Thursday, June 12, 2003

Ends and Means

When I hear people criticize politicians for letting the ends justify the means, I find myself wondering what else is supposed to justify the means. In my experience, the graver errors and crimes of leaders stem from an infatuation with the means themselves for which the purported end of the action simply provides an excuse or occasion. The use of torture to extract information, for example, is commonly defended by an appeal to necessity, as in the current war on terror during which we have promoted the use of torture by our allies when we haven’t practiced it ourselves under various euphemisms. Historical experience suggests, however, that torture is not a very useful technique for gathering information precisely because it is all too effective at eliciting the desired answer. Thus if what you need to do is convince yourselves of the rightness of some crazy theory, for example that old women are powerful agents of the devil or that a wrecked Middle Eastern country is a deadly immediate threat, torture works. More generally, torture makes sense, at least to its devotees, as a way of asserting power through the moral annihilation of a hated enemy. Forcing the bad guy to disclose where he planted the bomb, a very rare occurrence, is treated as the paradigm case for apologetic purposes; but, for the most part, the powerful electrocute a captive’s balls for the same reason a dog licks his—because he can.

Terrible things must sometimes be done by decent people, though even in the most defensible instances, the good can only do what they must my waking their own dark impulses. Thus in the inevitable example—though the case of Roosevelt is probably more illuminating—Churchill waged pitiless war on Hitler because it was the necessary thing to do, but he was able to act ruthlessly, as he himself understood perfectly, because he loved war and destruction for itself. Hitler was a godsend to Churchill, just as the tragedy of the Civil War was a gift to Lincoln, something Lincoln also acknowledged. But in these cases the ends really did justify the means. The great objection to America’s behavior in the world over the last couple of years is not that we have used violent and coercive means, but that we have used them despite the absence of a great national emergency and with a vehemence all out of proportion to any real threat. Bin Laden and Saddam are just excuses for the arrogant and highly pleasurable exercise of sheer power. And the proof of this will be that when these hyped and misidentified villains are gone, there will be others.

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