The Moral Question

by Steve on September 24, 2006

In this morning’s commentary section of the Birmingham News is a column written by Tom Scarritt titled “Different perspectives on torture.” In his column, Scarritt references two distinguished former guests of the North Vietnamese, Senator John McCain and retired Senator Jeremiah Denton. Both men were tortured while being held as POW’s. The issue at hand is the US Government’s treatment of captives taken in the war on terror. McCain and his supporters recently reached an agreement with the President which is at best a compromise in the truest sense: both sides caved and we probably gained very little. On Friday’s Today Show McCain stated:

We got what we wanted, and that is the preservation of the Geneva Conventions. There will be no more torture.”

Denton, who famously signaled the word “torture” by blinking on camera during his televised “confession”, holds a different view.

If we can protect 50,000 innocent civilians by torturing one terrorist to get valuable information, then so be it.”

McCain feels as if he has preserved the spirit of the Geneva Convention by stopping the torture of terrorists. I beg to differ: the protection afforded by the Geneva Convention applies to POW’s taken in armed conflict between standing armies and does not apply to terrorists.

Article 4 [of the Geneva Convention states:][Emphasis and comments added where appropriate]

A. Prisoners of war, in the sense of the present Convention, are persons belonging to one of the following categories, who have fallen into the power of the enemy:

1. Members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces.
2. Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfil the following conditions:

(a) That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; [not really]

(b) That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; [nope]

(c) That of carrying arms openly; [don’t do that either]

(d) That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. [certainly not]

3. Members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognized by the Detaining Power.

4. Persons who accompany the armed forces without actually being members thereof, such as civilian members of military aircraft crews, war correspondents, supply contractors, members of labour units or of services responsible for the welfare of the armed forces, provided that they have received authorization from the armed forces which they accompany, who shall provide them for that purpose with an identity card similar to the annexed model.

5. Members of crews, including masters, pilots and apprentices, of the merchant marine and the crews of civil aircraft of the Parties to the conflict, who do not benefit by more favourable treatment under any other provisions of international law.

6. Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.

I have to agree with Denton and justify that point of view by stating that, based on the above definition, the Geneva Convention does not apply to captured terrorists. McCain seems to think that if we extend the provisions of Geneva to apply to these subhumans that they will in turn stop torturing and killing American captives. I seriously doubt that any behavior of ours is capable of modifying theirs. Scarritt closes with the following statement:

Both Denton and McCain are intent on saving America. Denton seems to be saying we must protect our security to preserve our values, while McCain is saying we must preserve our values to protect our security.

In this old and complex debate, we must look for a path that safeguards both our lives and our honor.

That’s a nice politically correct, comfortable statement which offers no solution and is therefore unrealistic. The bottom line is survival. If we survive then we can debate honor and virtue.

Lex had an outstanding post last month on this subject:

It is tempting to ask of ourselves whether it is right to extend to a terrorist the protections of a civil society he intends to violently overthrow. While understandable, such sentiments are misdirected. We do not eschew torture out of sensitivity to such people’s feelings, but because, our society being a beacon of light in an often darkened world, we would not willingly stoop down to the level of the barbarians we fight. We decline to become what we behold. We are better.

Balanced against all that of course is the “ticking bomb” scenario – the theoretical reductio in which we have a terrorist whom we know has planted a bomb that will, if undetected, kill hundreds or thousands (or millions) of people. I suspect most people, even the most decent ones, would willingly avert their eyes – all other options being exhausted – to whatever lesser evil is employed against a guilty party to forestall an even greater crime committed against a multitude of innocents.

What would you do if you found yourself holding a terrorist who had intimate knowledge regarding the destruction of a flight that your family had just departed on?

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