The potential prosecution of Bush-era officials for waterboarding and other alleged uses of torture during interrogations of terrorists is an outrageous plan of action for the Obama administration. First of all, it will prove to be extremely divisive. For a President who ran a supposedly bi-partisan campaign by promising to reach across the aisle, such a public investigation of and prosecution regarding these interrogations would certainly polarize the nation. This reeks, not of bi-partisanship, but the anti-Bushism that defined Obama’s campaign and the extreme liberal-left.
Secondly, it is disastrous policy to prosecute officials that were not only acting as instructed, but were doing a phenomenal and successful job of protecting America. Whether you consider waterboarding to be torture or harsh interrogation techniques is irrelevant. Frankly, I care little if it is termed torture. The fact of the matter is that if torture or interrogation yields truthful, useful, and otherwise unattainable intelligence that leads to the saving of innocent lives then it is one-hundred percent morally and politically acceptable. It is a simple utilitarian argument that justifies this. If injuring or scaring one man can save one or more men then the total harm done in society is minimized. Not torturing is morally equivalent to murdering those who could have been saved had the terrorist been tortured.
Far too often critics try to draw a moral distinction between active and passive actions. The argument implicitly distinguishes between harm caused by an active action, such as torture, and harm caused by a passive action, such as failure to stop a terrorist attack. Under this simplistic morality, actively caused harm is always worse than passively caused harm. For some reason, proponents of this belief seemingly feel a discomfort at being directly involved in harm. However, they feel a little better by being able to stick their head in the sand and, at least mentally, avoid harm that is distant. This may explain why they believe it is less moral to commit harm with an active action.
However, this is a deeply flawed philosophy. The fact that harm is more or less remote is irrelevant. Instead we must to look to the magnitude of harm- or more appropriately the expected value of harm. For instance, if there is even a 10% chance that 1000 people will be injured there is a greater harm in not torturing one man. Committing harm has to be judged in light of the harm it prevents. Harming another is completely justified if it reduces the overall global harm. Just because some types of injury may be caused by passive actions does not negate the fact that we have a moral responsibility to stop them.
The only caveat is that torture has to lead to true intelligence. Torturing for cruel or sadistic purposes is never acceptable. Torture has to be done in a way to extract useful information. Interrogators need to be trained to avoid creating situations where the captive says what the interrogator wants to hear in order to stop the torture. Likewise, less severe methods should be used first, in order to minimize the harm. Escalation should occur as necessary and appropriate. Ultimately, however, it must be recognized that the aim of such tactics is to minimize the amount of global harm. If enemies of our free society decide to create a situation in which there will inevitably be harm, we must do everything we can to minimize that harm. Sometimes this means not being passive, but actively inflicting a small amount of harm to avoid a greater amount.
If Obama decides to pander to an ill-informed and morally twisted ideology and punish those that have so far protected us, we will only be put at greater risk. If our enemies believe that they can harm us without harm coming to them there will be little to protect us. If we hamstring ourselves in the name of a false-morality we will only step down the path to America’s decline and ruination.