The story so far: David Weinberger said, “I am willing to admit that there are circumstances in which torture is permissible…”.
David stood his ground saying:
“…Frank, are you a pacifist? I used to be until I got tired of defending the position against hypotheticals. I came to believe that there are occasions – rare – when it’s morally ok and even necessary to kill people. I’m still anti-war, anti-capital punishment, etc., and even sometimes identify myself as a pacifist since I don’t believe there’s ANY position that can be held to 100% of the time. And that’s how I feel about torture. Of course I’m against it and would work for a total ban on it. Allowing it is a terrible terrible policy on moral and practical grounds. Nevertheless, I stick with what I said: I can imagine circumstances in which I’d be willing to beat information out of someone.
Why isn’t this completely self-contradictory? Because policies are different than actions. A country that accepts torture as a policy has given up its claim to be moral. But in a world this complex, there are circumstances in which policy has to come second, IMO. Admitting that might help us get past the objections of those who are minimizing the torture of Iraqi soldiers.
Yule Heibel, Norm Jenson, and Mike Golby shared comments that articulated my feelings better than I could have myself. The discussion is at this link, where a link to David’s original brief essay is also located.
But I would like to address the question, “Frank, are you a pacifist.” This is one of those questions that sounds like it should be answerable in a simple binary fashion, but I find it offensive. While from time to time I might be willing to declare myself a pacifist, I think that whenever the question is raised there is a more complex answer required than a simple yes or no. I’ve played my share of team development games where I’m marooned on the moon with a 45 caliber pistol, an air supply good for one person for two days, sufficient water for three people for three days, a flashlight battery, a gel dildo, and three people on the team with the certain knowledge that it will be a day and half before the rescue craft can possibly arrive to scoot us back to safety in the space station.
My response to hypotheticals is and always has been, I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it. But the question regarding “pacifism” is more than a hypothetical, and I need to be able to answer it.
Since March 20, 2003 I have been arrested twice for symbolic and non-violent acts of civil disobedience in protest of the wars that the Bush administration has chosen to enter. The crimes were misdemeanors, and the punishments were modest. The judges were pleased to have us in the court room, and the police were uniformly courteous as they performed their duties. Times have changed since the days when symbolic protest was met with violence, incarceration, and felony convictions in my community. These minor acts of civil disobedience in opposition to the Bush regime are the least I can do to stand up for what I know to be true regarding the administration and its wanton foreign policy. By standing up against the Bush regime in this small way, I earn the right to criticize it.
Fifteen hundred years ago Augustine of Hippo laid out a framework for something called a “just war.” Seven hundred fifty years later Thomas Aquinas refined it a bit. An equal length of time had to pass before international law and the United Nations were contrived. I hope these latter day institutions and other international efforts can help us find our way toward bringing international criminals like bin Laden to justice, and eliminating the destruction and inhumanity of rogue regimes like the Taliban, and controlling the apparently genocidal impulses of warriors like Ariel Sharon in the face of violent pressure from indigenous people.
A year and a half before Bush invaded Iraq there was national debate regarding war on Afghanistan. Many people thought this would be a just war. The Taliban were out of control, commiting crimes against world culture and regardless of whether or not they sheltered bin Laden, they needed to be reined in. When bin Laden committed his greatest crimes, it was apparent that a police action was called for. Is this war? Is my recognition of the need to apply appropriate force against a criminal state in the context of international law a betrayal of some essential renunciation of force that a PACIFIST is supposed to make? I dunno… I do know that the Bush unilateralism made it impossible to bring the full force of international law into play. And I opposed the Bush war on Afghanistan, as I oppose a so called WAR on terrorism and the war on drugs. I’d like to see us civilize ourselves and purge the concept of war from our vocabulary and our consciusness.
As a matter of personal history, I don’t look like a pacifist. I pay my taxes, including those that go to fund the wars I don’t believe in. I have an Honorable Discharge from the US Marine Corps. My father and my brother each served in combat and survived with the same spread of medals on their chests as John Kerry, plus a few that he didn’t earn. Today, if faced with the issue, I would likely seek conscientious objector status. During the Vietnam war, I could not in good conscience say that I qualified as a CO.
When David asks me if I’m a pacifist, I feel compelled to answer. Here is one facet of my sense of the matter. I do not like to constrain myself or others by the use of glib ideological labels: Capitalist, communist, socialist, fascist. If I am a peaceful person, does that make me a pacifist? If I prefer the rule of international law to the cowboy antics of our ruling family, is that pacifism? If communism is the opposite of capitalism, what is the opposite of pacifism? Antagonism? I think I’d generally prefer to behave like a pacifist than an antagonist, but exceptions come to mind.
As a practical matter, I don’t think we’ll do away with war soon. That said, I think we should reinstate the draft and do away with mercenary contracting arrangements and the use of reservists as core field personnel. When we reinstate the draft, I want to help young people look within themselves and determine whether they qualify for conscientious objector status. Can I be both a pacifist and a pragmatist? I think so. Must I be a pacifist to absolutely oppose torture under all circumstances? No.