’m discussing right now, focuses entirely on his motives.”

I never said anything like “ your motives argument constitutes your entire argument on a much broader subject,” which is the meaning you took from my comment. I suppose there is some room for confusion. But I think my argument style is fairly orthodox. Most people would have recognized that my comment only applied to your motives argument, particularly because I had been focusing exclusively on that argument in the paragraphs preceding my comment. In fact, at the beginning of my analysis of your motives argument, I admitted that I had previously ignored the motives vs. violence based distinction that you advanced (for reasons that I will discuss below). But I also conceded that it merited a serious response – and correspondingly noted, “so here goes.” Its hard to telegraph the scope of my discussion (which was your motives argument) more clearly than that.

But despite my stabs at clarity, you misinterpreted what I said and jumped to your bad faith conclusion. That suggests to me that you’re looking for a reason to scream bad faith.

PHIL: This is false; so far, I’ve merely been responding to Joe’s complaint that my concern with the deteriorating culture focused on a lesser evil, while “torture” represents a greater evil.

JOE: For the record, my complaint has never been that your “concern with the deteriorating culture focused on a lesser evil, while “torture” represents a greater evil. My complaint was that your concern with pedestrian character flaws focused on a lessor evil, while torture focused on a greater evil. If you go back and read what I said, you’ll find that I agreed with you that if Obama possessed the flaws that you attributed to him, it would not be “a small matter.” I also agreed that calling “evil” good and “good” evil is a bad thing for a culture.

PHIL: My argument has simply been in moral terms, and is limited to suggesting why it’s not such a pressing evil as he says. That’s a much narrower question than whether such acts are either legal or justifiable. Now he’s shifting to the question of legality, and pretending that because that wasn’t part of my rebuttal to his first, hysterical claim, that I have no argument but the one I raised. I’ll give Joe the benefit of the doubt and suggest that this is just an oversight on his part.

JOE: Phil, in your original “Those Who Make Hard Decisions” post, you argued (again roughly) that the key moral distinction was not located in the various degrees of violence found in wartime acts, but in the motives of those who commit violent wartime acts. I responded by pointing out that we, by which I meant all civilized nations, including the United States, have already drawn moral distinctions between various acts of violence in war, distinctions which we have further codified into laws of war. This is the point in our discussion where I claimed that you’d missed the distinction between the various senses of “evil” (“evil” in the sense of the regrettably tragic but permissible, and “evil” in the sense of truly barbaric and impermissible). In hindsight, I should have said “evil actions,” but I think it was pretty clear from the context that I was talking about actions, whereas your distinction was based on motives.

You then countered that you had made exactly the distinction (on the various meanings of evil) that I’d accused you of missing, and noted (charitably, I would add) that I probably missed the distinction due to your lack of emphasis.

I subsequently admitted to ignoring the distinction you drew because “I thought it irrelevant to Cheney’s criminality.” In making that particular statement, I assumed that you understood that I was also implicitly claiming that torture is immoral (which is why it has been criminalized).

I also said, in my next sentence, that your “motives argument” deserved a serious response, which I provided. I conceded that good motives indicate good character, but explained that the laws against torture are malum in se prohibitions, which are acts made illegal because they are immoral. I also explained that, as far as the law (and the moral status of a particular ACT) is concerned, motive is completely irrelevant.

Phil, the morality and legality of torture are closely intertwined issues, and it is in no way bad faith to discuss them interchangeably. Also, as I previously explained, I did not make the “hysterical” claim that your motives argument was the only argument that you’ve offered. Given the context of my remarks, you should never have concluded that I had.

PHIL: In an earlier comment, he argued “You’re not aware of the equivocal meanings of ‘evil.’” When I explained that my argument was actually based on exactly that equivocation, he replied in the latest comment “I did not miss your distinction between inner moral depravity and the horrors of war. I thought it irrelevant to the question of Cheney’s criminality.” This is simply false; he did not argue that the distinction was irrelevant, he argued that I failed to make the distinction.

I’m not sure how to respond. He leaves me only two possibilities: either he deliberately misrepresented my argument the first time, or now he’s lying about what he understood. Either way, I’m left having to conclude that he’s not arguing honestly, which makes communication impossible, and further discussion a waste of time.

JOE: Phil, you are seriously confused. When I said that your original argument failed to distinguish between the various senses of evil, I was talking about the evil of various kinds of wartime ACTIONS. I was arguing that your original argument, which cited various examples of wartime brutality in support of the proposition that there is no moral distinction between violent wartime ACTIONS, had missed a distinction that we already drew when we created the laws of war – the distinction between tragically regrettable (but permissible) ACTS, and barbaric (impermissible) ACTS. That was the distinction that I accused you of missing.

When you subsequently claimed to have drawn the very distinction that I’d said you missed, I noted that I’d intentionally ignored the distinction that you actually drew – which concerned the character of an actor’s MOTIVES rather than his ACTIONS – because I thought that distinction was irrelevant. I subsequently explained why I thought that your MOTIVES distinction was irrelevant, and that it is the nature of one’s ACTIONS that matter. I explained all of this at considerable length.

In short, I claimed that you missed a particularly important distinction about “evil” as this term applies to ACTIONS. When you denied missing that distinction, I explained that you had indeed missed that distinction and had instead drawn a different distinction based on MOTIVES – a distinction that I thought irrelevant and had ignored, but which, upon reflection, deserved a serious response. I then explained, as clearly as possible, in an argument covering several paragraphs, why I thought the distinction you drew was irrelevant. Perhaps I was not as clear as I could have been, but I think I was clear enough. I was certainly clear enough to avoid accusations of lying and arguing in bad faith.

PHIL: I complained that the Congressional Democrats making a furor over “torture” were briefed on the practices dozens of times and approved them, so their objections are merely political theater. Joe, incredibly, defends political theater as something useful, and even something designed into the system. Not only is this historically indefensible, it’s morally unspeakable . . .

JOE: I’m no fan of hypocrisy, and if thinking that I am is what has you upset, rest easy. I never said it was appropriate to lie in order to win political points, and any democrats who were briefed on the program, acquiesced, and are now howling in protest, are reprobates. However, your analysis collapses two distinct claims: (1) that political theater highlighting corruption is a good thing and (2) that it is okay to lie as a part of political theater. I believe in claim (1) wholeheartedly and asserted so in my post. I stand by my reasoning on this issue. Partisan political theater is indeed a very useful thing. However, I reject claim (2) and said nothing at all in my post to suggest otherwise. Lying in pursuit of political gain is immoral.

However, you seem to believe that every democrat raising objections to the administration’s interrogation program is lying. You also seem to think that the fact that everyone is lying is so obviously true, that I must also believe it and must, therefore, have been condoning lying by my endorsement of their political theater. (I have no other way to explain why you concluded that I endorsed lying). You then deploy your conclusion that I endorse lying for political gain as an excuse to dismiss everything I say, as your text below indicates.

PHIL:So my question is, what reason do I have to believe that this lengthy argument of his is not likewise pure, political theater, and that he actually believes something different? And given that he feels it’s appropriate to lie about what he believes in order to win political points, what purpose can communication with him possibly serve? The fact that he places partisan advantage over truth in his moral hierarchy means that communicating with him is like communicating with the devil: he’s always going to be seeking my destruction, and the best I can possibly get out of communicating with him is to survive without having been destroyed. His position here simply demolishes civil discourse altogether. So long as he holds this position, discourse is impossible.

JOE: First, the obvious good faith move to make when it appears that a critic is endorsing something that is obviously problematic is to clarify whether that’s actually the case. After all, your critic may have misspoke, or you may have misunderstood him. But you exercised no such caution. Instead of clarifying whether I was truly endorsing lying, you simply assumed the worse, argued that talking with me is, therefore, as dangerous as talking with the devil, and concluded that you no longer needed to respond to any of my challenges. That tells me that you’re looking for a reason to justify your refusal to hear your arguments criticized.

Second, it seems never to have occurred to you that I, in good faith, might not agree with you that all partisan objectors to the administration’s policies are lying. I suspect that you feel so confident about the unanimous lying proposition that you think its truth is too obvious for me to deny in good faith. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s a product of ideology and temperament, not evidence. I’ll will tell you that I’m quite certain that you’re wrong. Many administration critics clamoring for Cheney’s prosecution are not hypocrites – though I’ll freely concede that the Democratic congressional leaders probable are. What I am convinced of, based on your reasoning strategy expressed above, is that you’re looking for a reason to dismiss me and other critics by convincing yourself that we are evil.

PHIL: Since the “useful” products of this political theater involved clear violations of law (the release of classified information,) this little argument of his also removes whatever force his claim to be defending the rule of law might have had. Clearly he has no commitment to the rule of law, and only uses it in a theatrical manner, to seem principled when it suits him to seem principled. This is typical for leftists, in my experience; they change their principles like they change their clothes, meaning that they’re not really principles to them at all.

JOE: This is just more of the same bullshit, and its completely ridiculous. Nothing in the currently occurring political theater about Cheney and waterboarding involves the release of classified information. Cheney publically admitted, on national TV, to being involved in the authorization of waterboarding.

Moreover, the issue of when, if ever, it is appropriate to release classified information to expose perceived governmental criminality is a difficult problem with respect to the rule of law. This is because the rule of law is at stake either way. For you to simply assert that people who think that there are times when classified information about governmental criminality must be exposed don’t respect the rule of law, and thus cannot make principled argument in favor of the rule of law, and thus can’t be principled when they make such arguments (especially if they’re leftists), and thus are a waste of time to interact with (or worse), is an argument utterly without merit. It’s a thinly veiled attempt to avoid serious criticism of your views.

Phil, I was originally planning to go through your entire argument point by point. However, I am tired and my goal is not to convince you that you are wrong about Cheney and waterboarding, but to instead illustrate that I have not argued in bad faith (and that you are throwing up ridiculous interpretations of my arguments to find reasons to accuse me of bad faith and thereby avoid serious criticism of your views). Therefore, I’m going to stop here. If what I’ve said to this point doesn’t illustrate these points to your mind, nothing will.

If you or any of your readers want me to finish my critique of your remaining arguments, let me know.

Happy new year.
Joe

August 10, 2009 @ 6:30 pm #

It would have been good to read something that was evidence based, here but sadly it was not.

I think Joes warning here is clear. Don’t even attempt to have a serious discussion, as it will be met with accusations of pure Political Theater.

Jesus would not have preached your sermon above, Phil. Imagine for me what he truly would have said on a beach in Guantanamo. Go ahead try and imagine what his cry would have been as he heard the groans of the man as he gets dunked for the 20 th time that month. Just imagine- I”m sure you can.

I’m sure he would not have said “Yes, truly I say unto you, this is Necessary..”

August 11, 2009 @ 7:02 am #

Martin, even Joe admitted that the “pure political theater” charge was CORRECT.

I’m not sure what you wanted that was “evidence based” — and you should consider that I’m primarily a philosopher — but when you begin by poisoning the well and calling ordinary treatment of high-value prisoners of war “torture”, you really don’t have a right to accuse others of failing at reasoned discourse, nor to demand an evidence-based response. Begin by discussing it in accurate terms, and you’ll get a reply in kind.

I’m also thinking that what you envision when you think of Guantanamo is far from the truth. There’s been a lot of disinformation; very little of it passes the smell test. Tell me, have you read the captured memos that explain how al Qaeda operatives are trained to use accusations of torture as a tactic if they’re captured? Are you informed about how well-aware middle east operatives have become regarding the power of the Western press? Are you aware of how World Socialist operatives have used the Western press for the past 80 years, and how they’ve come to cooperate (against all reasonable expectation) with Wahabist forces?

Have you found any sites from which guards who served at Guantanamo are talking about their experiences? I’m not talking about the shrill lefty sites, who have pushed faux veterans in our faces a dozen times over the last 8 years (see comment re World Socialism, above), I’m talking about real, modern military folk who served in that theater and have since come home, the kind who describe the conditions for the guards, the prisoners, the officers… There was a guy commenting at Patterico’s Pontifications who was a psychologist at Guantanamo, and he filled in lots of details for us. The place was not the Black Hole of Calcutta that Amnesty International would have you believe, and the men there were not the poor, lost little lambs they would have you believe.

As to what Jesus would have said, Martin, here’s an exercise for you: imagine Jesus standing outside a prison camp built by the US military to house SS troopers. What would Jesus have said outside THAT prison camp? Next, imagine US military personnel held by al Qaeda. What would Jesus have said outside THAT prison? Now tell me, how would his monologue outside Guantanamo have differed from these, and why? Pretty easy to invoke Jesus selectively. Judge RIGHTEOUS judgment, and stop being so smug.

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