Squishy Moralists

We have noted previously here that there are two respective positions with regard to the use of violence. One holds that violence is sometimes justified particularly for self defense when other choice are unavailable. The violence employed, of course, must be commensurate with the seriousness of a threat.

The principled pacifist position holds that violence is inherently evil and never to be used. The serious pacifist recognizes that adherence to this position could cost that person injury or even their life. A courageous pacifist does not avoid violence by denying the existence of real danger, but chooses a principled position despite the risk. A squishy pacifist, by contrast, postures as a moralist, but denies the existence of real threat. It is easy to be brave in the face of no threat.

A similar distinction can be drawn with respect to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, when the use of them might indeed advert loss of life and catastrophe. Again the severity of the interrogation needs to be consistent with a reasonable assessment of the level of  threat. Contrary to popular notions fed by the mainstream media,  William Ranney Levi in the the Yale Law Journal  notes that the use of enhanced interrogation techniques pre-dated 9/11. [1]  In particular, he documents that “Conventional wisdom states that recent U.S. authorization of coercive interrogation techniques, and the legal decisions that sanctioned them, constitute a dramatic break with the past. This is false.”

An alternative principled position is to believe that enhanced interrogation techniques should never, under any circumstances, be used. However, there is a recognition that the cost of such a policy could be significant additional risk to innocent people. Courageous people who hold this position insist that they believe the additional risks are a severe price paid to avoid the moral stigma of the techniques.

By contrast, squishy moralists try to have it both ways. They simultaneously argue against the used of enhanced interrogation techniques and that there is no risk in shunning their use. A number of intelligence people and former CIA directors attest to the importance of intelligence gathered from these techniques. One can decide that one will forgo the  information from enhanced interrogation, but it is morally juvenile to assert that there are no costs associated with the choice.

It is possible to forgive those who hold the latter position, in the sense that they may be in a state of denial. What is less forgivable are actions by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She was briefed on the enhanced interrogation techniques while they were occurring. She was silent. If her conscience were shocked, even if she couldn’t stop the practice, she could have made a formal (if classified) objection to the use of such techniques. She didn’t, perhaps because at the time the country felt truly threatened. However, to now deny her role and express moral outrage at the Bush Administration’s decisions is at best only hypocrisy. At worst, it represents a despicable cynicism.

[1] Waterboarding may be the exception. However, the exact extent it could be used without severe harm was well-known because it had been applied to American troops in training exercises. Some techniques used in previous administrations were perhaps more exotic.  Previously the CIA has implemented “..implemented chemical, biological, and other human behavioral control methods for purposes of interrogation.”

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