Should we be capturing more terrorists?

On a practical level, Mark Thiessen’s case for capturing and torturing suspected terrorists in place of bombing them is pretty unpersuasive, mainly because he doesn’t have any proof that we lose a chance to interrogate Al Qaeda operatives every time they’re assassinated. Maybe Thiessen has some evidence to the contrary and the military really is sitting on a terrorist-capturing contingency plan, but absent an explanation of how we’d go about detaining terrorists in rural Yemen or Pakistan’s tribal provinces, I think it’s a safe bet that we use drone strikes because the alternatives are totally impractical. As I understand it, one of the benefits of drones is that they’re not as intrusive as a larger US military presence, which makes their use less offensive to the host country’s sensibilities than other military options (emphasis mine):

By early 2008, the Bush administration had tired of the Pakistani government’s unwillingness or inability to take out the militants in the FATA, and in July the president authorized Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults in the tribal regions without the prior permission of the Pakistani government. On September 3, 2008, a team of Navy SEALs based in Afghanistan crossed the Pakistani border into South Waziristan to attack a compound housing militants. Twenty of the occupants were killed, most of them women and children. The Pakistani press picked up on the attack, and the assault sparked vehement objections from Pakistani officials, who protested that it violated their national sovereignty. Army chief of staff Afshaq Parvez Kayani bluntly said that Pakistan’s “territorial integrity … will be defended at all costs,” suggesting that any future insertion of American soldiers into Pakistan would be met by force.

In the face of the intense Pakistani opposition to American boots on the ground, the Bush administration chose to rely on drones to target suspected militants.

Thiessen also suggests that the Obama Administration is deliberately avoiding efforts to capture terrorists because high-level interrogations would force “hard decisions” about what’s “needed to protect the United States.” By “hard decisions,” Thiessen is presumably referring to the use of torture, a cause he’s championed tirelessly in recent months. This is a clever insinuation, but it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration opposes torture not only on moral grounds, but also because it’s not particularly effective. If we take the Administration at its word that conventional interrogation techniques work better than torture, there’s no real political incentive for Obama to deliberately avoid capturing terrorists.

Despite his enthusiasm for mistreating prisoners, Thiessen does raise one important point. Namely, the moral contradiction between opposing torture and endorsing targeted airstrikes:

The president has claimed the moral high ground in eliminating the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, saying that he rejects the “the false choice between our security and our ideals.” Yet when Obama orders a Predator or Reaper strike, he is often signing the death warrant for the women and children who will be killed alongside the target — individuals whose only sin is that they are married to, or the children of, a terrorist. Is this not a choice between security and ideals? And why is it a morally superior choice? Is it really more in keeping with American ideals to kill a terrorist and the innocent people around him, when the United States might instead spare the innocent, capture the same terrorist alive, and get intelligence from him that could potentially save many other innocent lives as well?

My intuition is that airstrikes are appropriate if the military takes all reasonable precautions to avoid civilian casualties. My thoughts on this issue are pretty unformed, however, so I thought I’d throw these questions at the commentariat: Why does the status of terrorists change so dramatically after they’ve been captured? Is it because we can afford to treat enemies better once they’re detained and rendered harmless? Or does being held in captivity fundamentally change a detainee’s moral status?

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6 thoughts on “Should we be capturing more terrorists?

  1. Or does being held in captivity fundamentally change a detainee’s moral status?
    When the enemy is on the battlefield, he has choices: He can hide better, fight harder, walk away, switch sides… In wartime, it’s no sin to kill a man actively trying to kill you.
    But when the enemy is in our hands, he is powerless and no longer a threat. There is no point to torture beyond torture – the declaration that we will crush men’s souls simply because we can.

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    • I’d agree with this point. To my mind, it’s a bit like the different status of a bank robber while he’s committing the crime and when he’s in jail. In the field, you can use force, if necessary, that you can’t use once he’s been apprehended. In war, that force can be killing force, but I think that prisoners of war are considered to be powerless in a way they aren’t when on the battlefield. Admittedly, it’s a bit unclear, but I think what Thiessen is trying to do here is suggest that any attempts to set ethical standards during wartime are misguidedly naive. This has been the general argument since the beginning. I’m not fond of it because I’d rather not arrogate these powers to the state, especially given the open-ended nature of this particular conflict.

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  2. Is this a test? GS noted the issue. In custody we have control so we have a responsibility to care for the people to take proper care. In a combat situation we don’t’ have control so we have different responsibilities and the other side has the ability to fight back. The moral status and our obligations completely changes when we are discussing prisoners or combatants.

    If anything it should be the use of drone strikes outside of direct combat that should be questioned. It is dubious at best to be killing people who are not engaged in combat operations against you based solely on usually sketchy intelligence.

    That said Theissen is just trying to find any avenue to attack the prez. Come on , we are killing to many bad guys??? WTF?

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  3. Good post, Will. Thiessen’s failure to explain how the Obama Administration’s interrogation policies prevent us from caputring terrorists in the first place is simply bizarre, which is unfortunate because his other points regarding the problems with drone strikes are actually interesting and even correct.

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  4. “Why does the status of terrorists change so dramatically after they’ve been captured?”

    It changes b/c the US signed the Geneva Conventions and associated protocols.

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