I listened to talk radio for a few minutes yesterday in the car. The host discussed the recent case of Muslim extremists arrested in Canada for a terrorist plot to blow up buildings and behead the Prime Minister unless their demands were met. He went on to talk about the Geneva Conventions and ask whether we should follow them in the way we treat people apprehended for terrorist plots and acts.
He explained that the Geneva Conventions rest on the principle that soldiers fighting for nations aren’t necessarily responsible for their actions on the battlefield because, after all, they’re just carrying out the commands of their leaders. They may even disagree with those orders, but they follow them anyway because that’s what good, loyal soldiers do. Thus, they shouldn’t be tortured or killed in captivity for following the orders of their nation’s leaders.
Yet, the host continued, terrorists are a different matter. They aren’t following the orders of leaders of nations; they’re plotting their own acts and carrying them out, often with savage hatred for all who don’t share their fanaticism. Not only that, but they haven’t agreed to follow the Geneva Conventions and most certainly don’t with the captives they torment and behead. Why should we follow the Geneva Conventions with them, especially when we might be able to coerce them into disclosing vital information that would enable us to avert future acts of terrorism?
For instance, said the host, two American citizens were arrested who appeared to have ties to the suspects in Canada. In their possession were encrypted computer files that FBI cryptologists have been unable to crack. It’s believed that those files might well contain information about terrorists and terrorist plots that law enforcement desperately needs. Should we be bound by the Geneva Conventions to abstain from using necessary means to extract from these suspects the information we need to decode those files and learn what’s in them?
I think there are compelling arguments for both sides. I worry about terrorism perpetrated by hateful religious and political extremists. But I also worry about granting our law enforcement and military the corrupting power to torture and kill people for acts they may not have even committed or planned to commit. I also worry about what this does to the psyches of the torturers and to those of an entire citizenry that condone the acts of the torturers. But, in the final analysis, I don’t yet know where I stand on this issue.
Not long ago, I would have denounced torture of any kind for any reason, and I would have blasted the Bush administration for even a hint of a suggestion that torture is ever justified. Now, I’m not so sure. The only thing I’m sure of is that we should always see torture, at best, as an occasionally necessary but nevertheless terrible evil that should be engaged in with extreme reluctance and sorrow.
Does my willingness to at least consider the use of torture under some circumstances mean that I’m letting my fears of terrorism plunge me into a state of moral devolution? Or does it mean that my morality is evolving out of a more realistic view of the world? What do you think?
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