Relative Valuations

Over at the Belmont Club, Wretchard had an excellent post the other day responding to a news column about the complexities of interrogating Iraqi insurgent prisoners under the current guidelines. It sharply contrasted the views of two U.S. officers; one believed that since the rules were costing him valuable intelligence, leading to deaths that could have been prevented, the rules needed to be changed or at least worked around. The second believed that the rules were of paramount importance, since they provide "clear lines that the American Army must not cross. The rules ensure that the Americans stay within bounds."

Wretchard comments:
Readers of "Cracking an Insurgent Cell" will find support for whichever of two contradictory theses they prefer. It can be offered as an example that insurgent cells can be cracked without "torture" -- at least not the nail-pulling kind, though lawyers may have something to say about threatening detainees with transfer out of American custody -- or an example of how killers were captured despite the rules. It doesn't end the debate, just unambiguously highlights that lives are stake on both sides of the argument. The broken insurgent cell had been engaged in killing Iraqis and planting IEDs. Letting them escape meant that someone was actually going to die. On the other side is Triscari's argument: the imperative of keeping the physically unstoppable US military, an organization so powerful that it is constrained only by its own command and control systems [emphasis added—ed.], within bounds.
A similar dynamic is at work in the debate (if one can call it that) over NSA phone intercepts. Whether or not the program was illegal under current law—and it is extremely unlikely that it was—it is clearly the sort of thing carried out by all American governments in wartime, albiet made more capable by new technology. The military value of this program is unquestioned.

But those who oppose the program are starting from the axiomatic assumption that America can withstand any terror attack, and that it is therefore much more important to keep American power under control. One or two terror attacks are acceptable in the long run; but a government that is allowed to slip into totalitarianism is not, and would do far more harm in the end. Therefore, to illegally expose a classified operation that was indisputably saving American lives is ultimately justified.

(I am neglecting those who oppose the NSA program out of knee-jerk hatred of President Bush and all of his works. Such people do not bother to consider their actions in the wider context, because they do not care about the wider context. A principled exposure of government operations, while illegal, might be given a degree of respect; but to expose such operations out of political envy is pure treason in every sense. Yes, treason.)

But such logic, however valid in its context, only works by devaluing the lives of the people you doom through your intervention. As Belmont Club commenter Aristides notes:
There is an implicit concession here, I think. Since this policy [of not torturing prisoners, and releasing most suspects after three days for lack of corroborating evidence] was imposed consciously, the assumption is that the cost of such a policy—released detainees and more violence—is outweighed by its benefits.

Interestingly, its benefits are purely abstract.

It is now policy to value information over real, live human beings. Instead of a moral worry over torture, instead of a Kantian imperative to treat men as ends and not means, our dilemma stems from the information that torturing another human being generates. Proponents focus on the first order data that comes from the detainee's mouth. Opponents focus on the second order data, the product of the first order data mixing with our preconceptions and biases—in other words, our reactions. These reactions, these ideas, are themselves causally active. Our reactions change the world.

And this is where I think it gets interesting. The US has conceded that second order reactions have more value than the facts on the ground. We have conceded that, in this age of information, propaganda is more valuable than life.

In war, things have value only in the context of victory.

The most important battle, it seems, is being waged in our minds. It is worth remembering actively, lest we forget it altogether.
Good men and women, both American soldiers and Iraqis (and perhaps, in the future, American civilians as well), are being allowed to die to placate the demands of those who give more value to theoretical dangers than concrete dangers. Has that decision been made too quickly?

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