Is it torture time? Afghan detainees’ deaths ruled homicides. According to their death certificates, two enemy combatants who died in U.S. custody at Bagram air base in Afghanistan died from blunt-force homicide. In general, the U.S. admits to a policy of using “stress and duress” during interrogation, including deprivation of sleep, various disorienting tactics, and transfer of prisoners to the custody of nations that routinely use more extreme measures.
Torture is common in unconventional wars, and if war is necessary one shouldn’t be amazed by what comes with it. There are two special points though:
- U.S. world-wide involvement, easy travel and transportation, a cosmopolitan U.S. population and the increasing technical facility of terrorism make it likely that the “war against terrorism” will last a very long time and be carried on at home as well as abroad. So it seems likely that whatever measures are found necessary will deeply affect our domestic institutions.
- The nature of “our side” and the goal for which it is fighting matter a great deal. It seems possible to fight for home and hearth, using brutal methods if necessary, without becoming morally insane, because what you’re doing is not self-contradictory and your goals are limited. I don’t think it’s possible to fight for principles like “cruelty is the worst thing we do” or “everyone should be free to define his own good” using brutal methods without going morally bonkers. If you are fighting for contemporary liberalism, what you’re doing is flatly self-contradictory and your goals have no practical limits. There’s no telling what you might do.
So what follows? First, if war is necessary its goals must be defined and limited as much as possible. A “war against terrorism” is already impossibly vague. One “for democracy” would be infinitely worse. A “war for the security of the U.S. and other participants” would be much better. Second, all men of good will should reject the notion that the abolition of borders is a good idea. Peace, order and freedom can only be established and maintained within boundaries and limits, which should therefore be guarded and enhanced rather than done away with.
As to torture, it seems right to repress excesses of brutality (as apparently is being done in the present case). It seems futile though to imagine that it can be treated as simply a violation of legality in a war that if it continues will soon destroy the basis of legality: a settled society based on mutual trust.