Sunday, April 19, 2009


People that prefer their moral thinking to be straightforward might be somewhat vexed in applying principles to the treatment of detainees in the war on terror. Laying aside whether one form of interrogation or another consitutes torture, or what exactly the definition of torture is, anomalies abound when trying trying to apply moral reasoning to the treatment of human beings in the setting of war. An obvious illustration of this point arises from the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct targeted airstrikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The human targets of these strikes are killed and maimed without warning. There has been no judicial process by which their status has been determined or their conduct condemned. Furthermore, the manner in which the strikes are conducted raises the risk of collateral damage, potentially killing and maiming innocent bystanders. Similarly, when Navy SEALS assassinated three pirates holding an American sea captain, the event caused little moral consternation, in stark contrast to interrogating terror suspects by use of sleep deprivation techniques or pouring water over a cloth covering their faces to simulate drowning.

For some reason, killing adversaries in the field is more readily accommodated than causing physical and psychological stress to a captive, and soul-searching ensues in the latter case when our collective conscience seems unvexed by the former. There is an obvious disconnect in the ways in which we view the treatment of different adversaries whose past histories and enmity of the Unites States are indistinguishable. In the one case, we have the power to kill them and in the other to cause them discomfort or indignity, but in each case the decision is ours. There may be an arguable distinction arising from the threat posed by terrorist still in the field and one in our custody, but this distinction fades when viewed in light of the purposes of a Hellfire missile strike or enhanced interrogation.

It might be that the paradox of legitimate assassination and illegitimate interrogation arises from some infirmity in the arguments used to justify the two cases, but a more fundamental question arises regarding the concept of justifying one or the other in the first place.

The term "justify" means to make just that which ordinarily is not. We do not justify educating our children or providing emergency medical services. We need not justify paying our debts or contributing to charity because these things need no justification; they are already just. We speak of justifiable homicide or justifiable use of force because these are not inherently just, but may be considered so in the appropriate circumstances. Aquinas spoke of just war because it is quite natural to conceive of war as an enterprise unconcerned with the common attributes of justice.

The conception of all activities as just, justifiable or unjust would seem to be theoretically elegant; classifying as it does all human conduct according to some notion of reason and moral values. But in the context of warfare, it would seem that such an assumption is not valid. During the Second Word War, Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to attack the French fleet anchored at Oran. Was this justified? Churchill also sacrificed the Highland Division to achieve more political than tactical ends. During the Doolitle raid on Tokyo, U.S. Navy destroyers fired on unarmed picket ships to prevent them from alerting the Japanese military of the raiders' presence. Each of these could arguably be justified by the circumstances, even though they may make us uncomfortable when viewed retrospectively, but even then the concept of justification seems somewhat superfluous. There is a quiet suspicion that the exigencies of war are so extraordinary that they do not conform easily to our customary moral reasoning.

Back in the 1980s certain Jewish leaders opposed the idea of studying the Holocaust to identify its causes. Their position was that such evil was best considered as evil, rather than as some understandable quirk of human behavior. They believed that the crimes of the Third Reich should not be candidates for rationalization. It seems obvious that one cannot "justify" the Holocaust, not because such a catastrophe does not meet rational and considered grounds for justification, but because it is practically impossible to find a context in which our moral reasoning and judgment can even comprehend the historical fact. It is quite literally absurd to ask if the Holocaust could be justified.

There are several references to an occurrence, subsequently adapted as part of the plot for the last episode of M*A*S*H, in which a Jewish mother suffocates her infant child to avoid detection by the Nazis. Is it even reasonable to ask if this woman's action was justified? Can anyone find a context in which such a decision is even remotely amenable to the moral judgments that we make based on our experience and abstract notions of just and unjust? Can anyone even imagine, much less understand how remote such a decision is from our experience and judgment? Who is competent to make such a judgment?

It is perhaps a conceit of civilization that we should judge our conduct against standards that we ourselves adopt, but it is likely the case that there are some activities so foreign to our abstract notions of morality and justice, and so peculiar to our own experiences that we can neither justify them nor condemn them. Some things cannot be understood, much less justified. They arise in that chasm in man's nature, on one side of which are the base fears and instinctive drives of survival, and on the other, the aspirations and virtues that he seeks through reason. War is terrible in part because it gives rise to acts that we cannot honestly judge as just or unjust; the acts themselves are terrible, the natural acts of ordinary people confronted with mortal threats not of their own choosing. Sometimes life presents dilemmas where each of the alternatives is appalling, and only the deluded and morally frivolous will presume to judge those who are forced to choose.

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