Is waterboarding wrong?

Let me say that Scott W., linked just below, has a fine web log, is not a clergyman as far as I know (not that there’s anything wrong with being a clergyman), and he does not deserve to be the target of my bile; for all I know he’s a retired paratrooper with a sliver star, and God bless him. I’d rather link to someone I dislike, but his post is handy as an illustrative link. I’m sorry, but not sorry enough to keep quiet. Imagine that Noam Chomsky condemned water-boarding and I’m talking about him.

So is waterboarding wrong? Sure. Water-boarding is wrong. Okay? Then why do arguments against it gain so little traction with me? Partly because I’m human and a sinner; partly because I’m squeamish, believe it or not; partly because many faithful Christians, especially clergy, seem to underestimate the gravity of sins of omission, and this colors what I think of them and their arguments, especially today.

Those sins of omission are their own, naturally. They see the beam in the eye of virtually anyone trying to take an active role in the world – and the beam is there, sure enough – but they inevitably miss the speck in their own eye. This speck contributes to, for example, the people of North Korea living under miserable brutal repression for fifty years. Peace Now! Ban the Bomb! No Sanctions! No blood for, well, anything apparently.

Maybe they don’t really want the thankless task of being the conscience of everyone, and would rather be on the field of battle non-metaphorically. They long to take up arms – tangible ones, with 30-round magazines – and set free the captive, but that’s not their calling, darn it. Their calling, I guess, is to adjure those who have taken up arms not to shoot.

Again, water-boarding is wrong. So is leaving the people of North Korea under the heel of their oppressors. And no doubt those who so loudly and often condemn water-boarding would condemn the Dear Leader’s oppression too, but rather abstractly and notionally. That is, they’d condemn the oppression, and call for the captives to be set free (they’re great at calling for things, loudly and often) but if any man set out to free those captives in any way likely to actually work, they’d oppose it, and damn him for a warmonger.

But water-boarding is either wrong or it isn’t (and it is). Why does North Korea or the peace movement have anything to do with it? Logically it doesn’t, beyond rubbing me the wrong way. These people are communicators – writers and talkers. They have a high moral standard for any action, and any number of cogent reasons for more negotiation – until it all goes wrong, and they run to the embassy, expecting the American military they contemn to protect them with deadly force until they can be evacuated to pen a stinging op-ed about US policy and that wicked vile School of the Americas.

Their sins, I think, are mostly sins of omission. Those of the average soldier are more likely sins of commission. The ironically named “activists,” like me and everyone else, see others’ sins and overlook their own. No doubt the dimming of perception acts both ways, with soldiers looking more lightly on their own debauchery down in Columbus than on the hypocrisy of the preacher. This leads to writers and talkers and clergymen underestimating the gravity of sins of omission. Though the preachers’ arguments are correct as far as I can see – yet again, water-boarding is wrong – they leave a bad taste, apparently a bitter taste, in my mouth.

UPDATE 11 May 2011: linked Noam Chomsky.

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5 thoughts on “Is waterboarding wrong?

  1. If folks had stuck to “wrong” in the first place, the argument may have been useful….

    Of course, the exact reason I think “wrong” is the correct word is the same one that folks will hate it for: it doesn’t shut down the debate with them as the winner.
    Killing a human is wrong. There are still times that it’s less wrong than not doing so, but it’s wrong.
    Drugging a person against their will, to the point where they can’t exercise their will, and locking them away is wrong. Sometimes it’s what you have to do with dangerous folks, though.

    “Wrong” can be discussed like reasonable humans, putting out arguments to explain why one favors this or that action, sort of like with the death penalty (see ‘killing people is wrong’) and such.

    Aside: I know exactly why the “water boarding is torture and evil” arguments are distasteful to me– lies and bad faith pop up far too often. (No, not all, just some; the conflation of water boarding with the Water cure and tormento de toca are probably the two biggest examples, as well as the “if you don’t think it’s torture, then you’re evil” shtick.)

    • Yeah, lots of bad faith. Often (though again, not saying it’s at the page I linked) it’s not an argument made to convince people, but just another polemic to condemn people.

    • First we’d have to get the Dear Leader and his cronies in custody, then we could see – not that it’s going to happen.

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