Torture and Just War Theory

Andrew Sullivan:

Force and violence can be defended morally in war as the least worst option in a world where evil exists, and where the enemy is at large and fully capable of killing you. But when you have captured the enemy, when he is utterly under your control, tied naked to chair by shackles in a cell, the morality of the use of force shifts dramatically. When you unleash violence against him when he cannot defend himself, you have crossed a core moral line.

Marc Thiessen replies:

Andrew’s argument rests on the presumption that that once a captured terrorist is in custody, he has already been rendered “unable to cause harm” (the standard in the Catholic Catechism), and because he is powerless and completely at the mercy of his captors, any form of coercion is therefore unjust.

He is incorrect. Even when he is in custody, a captured terrorist like KSM is not powerless; he remains an unjust aggressor who retains the power to kill many thousands — simply by withholding information about the terrorist attacks he has set in motion. KSM had not been rendered unable to cause harm when he was interrogated by the CIA. Before his capture, he had set in motion plans for new attacks. By withholding that information while in custody, he held in his hands the lives of thousands of people.

Indeed, when KSM was brought into custody, he was asked by the CIA for information about those planned attacks. He replied: “Soon you will know.” With this statement, he communicated to his captors that: a) he had information on planned attacks, and b) he would not divulge that information until the attacks had occurred. There could hardly be a clearer moral case for coercive interrogation.

Even while sitting in a CIA black site, KSM remained an unjust aggressor who actively [Conor here: surely that word should be passively] threatened our society. He possessed the power to kill. The government had a moral responsibility to render him unable to do harm by compelling him to divulge this information.

Sigh. By Mr. Thiessen’s logic, it is a moral imperative for the American government to torture every prisoner of war captured in a foreign conflict who has knowledge of future attacks. I’d wager the Pope doesn’t share his view of “coercive interrogation.”

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One Response to “Torture and Just War Theory”

  1. teresamerica Says:

    Are you saying KSM wasn’t a high-value target? I think that there is a big difference between someone like KSM and the underwear bomber. By KSM still withholding the truth the CIA were in fact not in control. KSM was holding all the cards by withholding the truth from the CIA agents. The CIA agents were (most) were just trying to get at the truth to save innocent lives. Now, I am not saying use EIT’s should be used willy nilly but when it is in fact a necessity to get at the truth and the information they are trying to find out is more likely than not to be vital to our national scurity and saving innocent lives than I have no problem with it.

    Plus, when KSM was captured the CIA agents had no idea whether he was withholding vital information that would aid others in endangering innocent lives.

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