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What Happens When Assassination Replaces Torture?

By Tom Junod

July 14, 2012 "Information Clearing House" --  As a grizzled veteran of a Catholic education I have, despite an agnosticism that verges on unbelief, an inordinate and ingrained interest in the health of men's souls. Old habits die hard. One of the things that concerned me about the Bush administration's commitment to torture in the name of enhanced interrogation, for example, is that Americans were being asked by an ostensibly Christian administration to do it: to commit acts that seemed unjustifiable by any Christian code, and to expose themselves to the risk of judgement, whether in the here and now or in the great beyond.

I know that Andrew Sullivan had the same kind of upbringing, and have always suspected that he has the same kinds of concerns. Which is why it surprised me when in his Wednesday post on my story about "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," he seemed to buy in to the Obama administration's largest unspoken assumption:

That killing represents a moral upgrade over capture and interrogation — over torture.

He writes:

The difference between [President Obama] and Bush, moreover, is stark. First and foremost, there is an end to the torture program. For many of us, that was the first non-negotiable deal-breaker from the Bush administration. To bungle two wars, as Bush and Cheney did, is one thing. To throw away the invaluable tradition of decency in wartime was unforgivable. Torture is not, as [blogger Sonny] Bunch would have it, a "difficult issue". It is an easy one. We don't do it or condone it and we bring to justice anyone caught doing it.

Sullivan then entertains a moral qualm indistinguishable from those uttered by the administration — “I harbor severe worries about the unintended consequences of the drone war, and deeply regret civilian casualties" — before concluding that the president's war against Al Qaeda is "more moral, more lethal, and less casualty-ridden" than any of the available alternatives, and thus “is not a betrayal. It is a promise kept.”

Now, I did not — and do not — condone the use of torture any more than Sullivan does. But the moral risk of torture is not so different from the moral risk of targeted killing. Indeed, the moral risk of torture provides a template for the moral risk of targeted killing. What was introduced as an option of last resort becomes the option of first resort, then the only option. Sullivan always understood that torture was a temptation, and that the day would come when it was applied not in emergency, “ticking-clock” situations, but as a matter of routine. Well, that day has come, only now with targeted killing, where the option of first resort meets the court of no appeal.

Yes, killing is a part of war, and torture isn't. But what if the the kind of militant who was captured and tortured under Bush is the kind of militant who is simply being killed under President Obama? The Obama Administration vigorously denies this, just as it vigorously denies that it is combating terrorism by practicing a policy of extermination against terrorists. But the numbers — the thousands killed by drone and raid against the single high-value asset captured and interrogated outside the theater of war in Afghanistan — tell a story that can't simply be shrugged off. Interrogation has been replaced by assassination.

Moreover, I talked to a source familiar with the targeting process who told me that the people involved in the life-or-death decisions of the Obama administration often do not know the credibility of intelligence sources. This was a highly informed and involved source who, when asked the most essential question — "how good is the intelligence?" — paused and finally couldn't answer. In fact, when I raised the question of whether those who were once captured are now being killed, the source suggested that it was the wrong question:

"It’s not at all clear that we'd be sending our people into Yemen to capture the people we're targeting. But it's not at all clear that we'd be targeting them if the technology wasn’t so advanced. What's happening is that we're using the technology to target people we never would have bothered to capture."

This gets to the point I try to make in the piece: that the Lethal Presidency is inherently expansive, because of its conflation of technological capability with moral imperative, and its confusion of killing with scruple. So when Sullivan asks what I consider an alternative to lethal operations, my answer is not any of the ones he provides: it's not war or surrender. It's anything that will provide a check and a balance to a power that no president before President Obama has wielded so confidently, and with such a busy hand. It's the reintroduction of some semblance of democratic norms to a program that has left them far behind.

Intelligence, as Sullivan knows, is highly fallible. It was fallible and misused in the push to invade Iraq, and it was fallible and misused in the push to fill the cells in Guantanamo. Now we're relying on the same fallible and easily misused instrument to kill people, with ever more certainty, not less. I don't mean to get all Catholic on you, Andrew, but I imagine that you fretted for the souls of those Americans who were asked to torture. Now imagine those same kind of Americans asked not to torture the same kind of militants, but to kill them. What happens to their souls?

What happens to ours?

This article was originally published at Esquire

©2012 Hearst Communications, Inc.


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