Water Boarding: The View from the Moral High Ground

Is water boarding torture?

An interesting question, however the wording is somewhat binary.  When you think about it, there is a continuum of unpleasant experience that you can subject someone to when seeking to elicit cooperation, extract valuable information, etc.  On one end are things that routinely occur in police stations across the US which almost no right thinking individual, (ACLU excluded), considers torture, (for example - raising your voice, implying threats, repeated hostile questioning, etc.).  On the other end we have brutal, sadistic practices such as beheading, (such as performed by 9/11 mastermind and Gitmo detainee Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on the journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002). 

Looking at water boarding objectively, it's much closer to the unpleasant interrogation you might receive in a heated police investigation than the life ending experience Mr. Pearl experienced in Pakistan.  Whatever you think, I believe two points can safely be stated on this subject -

  1. The use of the word "torture" as a catch-all phrase which makes no distinction to severity, intent, or other context is a smokescreen meant to end the conversation and stifle any meaningful dissent or perception of legitimate moral ambiguity.
  2. Even if you decide that water boarding is torture, it's much closer to a scene from Law and Order than an Al Qaeda snuff film.  In short - if it's torture - it's barely over the line, and the minimum amount of non-lethal force necessary to achieve success.

Are there circumstances where the use of "torture" or "enhanced interrogation" is ethical?

This is such a seemingly simple question, but so much of the argument flying back and forth across the aisle revolves around it.  In essence this is basically an argument about the utility of pacifism.  I'm all for pacifism.  If everyone in the world decided to stop fighting tomorrow, you'd get no argument from me.  Most reasonable people feel this way.  Unfortunately, the people who cause the most damage in this world are, by and large, not generally "reasonable". 

Water boarding -- whether torture or not -- is the infliction of psychological pain on someone to get them to give you information you need to prevent a much greater infliction of pain on innocent civilians.  Pacifism, by definition, is morally relative and adamantly opposes drawing distinctions between innocent and guilty, victim and perpetrator. etc.  If you're a doctrinaire Pacifist, the guy who sucker punched some bystander in a pub and the bystander fighting back in self-defense are both essentially the same - just two misguided people trying to solve their problems with violence instead of dialogue This explains the crazy quotes Gandhi made during WWII about the "most heroic" course of action for European Jews being mass suicide to illustrate the moral bankruptcy of the Nazis.  Come again?  This is the Alice and Wonderland world of orthodox pacifism.  This is the world of people who would rather see a nuclear bomb detonated in Cleveland than KSM water boarded.

At this point in the conversation the pacifist usually says something like, "No - I don't support either thing.  They're both bad!"  This statement reveals the ultimately narcissistic nature of extreme pacifism - If I believe something strongly, I define the rules.  In reality any interaction with another, by definition, is not unilateral.  Even if you don't believe in mugging people, the mugger defines your relationship, (usually at the point of knife), and you are confronted with the choice of accepting or rejecting this definition.  His knife makes your "perfect world" irrelevant.

This is the context that the use of force which is water boarding must be viewed.  Would you rather be "morally pure" and have thousand die in the Library Tower Attack in Los Angeles sometime in 2002, or would you rather inflict a little pain on a hardened mass murderer and prevent this loss of innocent life?  Those are the choices - and viewing it any other way is naïve at best, or more likely, cynical, short-sighted and extremely disingenuous.

Where to from here?

This will depend largely on how events unfold during Mr. Obama's Presidency.  He clearly has scolded and repudiated the Bush Administration for "having lost their way" and as President stated that this was an aberration for the United States, (a la Kruschev denouncing Stalin).  He's no longer on the campaign trail, these words mean things.

If we wake one warm September morning -- as we did just eight years ago -- to see a gaping hole where an American landmark once stood, to see the tortured decisions of people choosing between death by fire or falling, to see victory celebrations in Gaza, Iran and all the other places we've recently apologized or capitulated, this will be seen as an interesting interlude, a brief intermission in a much longer struggle, the shape of which is still just coming in to focus.