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Belmont Club

The price of safety

April 30th, 2009 - 3:38 am

So does this mean that Barack Obama agrees me? Or do political circumstances only create the illusion? The LA Times reports that the President has acknowledged that voluntarily refusing to employ certain forms of coercive interrogation may make it harder to obtain intelligence from enemy captives. However, he is willing to pay the moral price.

In a strikingly defensive explanation of his stance on Bush-era anti-terrorism tactics, President Obama on Wednesday acknowledged for the first time that the harsh interrogation techniques he has banned might have yielded useful information, but that he was nonetheless willing to rule them out on moral grounds. …

He conceded that “it may be harder” to get information, but what “makes us, I think, still a beacon to the world is that we are willing to hold true to our ideals, even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.” …

Obama did not dispute Cheney’s assertions about the memos but appeared to try to blunt their potential impact by shifting the argument.

The assertion that the CIA’s methods worked doesn’t answer what Obama called the core question: “Could we have gotten that same information without resorting to these techniques?” Obama asked. “And it doesn’t answer the broader question: Are we safer as a consequence of having used these techniques?”

Having had to equivocate on the notion that coercive interrogation is useless, he is now asking the “broader question”. I think the honest answer to this question is that one always forgoes certain advantages by voluntarily restraining one’s self. In the past people understood this and righted the ship in other ways. The American way of compensating for self-imposed restrictions was to acquire a decisive overmatch in technology and material resources to offset the losses due to restraint. Precision guided weapons are an example of this. The US can now afford to largely renounce the tactic of area bombardment, so widely used in World War 2, because technology makes it possible to be equally if not more effective using highly advanced targeting systems. America is now able to fight a war of restraint, even in urban settings, because it can afford to be restrained.

But what one cannot do is cut back or constrain everything across the board because then there will be no way to compensate for the things you are giving up.
As I’ve repetitively argued, a person or a society is entitled to run any degree of physical risk it chooses in order to uphold its moral values. But never blindly; never without understanding the costs. Given that survival trumps magnanimity and restraint, it is important that policy makers never let things come the point where desperation dominates all considerations. The only way to be permanently or consistently restrained, as a practical matter, is to retain a very large margin over one’s foes. Only by maintaining an overwhelming superiority can a consensus on restraint be maintained. Once the President fritters away American superiority or allows it to become inferior, then the requirements of survival will almost certainly destroy any political support for restraint. Necessity knows no bounds.

One of the reasons that restraint may now be possible is because al-Qaeda has been hurt so badly, as suggested by the lack of any further large scale attacks on US soil since 9/11. But that happy state is not a permanent condition, only the result of the margin of superiority that US forces have established over the enemy. Remove the margin and how long can the restraint be sustained?

President Obama must preserve that margin and increase it if possible, and not attack it at every turn, if he sincerely proposes to accept the risk to civilian lives that arises from a policy of restraint. Right now he can “afford it”. The adage qui desiderata pacem, preparat bellum can also imply that if you want to be magnanimous, make sure you can afford to be. Ironically many of the favorite hobby horses of the Left, when actually implemented, build not peace but the foundations of future brutality. One of the key ideas in the essay The Three Conjectures was that if the West left fighting terrorism too long it would eventually be forced to fall back on its nuclear superiority to survive; and that is no kindness.

Who knows whether the President really believes that principle always exacts its price or whether he is simply getting ready to deflect the impact of memos which may show that life-saving intelligence was extracted by coercive interrogation. But maybe it doesn’t matter as long as the public knows the tradeoff and accepts it. Then it can say, like Ivan Karamarzov, that having been given safety through coercive interrogation, “I respectfully return him the ticket”. But it’s not for the President to do without explaining the situation to public. He cannot return the ticket of others without their consent. Ivan’s famous argument that heaven is not worth the price of admission is reproduced below. It is one of the purest expressions of rebellion in literature; but it’s an argument as Dostoevsky is fond of saying, “that cuts both ways”; if we have no right to forgive the injustices inflicted on others, we have no right to risk the lives of others. Least of all if we don’t tell them we’re risking them.

When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

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