Former Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech today in reply to President Obama‘s speech. It was, to say the least, an interesting event. Cheney’s speech was carefully crafted, well delivered, and an impressive bit of work. I’ll focus my discussion on two main points.
Cheney makes no bones about his support for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. His defense in the speech consists of three main points. First, these techniques were only used on the very worst people. Second, these techniques were not used that often. Third, these techniques yielded effective information.
In regards to the first point, Cheney does make reasonable point. Ethically, how we can treat people does depend on their own moral status. For example, punishing an innocent person would be wrong becasuse he is innocent. However, punishing a person who has committed crimes would be acceptable-they have earned their punishment.
However, there are clear ethical limits on how even bad people can be treated. While their evil justifies acting against them, these actions must themselves be just. Cheney’s view is that what was done to these people was acceptable. However, some regard the methods employed to go beyond reasonable moral limits. My inclination is that the line was crossed-after all, we are not supposed to engage in cruel or unusual punishments. The techniques do seem to be cruel and unusual, which crosses that moral line.
In regards to the second point, while more bad deeds are worse than fewer bad deeds, the number of times something is done does not seem like an adequate defense. To use an analogy, a person who murders 500 people has done something worse than someone who murders three people. But we would hardly accept “hey, I only killed three people” as a defense. To be fair to Cheney, his point seemed to be that those who oppose him have exaggerated the extent to which the techniques were used. That is a reasonable point and would, if he is right, require that any exaggerations be corrected. However, even if there are fewer cases than believed, this does not alter the morality of the actions themselves.
The third point is Cheney’s best defense and is a classic utilitarian strategy. His argument is that the methods were justified in those cases because 1) other methods would not work and 2) his approved methods worked and yielded information that saved lives.
The first claim is, of course, an empirical claim. If Cheney can show that all other reasonable methods were attempted and failed, then his claim would be well supported. Naturally, he only has to deal with reasonable methods-not every possible method. Cheney seemed to indicate that these other methods were not used due to the urgency of the situation. If so, then we cannot be confident that the other methods would not have worked. After all, these other methods have been used with great success. To use recent example, the terrorist bomb and missile plot in NYC was dealt with using an informant rather than enhanced interrogation.
The second claim is also an empirical claim. My view is that enhanced interogation techniques (like waterboarding) do not yield reliable information. As has been well established, people under extreme duress will say things simply to stop the duress. I argue for this in my book, so I will not rehash this here. However, perhaps Cheney has evidence that his methods really did work. Unfortunately, as he pointed out, the information about the effectiveness of his methods have not been released (assuming it exists). As such, a proper judgment cannot be made. However, if the methods did work, then they can be justified on utilitarian grounds: doing some harm to terror suspects avoided far greater harm to others, thus making the actions morally acceptable. This, of course, is based on the assumption that Cheney is right and that the way to assess actions is based on their consequences.
Of course, Cheney’s argument can also be countered on utilitarian grounds. Even if the use of his methods saved lives, the other consequences must also be taken into account. These include, as some have argued, the damage to America’s image and providing terrorist groups with a powerful recruiting tool. The damage to America’s image seems to have made other nations less inclined to aid us in our efforts, thus making things easier for the terrorists. Also, the idea that America tortures and abuses people would certainly seem to provide an excellent recruiting tool. True, terrorist groups have been recruiting long before such abuses were revealed, but this does not show that these groups are not using this as a tool. To use an analogy, people sold products prior to the internet but this hardly shows that the internet is not an effective advertising tool.
All of this comes down to a basic question: did the benefits of using these methods outweigh the harms? Cheney claims that they do; his opponents claim they did not. At this point, the evidence seems to be against Cheney. However, important information might still be unavailable.
Now, to second main point I am considering. Cheney claims that the Bush Administrations methods kept America safe. In support of this, he presented dilemma: we can either believe that the Bush Administration kept us safe or believe that the 9/11 attack was a “one off” event. That is, that 9/11 was a one time thing and nothing else would have happened even if no action was taken to defend America.
Cheney is, of course, making a causal claim: the Bush Administration’s actions caused America to be safe. Counter factually: if the Bush Administration had not done what it did, then America would have been attacked again.
Now, it is true that after the Bush Administration started doing things there were no more terrorists attacks on US soil. However, to assume that one caused the other without adequate evidence would be to fall victim to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The mere fact that one thing happened (or did not happen) after another does not prove that there is any causal connection. For example, Windows XP was released in October of 2001. However, it would be silly to conclude that Windows XP kept the nation safe from terrorist attacks.
What is needed is good evidence that what the Bush folks did is causally linked to the lack of attacks. After all, there could be many other factors that resulted in a lack of attacks on US soil. Perhaps the terrorists used up their resources. Perhaps Americans were more on guard against such attacks, regardless of what the Bush folks did. Perhaps the methods that were used prior to 9/11 were adequate to prevent further attacks and the Bush changes really did nothing. In short, Cheney could be presenting a false dilemma.
Another point well worth considering is whether we are actually safer because of the Bush Administration. Clearly, all the people killed in Iraq were not made safer by the Bush folks. Also, the Bush folks were not very big on diplomacy. As such, we saw the “coalition of the willing” become smaller and smaller. We also saw international support and cooperation with the United States decrease. Our actions in Iraq and revelations about abuse and torture also helped spur on anti-American sentiments and actions. While there were no more attacks on US soil, many people have died in Iraq, the Taliban is strong again (and attacking Pakistan) and Iran’s influence has grown considerably. Our military is stretched thin and being worn down. We are also pouring vast amounts of money into a war we should not have fought (Iraq) and one that we should have won by now (Afghanistan). Our economy is still tanking badly.
The objective evidence is that the Bush folks did not make us safer nor better off. So, you are mistaken, Mr. Cheney.