Category Archives: Terrorism

Cause and Effect

Jeffrey Goldberg has been going after Chas Freeman, Obama’s pick to run the National Intelligence Council, for his alleged foreign policy biases. Although I enthusiastically endorse the idea of appointing more people named “Chas” to influential positions within the Administration, I don’t know much about Freeman’s politics. I did find this criticism peculiar, however (emphasis mine):

In this dialogue, Freeman also stated that “I accept that al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden almost certainly perpetrated the September 11 attacks,” but never mind this off-putting hesitancy; what’s particularly interesting is his desire to see an exploration of 9/11 cause and effect. Let’s posit as true that al Qaeda acted against America out of specific grievances (I think it’s also true that al Qaeda acted out of Muslim supremacist ideology, but let’s put that aside as well). What was the principal political grievance of al Qaeda before 9/11? The stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at the request of the Saudi government, in order to  protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein.

Now, is it really odd for a political analyst to examine the causal factors behind the 9/11 attacks? Goldberg is a smart guy and a good writer,  so I’m fairly confident he understands the distinction between justifying something and analytically exploring a specific chain of events. Arguing that the punitive nature of the Versailles Treaty helped bring Hitler to power, for example, wouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of Nazi foreign policy. Certain historians might question your methodology, but no one is going around academic conferences hurling epithets like “appeasement.” And yet when it comes to September 11, exploring “cause and effect” is still seen as akin to giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda.

UPDATE: Scott McConnell has more on Freeman’s credentials.


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Fresh Meat

I’m afraid that Jim Geraghty comes off best in this exchange, taking Andrew Sullivan’s eager young things to task for endorsing Obama’s plan to shut down Gitmo. Despite agreeing with Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner on the merits of the issue, I think their argumentative approach is pretty unpersuasive. If moved to Leavenworth or South Carolina or wherever else, it stands to reason that a few detainee combatants (some of whom are quite dangerous) may escape. This is probably less of a danger than with domestic prisoners – I imagine cultural differences make it difficult for foreign escapees to go to ground – but it’s something worth considering nonetheless.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the way to win these debates is not to deny the real security risks associated with policies that respect the essential dignity of enemy combatants, recognize Americans’ right to not be eavesdropped on by the federal government, or emphasize the importance of certain minimal standards of humane treatment. In much the same way that Geraghty’s colleagues would probably dismiss the pragmatic case for legalizing abortion as less important than the moral implications of murdering innocent fetuses, advocates of humane detainee treatment ought to be able to explain why the moral and judicial rationales for shutting down the legal black hole that is Guantanamo Bay outweigh our opponents’ real (if frequently overblown) practical objections.

UPDATE: I take it all back – the awesome “Con Air” reference wins the day for Team Sullivan.


Filed under Terrorism, The Courts

Tortuous Distinctions

John Schwenkler’s short post on Phi Kappa Gitmo provoked an interesting exchange on detainee mistreatment in the comments section. One point that’s worth addressing is from commenter “Pan Cascadian”:

I think torture should carry very heavy penalties. Having said that, I can understand a particular commander feeling that torture was warranted or necessary in a given situation.

Pan Cascadian goes on to condemn torture, even under exigent circumstances, but this still raises a crucial point. Is it possible to limit the use of torture to certain extreme scenarios? Krauthammer’s 2005 article on the subject is frequently caricatured as some sort of proto-fascist diatribe, but it’s actually a carefully thought-out schematic for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I’d venture that his proposed solution – a regularized torture regime that combines rigorous oversight with the training of extremely specialized interrogators – is actually more humane than the Bush Administration’s willy-nilly approach.

So why wouldn’t this work? Simple – it’s extremely difficult to limit the application of torture to a few readily-identifiable situations. Here’s a telling example from the Boston Globe (the whole article is well worth your time):

If the spread of torture techniques suggests a blurry line between “us” and “them,” it also teaches that there’s no real boundary between “there” and “here.” It would be ignoring history to assume that what happens in an American-run prison in Iraq will stay in Iraq. Soldiers who learn torture techniques abroad get jobs as police when they return, and the new developments in torture you read about today could yet be employed in a neighborhood near you. In Chicago, in the decade after Vietnam, the use of magnetos and other clean tortures left a disaster: At least 11 men were sentenced to death and many others given long-term prison sentences based on confessions extracted by torture, and in 2003, Governor George Ryan of Illinois commuted the death sentences of all 167 death row inmates. Earlier this month the City of Chicago agreed to pay nearly $20 million to settle lawsuits filed by four former death row inmates who claimed they were tortured and wrongly convicted.

Brazil’s experience with “enhanced interrogation” should also give one pause:

. . . the Brazilian military dictatorship’s use of torture was far from being a sudden shift in the politico-criminal landscape, pointing out that torture had been used against criminal suspects and the (Afro-descendant) poor since at least the late-19th century. (Skidmore suggests that the use of torture against darker-skinned “criminals” is a direct legacy of slavery, abolished in Brazil only in 1888; while it’s difficult to quantitatively prove this, it makes a lot of sense). And just as the dictatorship didn’t initiate torture in Brazil (though it certainly did escalate it), torture didn’t end with the military governments in 1985, either, and continues to be a problem today . . .

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Filed under Terrorism, Worthy Links

Bad Framing (II)

Mother Jones takes 24 to task for normalizing torture. Here’s Kevin Drum:

After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don’t live in the world of 24, guys. And we don’t. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won’t do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it’s your call blah blah? Pretty low, I’d guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

Well, yes, we don’t live in the world of 24. One of the reasons I think 24 makes us uncomfortable, however, is that while its portrayal of terrorism is totally outlandish, it does get at the torture debate’s fundamental quandary. Like it or not, torture can be effective under certain circumstances. These circumstances are not nearly as ubiquitous as the show’s plot lines suggest, but it’s still a possibility we have to confront. Drum’s objection seems to be something along the lines of “Well, 24 is so self-evidently ridiculous that there can never be any pragmatic justification for torturing a suspect.” This is simply not true, and using 24 as a stand-in for other, more nuanced advocates of coercive interrogation makes for a pretty weak pragmatic case against detainee mistreatment. Over the course of a long post on waterboarding, Stephen Walt concedes as much, noting that “[a] realist might accept waterboarding as a regrettable necessity if it provided information that was absolutely essential to protecting the country . . .” Absent some appeal to morality, the arguments for a categorical ban on torture are just incredibly weak.

UPDATE: Just to clarify – I wholeheartedly oppose torture. I do think, however, that any argument questioning coercive interrogation solely on the basis of “effectiveness” is extremely unpersuasive.


Filed under Culture, Terrorism

Cheap Shot

Peter Wehner:

To the vast majority of Americans, to most other nations, and even to the United Nations, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was a just use of force. The Taliban regime, after all, was allowing Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for al Qaeda, a place for training and planning and launching attacks. The United States, in the eyes of most of the world, was fully justified in overthrowing the Taliban regime in an effort to uproot al Qaeda and break the back of that terrorist network. Our response was deemed as proportional in part because of the good being defended and the possible good that may result from the action (among the standards comprising the just war theory).

Israel is acting along the same ethical lines – yet when Israel does it, its actions are met with almost universal condemnation. The transparent double standard that is applied to Israel – a state that acts with extraordinary care to protect enemy noncombatants – is deeply troubling. Let’s just say if the nation we were talking about was non-Jewish, the response from many quarters would be dramatically different and far more sympathetic.

Some of Israel’s more vocal critics are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, but I think this argument is a straw man. Most people recognize that no nation has an unconditional right to military retaliation. The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan garnered broad support because a) the September 11 attacks were incredibly devastating and b) it was pretty plausible that Al Qaeda would continue to attack civilian targets absent some sort of military response. Weighed against the risk of collateral damage in Afghanistan, this rationale was very compelling to most reasonably objective observers.

The Gaza invasion, on the other hand, has incurred more civilian casualties than Hamas’s rocket attacks. There are also serious doubts about the ability of the Israeli military to defeat Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure. I think there are several responses (compelling and otherwise) to this point, but it strikes me as a straightforward empirical debate, not a question of anti-Semitism. Added to this confusion is Israel’s treatment of Gaza over the past few years and you have a situation that is dramatically different – both strategically and morally – than the United States’ posture after September 11. Needless to say, I think we should be able to engage in a debate about the merits of Israel’s strategic choices without resorting to accusations of anti-Semitism.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Terrorism


The crazy thing about this Michael Goldfarb post is that he concedes aerial bombardment rarely works (“It’s true that there are very few examples in 20th century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war . . .”)  while simultaneously reaffirming his support for the latest round of Israeli air strikes. His justification?

These people willingly send their own children to their deaths simply to make a statement — to accomplish nothing but the murder of two Israeli civilians and signal their commitment to the fight. The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it’s not clear that they are rational, at least not like us.

This, I think, reveals the logic of collective punishment. No one who supports Israeli military action calls it collective punishment, of course, but if you believe that Hamas’s murderous ideology represents the Palestinian mindset, it becomes easier to rationalize a military response that risks significant collateral damage. Describing the Palestinians as uniformly hateful and irrational devalues the moral significance of Palestinian casualties. Civilian deaths can then be written off as an inevitable consequence of our enemy’s irrational choices.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time we’ve dehumanized enemies to further policy objectives that would be considered repugnant under any other circumstances. The torture debate, for example, was dominated by a perverse vocabulary that dismissed the fundamental humanity of detainees before they were even brought to trial. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Daniel Larison’s indispensable post on torture at the ACLU’s website:

Having labeled someone a terrorist, whether it has grounds for this or not, the government takes it for granted that all terrorists are irrational actors. Enemies have been excluded from the realm of the rational, and necessarily terrorists must be irrational, else they would not be terrorists and would not be our enemies — no rational person could be our enemy, as the tautology would have it. Now rationality is one of the basic marks of humanity, and in stripping the enemy of this the government strips him of his humanity, and thus of any claim to humane treatment in the eyes of his captors. Never mind that humans would owe humane treatment even to those who are not human — the perverse and simple logic of dehumanization is quite effective in silencing such doubts. With this process of dehumanization of captives, it becomes easier to abandon restraint and conscience.

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Because my knowledge of the Palestinian conflict is pretty shallow, I’ll refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Israel’s recent military action. However, I think a renewed outbreak of violence raises broader questions about proportionality and the legitimacy of military retaliation that deserve to be addressed.

At Conventional Folly, I went a few rounds with Sonny Bunch over whether policymakers should consider “proportionality” when formulating a military response to terrorist attacks. You could read Bunch’s comments, but Ramesh Ponnuru has the Cliffs Notes version in the Washington Post:

Critics of Israeli military action say that it is “excessive” or “disproportionate” to Hamas’s provocation. But that’s the wrong way to think about proportionality in war. The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be “proportionate” in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That’s a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.

The newfangled proportionality standard has several perverse implications, not the least of which being that military victories would almost always be considered morally illegitimate.

In this context, enemy combatants – whether they’re members of an opposing military or an irregular guerrilla force – are fair game because they’re willing participants in armed conflict. Ideally, we’d like to minimize military deaths on both sides, but voluntarily signing up for armed service is entirely different from getting caught in the crossfire.

So if the Israeli military suddenly assassinated every single Hamas operative, I doubt anyone would call their response “disproportionate.” But of course that’s not what happened, so we’re left weighing the collateral damage incurred by Israeli strikes against the prospect of continued rocket attacks. So far, the death toll in Gaza appears to be winning.

Some commentators seem to think that Israel is morally obligated to retaliate whenever its citizens’ lives are threatened. I understand the political logic of this approach – would any politician have the guts to stand up and tell his constituents to “sit back and take it?” – but I don’t understand why retribution should outweigh the prospect of Palestinian civilian casualties. Unless we’ve decided that the safety of Israeli citizens should always take precedence over the condition of their Palestinian counterparts,  I think the moral imperative to spare as much innocent life as possible should be the determining factor when considering retaliatory military action. If an Israeli military response leads to more civilian casualties than the alternatives, I don’t think such action can be considered morally appropriate.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Terrorism