Sunday, June 13, 2004

Most of the discussions I've read about American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq seem to me to be a bit off. Let us take it as given that American's have treated some Iraqi prisoners in ways that are morally very wrong and (possibly) illegal.

Let us also take it as given that America mistreats (in far worse ways) prisoners in federal prisons. Let us also take it as given that Americans in the 1940s mistreated prisoners of war and raped innocent civilians. Let us even take it as given that Allies during WWII murdered vast numbers of German prisoners of war. (They did.) Let us also take it as given that Americans committed a large amount of inexcusable bombing of civilians during WWII.

So what should our reaction be? First of all, we should not in any way excuse these atrocities on the grounds that our enemies are worse. On the contrary, we should be trying to put people and governments in power that -- in addition to the other characteristics they should have -- have a strong commitment to not permit this kind of abuse. If Kerry, for instance, has a history of outspoken opposition to the mistreatment of prisoners in Massachusetts prisons and in federal prisons, then this would be one good reason for voting for him over Bush. This is a discussion for all supporters of America to engage in. They should be discussing this with each other, and WITH NO ONE ELSE. (Similarly, questions of whether Israel should have settlements or should occupy the West Bank or should destroy homes, are questions for supporters of Israel to discuss amongst themselves, with absolutely no representation from those who want to destroy Israel.)

Furthermore, these discussions are of absolutely no relevance to the question of who is on the right side in the war, or to the question of whether or not America should attack or occupy Germany or Iraq. So I strongly disagree with Andrew Sullivan when he states that "This administration ... has erased some of the distinction between who we are and what the enemy is, a distinction central to the moral case for this war." The distinction may be central, but it is robust enough to withstand an awful lot of bad behavior on our part, given what the enemy is. Should we really consider turning the world over to utter barbarians simply because we fail to live up to our own ideals? (Should we open up our prisons because they are horribly run?)

But, you may ask, might not "our failure to live up to our own ideals" become sufficiently severe that our opinion of who is on the right side in the war might shift? In principle, yes. In practice, the genocidal monsters we (and the Israelis) are fighting now, or were fighting during WWII, are so terrible that we'd have to work very hard to even approach the situation where there is some sort of moral equivalence.

But, you may ask, is there not a danger that some people with a poor moral compass might switch sides upon hearing of American bad behavior? Not really. The difference between the two sides is so great that there may not be one single person in the entire world who will change sides because of this. Of course, there are many people who will say that they used to support the Americans but have now switched sides, or imply that they used to support the Americans but are now agnostic; these people are lying. Does anyone really believe that the allied bombing of Dresden caused someone to become a Nazi who wasn't already one before?

But, you may ask, aren't there decent people who believe -- incorrectly -- that American bad behavior is causing people to switch sides? Certainly. Those who believe this have a very low opinion of Iraqis, and I wish they would explicitly recognize that. Also, if they think we should withdraw, or they think we should not have entered in the first place, due to the reality or likelihood of our bad behavior, then I would like them to make a clear argument for this position. Do they feel the same way about non-American troops? Do they feel the same way about UN troops? (This is just one example of misbehavior by UN troops; this is another.)

But, you may ask, isn't it possible to fully appreciate the moral gulf between America and its current enemies, and still think it was a bad idea to invade Iraq? Of course. Perhaps it wasn't sufficiently in America's interests or sufficiently moral, especially if you believe the outcome will merely be replacing an awful dictator with a slightly better one. Perhaps you feel we should have given up on Iraq (especially given the retroactive knowledge of a lack of WMD) and spent some of the money on, say, Afghanistan. I would like to see someone make these arguments well. Typically the argument given involves understating Saddam's awfulness, hindsight about the WMD, and a whole slew of adhominem arguments about Bush, or oil, or Halliburton, or Je Zio Lik neo-conservatives. I believe the situation was very similar in the years leading up to America joining WWII. There were undoubtedly decent arguments that one could have made for America not getting involved in the war. But people did not make decent arguments. They understated the awfulness of Germany, and they overstated the awfulness of imperialist England. (A perfect example of such a speech is one made by William Randolph Hearst. When I visited his mansion I listened to a tape recording of that speech, and it changed my life.)

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