Tag 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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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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Bad Framing

This strikes me as a bad way to go about arguing against torture:

There’s something intuitive about torture. Hurt something until it breaks. The phrasing of the the 24 scenario plays implicitly on that intuition: Do you do the thing that works and saves lives? Or do you let abstract principle ensure the deaths of thousands? Framed thus, it’s an easy argument to win. When applied to policy, though, it directly ensures the deaths of thousands and fails to capture the worst of the terrorists.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that torture is ineffective under most circumstances, though I suspect that Reuel Marc Gerecht, for all his ideological posturing, knows quite a bit more about the efficacy of coercive interrogation than the American Prospect’s resident health care blogger. Regardless, it’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario in which traditional interrogation methods are rendered inoperative. Perhaps an interrogator is faced with certain time constraints. Or perhaps a particularly hardened suspect simply refuses to break. In 2005, Charles Krauthammer summarized our dilemma thusly:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking time bomb problem.

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion–yes, in this case even torture is permissible–is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you’ve established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that’s left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when–i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

Moreover, there are empirical examples that prove his point. Consider the following excerpt from a Washington Post article in 2005:

Sometimes interrogators went beyond the guidelines. In October 1994, after militants abducted a 19-year-old Israeli army corporal, Nachshon Waxman, Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister, acknowledged that the suspected driver of the kidnap car had been tortured.

“If we’d been so careful to follow the Landau Commission, we would never have found out where Waxman was being held,” Rabin said, referring to the 1987 guidelines.

My larger point isn’t that torture is appropriate or morally justified; simply that objecting to the practice on purely pragmatic grounds cedes too much to advocates of  coercive interrogation. There will always be instances where torturing a suspect is more expedient or effective than the available alternatives. But the case against detainee mistreatment was never a tactical one. It has always been grounded in an important moral insight: human dignity should not depend on the whim of circumstance. I think it’s foolish and morally dishonest to suggest that a blanket prohibition on torture will never hamper our intelligence-gathering capabilities. But some things are simply more important.


Filed under Morality, Terrorism

Victor Davis Cassandra

Greenwald the Indispensable highlights a noticeable shift in rhetoric from Senators Feinstein and Wyden on torture. The worst part about this nonsense is that Democrats are literally following a script laid out by Victor Davis Hanson, National Review’s resident classics scholar fire-breathing populist. Hanson remains serenely self-confident that his absurdly inflated assessment of the terrorist threat is God’s Own Truth, and therefore predicted that liberals would quickly jettison their “extremist” positions on FISA, torture and Iraq upon assuming power. Now that Feinstein and Wyden have capitulated, he’s two-for-two in the predictions department.

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JL Wall and Mark were kind enough to respond to my original post on torture (read the comments section – Mark offers a few thought-provoking scenarios). The discussion at John Schwenkler’s place has also been excellent. My thinking on this subject isn’t particularly systematic, so I’ll restrain myself to two additional points:

  1. I think the War on Terror framework is silly and counter-productive, but the recent tragedy in India demonstrates the omnipresent risk of extremist violence in any open society. Opponents of torture should be forthright in acknowledging this risk, even to the point of conceding that certain restrictions on intelligence gathering are likely to hamper our efforts to reduce terrorism. Too frequently, the debate over interrogation methods revolves around whether a particular technique is effective or not. As I’ve said earlier, one can easily imagine scenarios where torture is the only pragmatic method of interrogation. In some other cases, it may be ineffective, but a purely utilitarian calculus will always allow for a few narrow exceptions. The case against torture, however, was never a pragmatic one; some practices are morally wrong, regardless of circumstance, and we should not be ashamed to make this point.
  2. I liked the framing in JL Wall’s original post. All people should be entitled to a certain standard of humane treatment. If basic human decency is entirely dependent on the whim of circumstance, I’m not sure there’s much point to codifying “inalienable” rights.

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Has pacifism dulled my senses?

Cliff May kindly excerpts his review of The Dark Side (the rest is stuck behind a subscription firewall). Here’s the key bit:

For Mayer, it is axiomatic that the aftermath of September 11, and what it revealed about the flaws in the American security apparatus that made the jihadist attack possible, did not necessitate any new framework for thinking about the protection of the United States from a new form of foreign aggression. She is outraged that Bush and Cheney would even presume to ask their legal advisers to study the latitude available to them in fighting the terrorists—to determine which practices would be permissible and which would fall into a gray area requiring new laws and policies.

I happen to agree with May that this reveals a fundamental difference of opinion between the Weekly Standard – John McCain – Bush Administration axis of overheated rhetoric and the rest of us. If you think 9/11 represents the upper level of Al Qaida’s capabilities, you’re probably less inclined to accept invasive surveillance, the rationale for invading Iraq, or torture. If, on the other hand, you think that 9/11 is a prelude to a much longer struggle between Islam and the West, you’re undoubtedly more persuaded by the Republicans’ “better safe than sorry” formulation. The trouble with this approach is that security hawks never bother to defend their premises – they just take it as a given that we’re in the midst of some existential struggle against stateless terror organizations. So here’s a suggestion for May: if you want to convince me that loosening our restrictions on detainee mistreatment is a good idea, you should find a way to coherently defend your apocalyptic vision of American foreign policy. Otherwise I’m just not buying it.

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We’re Doomed

Jeffrey Goldberg highlights the TSA’s absurd response to his frightening article on airport security (you really should read the whole thing). I’d highlight my favorite part, but there’s so much inanity I can barely stand it. Exhibit A:

The comments about TSA not hassling the reporter for carrying a Hezbollah flag or AQ [Al- Qaida] T-shirt are more in the entertainment category along with the thought of splashing water on your face to simulate sweating as a demonstration that behavior detection doesn’t work.

Hezbollah flags and Al-Qaida propaganda now fall under “the entertainment category?” That’s a comforting thought. Here’s another gem (emphasis mine):

Items carried on the person, be they a ‘beer belly’ or concealed objects in very private areas, are why we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds as well as targeted pat-downs that require private screening.

Clever terrorists can use innovative ways to exploit vulnerabilities. But don’t forget that most bombers are not, in fact, clever. Living bomb-makers are usually clever, but the person agreeing to carry it may not be super smart. Even if “all” we do is stop dumb terrorists, we are reducing risk.

Stopping the ‘James Bond’ terrorist is truly a team effort and I whole-heartedly agree that the best way to stop those attacks is with intelligence and law enforcement working together. Anyone who knows would tell you that TSA is, in fact, an intelligence-driven operation, working daily with our colleagues throughout the counter-terrorism community in that common effort.

Appropriating a technique developed by fratboys smuggling booze into football games to get illicit liquids through airport security is more Austin Powers than James Bond. If Goldberg’s article proves anything, it’s that any terrorist with a modicum of intelligence has a decent shot of sneaking past airport security. It’s also worth noting that several of the 9/11 hijackers were actually rather well-educated.

Despite the TSA’s enthusiasm for high tech gadgetry (” . . . we are buying over 100 whole body imagers in upcoming months and will deploy more over time. In the meantime, we use hand-held devices that detect hydrogen peroxide and other explosives compounds . . .”), what’s striking about Goldberg’s article is their staff’s evident lack of professionalism. Airport security personnel come off as completely disinterested, incompetent, or both. After reading this exchange, my first thought was that perhaps our homeland security agencies should invest in better pay and recruiting instead of buying more hydrogen peroxide sensors. No amount of gee-whiz technology, it seems, can overcome the TSA’s current incompetence.

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