‘Big’ Ethics and the War on Terror

How to end the War on Terror, quickly

[Here I try to pick apart many issues that get tangled in the debate on the ethics of the War on Terror taking a recent discussion between Megan McArdle and Daniel Drezner. It boils down to the importance of drilling for the real motivation in making ethical judgements and loving the sinner while hating the sin.]

If anyone hasn’t listened to any of the bloggingheads.tv diavlogs (what I think of as divalogs) then I suggest you do, especially if you like witty, intelligent discussion of American politics and current affairs.

I picked up the latest divalog between Megan McArdle and Daniel Drezner from Megan’s blog at The Atlantic and was intrigued by the section that started about 40 minutes in where Megan says she is more interested in ‘small’ (manageable?) ethical issues rather than the ‘big’ issue of whether the US prosecution of the War on Terror is evil. (I am paraphrasing a bit here, but I think this is the sense.)


Firstly I would like to make it clear that I am not here criticizing Megan or Daniel but having a closer look at what they are saying, which I take to be quite symptomatic of the citizens of the coalition of industrialized nations that are joining the US in the War on Terror. I think they are symptomatic because they are as intelligent, thoughtful and well informed as you will find. While there are many liberals that will much more forcefully reject some of the mistakes of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror—or at least be far less forgiving of the administration–I don’t think these latter people are necessarily superior—indeed those that are less forgiving of the administration may be making similar ethical mistakes to some in the administration who have been exploiting the War on Terror for political ends. But first let’s have a look at Megan and Daniel’s divalog.


Megan and Daniel deal robustly with the torture issue, concluding (quite correctly in my view) that torture should be outlawed and the usual lurid scenarios can be dealt with through common sense—if torturing someone will stop the universe being blown up then you do it and work out the legal problems later—I thought it was in any case accepted that one can carry out a lesser crime to prevent a greater crime being committed. Even if it isn’t so, in these lurid scenarios, the law shouldn’t act as a barrier to any reasonable person doing what is necessary.

Where I parted company with Megan is her assumption that, because these officials are blundering around this moral maze ineptly, they shouldn’t be ethically responsible for their actions, or at least there are serious mitigating circumstances. This seems to me to be far from obvious, and it appears to appeal to a modern sentimental notions of ethics. (This idea is central to most of my writing: see this article for example.) Firstly, what does it mean when we say something is ‘morally reprehensible’? It can only mean “don’t do this”; and if we say that something is ‘marginally reprehensible’ we are really saying “you probably shouldn’t do this but it might be OK sometimes” or “this is probably wrong but there are other things that may have higher priority”. As always, the motive is a critical factor, so when Megan says that these officials were motivated by the safety of the community this should be taken seriously; if it was really true that they were purely motivated by the welfare of the country (or humanity in general) then I could be convinced that the individuals were not ethically culpable (doing evil if you like) even if I would argue strongly that it was the wrong policy and (with full knowledge of its impotence and horrid consequences) a deeply unethical policy.

Where disagree with Megan is in giving those responsible the benefit of the doubt. Firstly I think there is ample evidence that some of these people were waiting for an opportunity to do this kind of thing (see, PNAC for example). Note that I am not promoting any conspiracy theories but documenting the evidence of intent to do these kinds of things. When Shadia Drury reintroduced her 1988 book The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss in 2005 she said this:

When The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss was published in 1988, it astonished the academic community (including many of Strauss’s students) because the analysis it presented of Strauss’s political ideas was radically at odds with his reputation in the academy. The book painted a clear but disturbing picture of Strauss’s political thought, which was based exclusively on his published works. It provided extensive textual evidence to show that, contrary to received opinion, Strauss was not a traditional conservative nor a quiet interpreter of old texts, but a representative of a new brand of rabid, radical, nihilistic, and postmodern conservatism. Instead of being a defender of religion and a critic of moral relativism, the book revealed that Strauss as an atheist and a moral nihilist who advocated the use of religion, morality and family values as useful political tools by which to placate and manipulate the masses. Instead of being the self-proclaimed protégé of Plato, the book revealed Strauss’s political thought as a dark brew of ideas borrowed from Machiavelli, Freud and Nietzsche. In short, the book showed that Strauss was a sworn enemy of freedom and democracy who believed that the best form of government is the absolute but covert rule of the ‘wise’ elite independent of the law.

Naomi Wolf’s analysis of the constitutional innovations since the start of the War on Terror makes for some very sober listening. Again I am not proposing any conspiracy theories, daring attention to some historical patterns and suggest that we don’t be complacent about the kind of extra-legal practices that seem to be becoming normalised.

And here is the deeper ethical point. To what extent are the people driving this agenda really concerned about the welfare of the American people and to what extent do they desire to control the American people. This is not an easy question to answer. I am inclined to say that the preponderance of evidence is against the view that the some key public officials were purely, altruistically motivated, and to the extent that their motivations were at all contaminated (by selfishness) in encouraging torture and so on, it was a hideous crime against humanity, and just as hideous a crime against democracy.

If people put in positions of serious responsibility start encouraging extra-legal torture then we really should be very sure that they have excellent motivation before indulging them with any ethical waivers. To be sure the finger-pointing blame game is an ugly one and not to be generally encouraged, but for any official that feels tempted to justify extra-legal torture (and the ‘extra-legal’ and ‘torture’ parts of this are frightening enough individually, never mind united) then it must be made clear that they will be assumed to be carrying out high and vile crimes without some quite exceptional defence (certainly not the open-ended ‘long war’ against evildoers defence) which must be able to withstand scrutiny. I am astonished at the naiveté with which modern people will generally accept surface motives on face value. We never accept things in the world in general at face value: why should we do it in matters of ethics (which we never do anyway in a law court).

Justification of War

Megan has been pursuing the idea that modern war invariable involves hideous crimes being committed and cites the strategic bombing campaigns carried out by the allies in the second world war. I think she has an excellent point. Quite apart from the culpability of the planners of these acts for war crimes (it is complicated and unclear to me, but I would be astonished if nobody on the Allied side didn’t have at least some responsibility for some of the excesses) it does underline the (wise) conclusion of the Nuremberg tribunals, that the greatest war crime of them all is starting the war in the first place, for it gives rise to all the others; and it follows that the only possible justification for initiating a war can be to prevent worse wars from taking place. (A plausible defence for the first Gulf War against Iraq, if not every aspect of it, could be mounted on the grounds that allowing the invasion of Kuwait to stand would be destabilising and likely to lead to further wars.)

In this light, Megan has been arguing that extra-legal torture was part of the excesses of this War on Terror. I remain unconvinced. The Army, Marines and CIA seemed quite capable of carrying out their functions without any changes to their legal regime. Indeed the Abu Ghraib scandal seems clearly to have been a spread of the contagion from Guantanamo and all the pressure to adopt torture seems to have come from politicians not the professionals (see Hersh’s Chain of Command for details).

Justification for Guantanamo

Megan then asks (about 54 minutes in) what the Bush administration could do with combatants of a government that doesn’t exist. But there is something exquisitely wrong with an arrangement that allows military commanders to offer financial incentives to peasants to grass people up, for them to be shipped off to a prison camp in a different hemisphere to be tortured, indefinitely, and without any due process. Granted these aren’t American citizens being put in harm’s way but there is surely an element of natural justice missing. (See for example Adam Curtis’s Power of Nightmares, Part 3, about 19 minutes in, for a closer look at how some of the Guantanamo inmates got scooped into the black prison system.)

If this is really so, that there is no legal system to try the ‘enemy combatants’ after being apprehended on the battlefield, then why aren’t they shipped to back home and put on trial in the US? Or more to the point, why didn’t Megan and Daniel see this rather obvious point, that if the USG has the power to put them into this twilight system, where there is no due process, where they can be abused at will by the state, then the USG has the power to try them in the US legal system. The only conclusion we can draw is that the officials that initiated this wanted an extra-legal system.


The War on Terror is a profoundly corrupting process, which from some angles looks like a domestic political management process (see the Power of Nightmares and End of America). Quite apart from our inability to penetrate the surface of people’s professed motivation (and the altruistic claims of the likes of ex-Prime Minister Anthony Blair are surely delusory) there is a collective desire among us citizens to sign onto the narrative we are offered (that there is an awful dilemma here) in order to palliate our own involvement in the crime. If I am right then this means that there is an interaction between the large-scale guilt-of-the-nation and small-scale ethical questions that Megan identified. Until we go though the collective process of confession (acknowledging what we have done, restoration of injustice and taking steps to prevent recurrence) we will be stuck with the risk that all of these mechanisms (internment, extra-rendition, torture and so on) becoming normalised and widened in scope.

On the other side, people that want to make use of torture and extra-rendition for party-political gain should look at their own motivations, otherwise they simply risk using torture for equally selfish ends, and it is difficult to see how this behaviour is any more ethical than the people they are attacking.

The truth is that the September 11th attacks caused deep psychological trauma to the US polity (and to a lesser extent the industrialised nations and indeed all nations) and we should recognise that this trauma has distorted much of our national-security decision-making process. Rather than threatening to go after officials of the Bush administration (which may provide incentives for the current administration to widen the War on Terror to Iran), the Democrats (who, lets face it, have voted for all the legislation and signed all the cheques) would do better to set up a process along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That would surely be the quickest and most effective way of healing the wounds, righting the injustices, learning the mistakes and moving on.

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