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« Fighting Terrorism with Values | Main | Irish Discourse »

Waterboarding and relativism

Came across this post on National Security Advisors' blog.  In it, Tung Yin takes an interesting position.  Generally speaking, I think we accept that if it were American citizens who were waterboarded and tortured by foreign governments, Americans as a whole would not stand for it.  Yin, however, suggests the opposite.  He argues that Americans would not object.  

He suggests that if American nationals were arrested in a foreign nation, accused of plotting a terrorist strike that killed over 3,000 people, Americans probably would not be outraged if that foreign nation engaged in waterboarding against the American suspects.

As evidence, Yin points to the 1994 case of Michael Fay, an American teenager sentenced to 6 caning strokes in Singapore for vandalism, amongst other things.  In that case, Yin correctly points out that Americans generally felt that Fay got what he deserved, a "don't-do-the-crime-if-you-can't-do-the-time" mentality. 

Whilst Yin does note that terrorist strikes and vandalism are not exactly analogous, I would suggest that this is a case of apples and oranges.  But that doesn't mean that Yin's counter argument here is invalid.  Indeed, it's a very thought-provoking one, and one does wonder what would happen in a similar situation, ie: where Americans were accused of terrorism.

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Reader Comments (2)

It is a poor analogy, but Tung Yin is correct on the larger point regarding the reaction to Americans being tortured, especially by the White House of the day and the State Department.

U.S. POWs were tortured by the Japanese as well as ( less systematically) the Nazis, the North Koreans and Red Chinese and the North Vietnamese. Senator John McCain was lavishly tortured by his Communist captors to the point where he made several attempts at suicide. CIA agent William Buckley and a US Marine Colonel whose name escapes me who was in service with the UN were tortured to death in Lebanon by Hezbollah and agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. DEA agents have been tortured to death in Mexico by drug traffickers. Downed pilots flying over Serbia in 1999 were roughed up by Milosevic's goons.

The reaction of the administrations of the time, Left or Right, Republican or Democrat, was to try and cover up the torture, or if that was not possible, move on as quickly as possible. No political capital was ever spent trying to exact some vengeance or at least counterpressure on the perpetrators.

The Bush administration inflicted severe moral damage on the credibility of the United States with "harsh interrogation" ( some of which is not torture, some of which clearly is) and still worse, Abu Ghraib. Perhaps we'll learn someday that they prevented a VX poison gas attack in New York or interceptd a tactical nuclear weapon en route to Osama bin Laden, with the information gleaned but otherwise, they'd have been far better off with a straightforward court-martial trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, followed by a hanging.

Apr 25, 2009 at 4:16 | Unregistered Commenterzenpundit

True, but you're also talking about the American government's response to torture, which is to cover it up. Yin, I think, was more interested in what the response of the American people might be to news of the torture of American citizens. There are good reasons why the government has sought to keep a lid on the news of the torture of Americans abroad, but one does still wonder what the American people would think in such a situation.

Apr 25, 2009 at 12:04 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Matthew Barlow

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