It is not uncommon to see image macros online (particularly amongst mainstream conservative circles) that display a picture of a wounded solider with the caption, “This is why I don’t care how we interrogate terrorists.” If one buys the often touted conservative claim of “Western morality is the best system of values to follow,” however, then we as a society ought to eschew the practice of torturing suspected terrorists. As a society, we ought to refrain from torture as a method of information gathering, not because the methods used are ineffective, but rather because claims to the superiority of Western morality rest upon a meta-moral high ground that must be maintained.
It is well documented that the terrorists against whom the United States is fighting – namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – utilize brutal methods of punishment such as sexual assault, the severing of limbs for minor crimes, and the infamous beheadings of individuals for major crimes. Not only do our enemies utilize brutal methods of law enforcement, but the moral code of extremists mandates this brutality. While it obviously isn’t fair to equate techniques used for extracting information such as waterboarding to mutilating people, the basic moral premise behind both the acts of waterboarding, or “enhanced interrogation,” and mutilation remain the same; namely, the premise is that corporeal harm on some scale can be used as a justifiable way to achieve some end. In the case of the United States, the end is information; in the case of the Islamic State, the end is public punishment. In other words, regardless of the differences in magnitude, the basic premise of cruel and unusual punishment as being morally justifiable in order to attain some end remains the same in both cases.
Although semi-rhetorical, an important question that must be entertained is thus: can we claim any moral superiority above a group of people by condemning their actions when we engage in similar behavior which we justify using identical philosophical arguments? The purpose of this article is to show that we cannot, in fact, claim moral superiority by stooping to the level of evil – even if only to fight evil – and that the only consistent course of action for a nation seeking to restore its conservative roots to take is to rethink corporeal abuse in relation to the attainment of some end.
It is generally accepted, and even written into the Bill of Rights, that cruel and unusual punishment is a bad thing. Despite ever-so-radical utilitarian thought experiments that claim cruel punishment might be justified if it leads to a net-good outcome, most people are averse to, say, branding a child as a method to learn where he hid his father’s keys. Likewise, most people are averse to the methods of interrogation utilized by the CIA that were uncovered post-Wikileaks. Public opinion, however, is of no importance when it comes to morally justifying an action; the question is a larger, systemic modeling claim.
If we as Americans wish to claim moral superiority, especially over Middle Eastern and other forms of morality, we must not resort to fighting evil with evil, but rather we should become the beacon of moral goodness that we claim to be. This means that, despite the heinous actions of our enemies, we must not succumb to the desire for vengeance to be exacted upon those we capture; to do so would only compromise our moral fortitude. Instead, we must eschew, like our Founding Fathers did, backwards notions of cruel and unusual punishment in favor of modeling good statesmanship and a solid, meta-moral high ground that we will follow meticulously.