“Dead Certain”

Ken AshfordWar on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

Michael Goldfarb in the (conservative) Weekly Standard writes:

Tonight President Obama said he was "absolutely convinced" that he had made the right decision in putting an end to the use of the harsh interrogation techniques employed by the Bush administration. After eight years of President Bush, it certainly is refreshing to have a leader who doesn't let himself become entangled by complexity and nuance but instead has absolute certainty in the righteousness of his own decisions. Obama said that "we could have gotten this information in other ways — in ways that were consistent with our values, in ways that were consistent with who we are." Maybe, but we'll never know. And if there is another attack on this country, we'll never know whether a more aggressive interrogation approach might have averted it.

Obama's supple mind is still capable of nuance and complexity though, as evidenced by his answer to a question about abortion. Obama said abortion is "a moral issue and an ethical issue" and that women "struggle with these decisions each and every day." Our president is clearly troubled by abortion, but not so troubled he would outlaw the practice. Instead the president wants "to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies."

There's a striking contrast between these two answers. Perhaps Obama ought to try and think of waterboarding like he thinks of abortion — as something that ought to be kept safe, legal, and rare. A last resort when all else fails. Unfortunately, he's now painted himself into a corner on the issue.

This is a false analogy. 

Yes, both torture and abortion carry moral and ethical issues.  But the salient characteristic distinguishing those two hot topics is WHO gets to decide.  Torture of enemy combantents speaks to the values embodied in the national character; abortion speaks to the values embodied in the individual character.

Abortion, unlike torture, is not something that governments engage in (or, as the case may be, refuse to engage in).  When a woman chooses to have an abortion, it is not done in the government's name.  But the practice of waterboarding, carried about by my government, is carried out in my name. 

It is therefore within the province of the President to draw a bright un-nuanced line banning torture as a matter of national policy.  Abortion, controversial as it may be, does not fall within "national policy", in part because the choice of whether or not to have an abortion is fundamental to the concept of individual freedom.  That's the distinction.