Sunday, January 29, 2006

Fine points of hostage-taking

As Google is being beseiged by a swelling tide of righteous indignation about kowtowing to the Chinese authorities (It is, after all, the Lunar New Year and the word kowtow is deliciously Chinese in origin) I carelessly tripped over this mote in someone's eye. Can't say who exactly.

Take a look at this...

An interesting story via Laura Rozen, Andrew Sullivan, and Cunning Realist. According to reports, a series of emails and an internal Army memo suggests that US soldiers have used insurgents' wives as leverage in order to get the suspects to surrender. So far, there has been no confirmation that the detentions actually led to the surrender of the insurgents targeted. There is no mention of explicit threats of violence against the wives which were detained, but sometimes silence speaks volumes.
There is no evidence that they have either tortured or threatened to torture the women they have detained. However, sometimes it is possible to rely upon the beliefs of an opponent to do the work for you. The insurgency is mostly homegrown, a collection of former Baathists and disaffected Sunnis. These actors know full well the kind of tactics used by the former regime to extract confessions, information, etc. It is the world they are accustomed to. Additionally, even if these actors believed US soldiers incapable of these acts prior to the war revelations (complete with pictures) of abuse at Abu Ghraib no doubtedly changed the perception of what the US might be capable of. [The Abu Graib scandal works to our advantage. Right?]

With this information constituting the frame through which the insurgents interpret US actions I would not be surprised if we never actually threatened to do anything to these women, and that includes the threat of violence. The threat is left vague for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its illegality under Geneva. By leaving it sufficiently vague you use the adversaries own beliefs of what they think is possible and probable to do the work for you. What you sacrifice in clarity you make up for with plausible deniability and, potentially, the wild imagination of an actor who may think you capable of actions worse than even you are willing to contemplate.

The writer is not making any judgements about the practice but I am. My judgement is that if Google is expected to stand up to the Chinese authorities by not submitting to censorship, then practicing blackmail is equally immoral. If anything, a censored victim is less tarnished than someone retaliating against evil by perpetrating another evil.
Am I wrong, or have I not read a lot of condemnations of moral relativity from sources that are forever reviling "the Left" (whoever that might be) for that very sin?
One comment in the Google controversy thread asked the question: Does the end justify the means?

The rhetorical answer is an implied "no" but when circumstances are not so clear-cut, that answer is not easy to live with.
A "yes" in this case points to a very slippery slope, down which we are already travelling.

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