"Everything Within His Power..."

Before I disagree with Damon Linker again, let me say how much I’ve enjoyed his blogging lately. Were I given a magazine to run and a stable of bloggers to fill I’d try to steal him from The New Republic immediately. Indeed I find myself scarcely able to let one of his posts pass without comment.

So here we go again. Damon writes:

Imagine, for example, that the slaughter of 9/11 had been followed not by an absence of terrorist strikes but by a string of spectacular attacks with conventional explosives. Imagine a dozen suicide bombers blowing themselves up in the food courts of the nation’s 12 largest malls at precisely 1:30 pm, eastern time on a Saturday in mid-October 2001. Several hundred would have died, and the economy would have been dealt an enormous blow as Americans decide en masse to stay away from public places. Then imagine a half-dozen bombers blowing themselves up in coordinated attacks at Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, Washington’s Union Station, Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and a handful of other major train stations at the same moment during evening rush hour on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, 2001.

I submit that any president — George W. Bush, Barack Obama, anyone — who under these circumstances (let alone one involving attacks with weapons of mass destruction) did not do everything within his power to determine the location and timing of future attacks, including (if there was reason to believe it would be effective) torturing captured members of active terrorist cells, would be acting irresponsibly and immorally, even if his refusal to torture was based on the noblest liberal principles.

Wow. Does Damon realize what he is saying? That a moral president must do everything within his power to determine the location and timing of future attacks? I’m going to arbitrarily organize my thoughts such that there are three things wrong with that standard.

1) It is a moral abomination, because it justifies literally any approach that might be effective. Imagine that the president threatens the terrorists, assuring them that various horrific things will happen unless they surrender. Would it be permissible for the president to threaten burning their infant daughters alive? Exploding an atom bomb in Mecca at the height of a pilgrimage? Releasing a genetically engineered pathogen that kills all Arabs?

I very much doubt that Damon Linker is willing to go along with any of those tactics, no matter how effective, let alone to hold them up as moral imperatives in certain situations. So I cannot believe he really thinks that a president is morally obligated to do everything in his power to stop a terrorist attack — he merely thinks that a president is morally obligated to torture. Obviously I’ll concede that torture is much less abhorrent than the tactics I mentioned. But the reasoning that Damon uses is insufficient to justify torture while stopping short of more horrific hypothetical tactics.

2) It is a strategic disaster. Consider that there are actions within the president’s power that might stop the next terrorist attack, but whose long term effect is to put the country in greater danger. Image, for example, that the president finds out a safe house in Pakistan contains a computer on whose hard drive the location of an upcoming attack is stored. But the location is guarded by Taliban sympathizing soldiers, and overthrowing them would require a serious firefight that the Pakistani government has forbade, because of its likely effect of destabilizing the country and endangering the regime. The president, employing Damon’s “if I can prevent another attack I have a moral imperative to do it” standard, sends in the special forces, who kill several hundred fighters, as many innocent civilians, and get the information, stopping an attack that would’ve killed thousands. But the indirect effect is to outrage the Pakistani street, leading to the overthrow of the government, the rise of a radical Islamic regime, and their subterfuges passing of a nuclear weapon to a terrorist, which manages to detonate it six years later in Manhattan. Doing “anything in your power” to stop any single terrorist attack, consequences be damned, might lead one to suffer a far worse fate in the future.

3) It might create an incentive for certain kinds of terrorist attacks. Were I an Al Qaeda strategist, and I knew that a certain kind of choreographed terrorist onslaught would cause the United States to suspend habeus corpus, round up Muslim Americans, and torture a number of innocent citizens, all in the name of stopping the next attack, I’d try to engineer things just that way — even if my attack was thwarted, I’d have done far more damage to the United States than blowing up a few more hundred people.