Sometimes people who are new to libertarianism think that libertarianism is just a subset of conservatism. Nothing could be further from the truth. While there are some overlaps on economic issues, libertarianism is a philosophy that stands squarely against conservatism and, for that matter, liberalism or, as it is commonly known, progressivism.
The current national debate on torture provides a good dividing line between libertarians and conservatives. Conservatives love the fact that the U.S. government has a program of “enhanced interrogation.” They want to see more of it.
Libertarians hold that the U.S. government’s torture program is one of the most shameful and despicable federal programs in U.S. history.
Consider these two articles by two prominent conservatives, which pretty much express the views of the conservative movement: “I Am Not Sorry the CIA Waterboarded” by Bret Stephens and “Tortured Reasoning” by Thomas Sowell, both of whom are conservatives. If you would like to understand how conservatives view the torture scandal, these two articles will provide it for you. If you need an even deeper perspective, just watch former Vice President Dick Cheney on television.
Stephens’ position is simply that U.S. officials didn’t really torture anyone at all. For him, everything that was done to prisoners was nothing more than an “enhanced interrogation technique,” including the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. I suppose that includes “rehydration” although for some reason Stephens doesn’t bring up that particular “enhanced interrogation technique.” He says that KSM actually waterboarded himself given that he should have been more cooperative with his captors. Stephens is not sorry that KSM remains alive nearly 12 years after his capture but doesn’t say whether he should be provided a trial before he’s killed.
Stephens is also not sorry that President Obama has ordered drone strikes that have killed thousands of people in Pakistan, Yemen, and other places. He says that just that’s the way “war” is, including “war” against suspected terrorists.
Interestingly, Stephens expresses regret over the fact that the CIA killed at least two men during interrogation. He says those two killings were accidental, an unfortunate byproduct of enhanced interrogation techniques that apparently didn’t constitute torture.
Even more interesting, Stephens acknowledges that it’s wrong when the U.S. government turns its captives over to its dictatorial allies, such as Egypt, so that they’ll do the torturing, thereby relieving U.S. officials of that responsibility.
In my option, these two regrets by Stephens show that there is some hope for conservatives yet. With these two regrets, Stephens seems to acknowledge that torture is, in fact, morally wrong, even if he can’t bring himself to see that U.S. officials have engaged in it.
Sowell brings up the old ticking time bomb scenario, arguing that torture can save people’s lives. CIA officials, he suggests, were behaving as patriots after 9/11 when they were doing whatever was necessary to save our lives.
There are some fundamental problems, however, with conservative reasoning.
One, torture is against the law. That should mean something to conservatives, given that they are the ones who favor societies that are characterized by “law and order.” In fact, that’s one of the big reasons that conservatives favor pro-U.S. dictators—not only because they are pro-U.S. but especially because they’re good at imposing law and order in society. Examples include the brutal current military dictator in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Chile’s military dictator during the 1970s and 1980s, Augusto Pinochet. Both of them are conservative darlings.
In fact, it’s interesting that both of these conservative darlings are widely known as among the greatest torturers in history. Indeed, Egypt’s military dictatorship has been built up and fortified for decades by U.S. foreign aid. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Egypt was chosen by U.S. officials as an official rendition-torture partner as part of its “war on terrorism.” It also shouldn’t surprise anyone that U.S. foreign aid continues to flow into this dictatorial regime.
I wonder how Stephens and Sowell feel about the U.S. government’s supporting brutal foreign torturers with U.S. taxpayer money? Doesn’t such support say something about how U.S. officials really feel about torture?
In 2013, the Wall Street Journal, where Bret Stephens serves as a columnist, wrote the following in an unsigned editorial:
Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took over power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy.
Unfortunately, the Journal didn’t mention that Pinochet’s midwifery included some of the most brutal and bizarre acts of torture and rape in history, not to mention the murder or disappearance of some 3,000 people. What was the “crime” that merited such treatment, without trial I might add? Every one of the victims presumably believed in socialism, a “crime” that ironically conservatives themselves are guilty of, as reflected by their commitment to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, foreign aid to dictators, and other socialistic programs.
Do I need to mention that it was the CIA that installed Pinochet into power in a military coup that destroyed 150 years of democratic tradition in Chile and then embraced and supported him with millions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money, even while Pinochet, in partnership with the CIA, was going around the world assassinating people, including Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt on the streets of Washington, D.C.?
But hey, as conservative Stephens points out, war is hell, an assessment that Pinochet’s assassination victims would undoubtedly also agree with. Just ask Letelier’s children, or the children of Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, who were also assassinated. No, not in Yemen or Pakistan but in Argentina. Or the wife of Charles Horman and the sister of Frank Teruggi, whose husband and brother were executed in Chile as part of Pinochet’s “war” on communism and terrorism.
Never mind that a State Department secret investigation, which was covered up for 25 years, determined that U.S. intelligence may have played a role in Horman’s and Teruggi’s murders. Maybe their killings were accidental too. And who are we to question those brave CIA patriots who were saving America from communism and terrorism in Chile?
What about innocent people who are tortured? Unfortunately, Stephens and Sowell don’t spend much time dealing with that problem. They seem to assume that every person that those U.S. patriots take into custody has important information to divulge. Stephens says that 183 waterboards on KSM was okay because, Stephens say, he started to cooperate on Number 183.
But what about a real innocent person, someone who is wrongfully accused, such as Mahar Arar, the Canadian citizen who the CIA renditioned to Syria (yes, Syria!—Assad was a U.S. government torture partner back then), where he was brutally tortured, or should I say subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.
An innocent person has no information to divulge. At Waterboard Number 183, he’s going to continue to say that. So, doesn’t that mean Number 184, 185, 268, 350, 500? When does it finally stop? With an “accidental” death.
One can imagine that the torture of an innocent person in a ticking-time bomb scenario might have to become extremely brutal given the short amount of time involved. Moreover, even if a person does have information about the ticking time bomb, how do officials know that the location of the ticking time bomb that the torture victim provides is correct? Wouldn’t it take some time to verify whether the information extracted by torture is correct? Won’t the bomb go off by the time they finally get the right information via torture?
But let’s face it: at the root of all this horror is the U.S. government’s imperialist foreign policy, which conservatives have long supported in the name of “national defence.” The 9/11 attacks, as well as the terrorist attacks that came before them—eg, the 1993 attack on the WTC, the USS Cole, the U.S. Embassies in East Africa—came not because foreigners hate us for our “freedom and values,” as conservatives continue to maintain. Those terrorist attacks happened because of what the U.S. government has long been doing to people in the Middle East, including, but certainly not limited to, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine’s Albright’s infamous observation that the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children from the brutal U.S. sanctions on Iraq were “worth it.”
Since the terrorist blowback from U.S. foreign policy has been used as the justification for torture, mass surveillance, indefinite incarceration, and other extraordinary totalitarian-like powers, isn’t the solution obvious: Pull the weed out by its root by dismantling America’s warfare state and its imperialist foreign policy, thereby restoring the limited-government republic that the Framers bequeathed to us?
For everyone who wants to keep America mired in the morass of torture, imperialism, the national-security state, and the warfare state, stick with the conservatives. They love the muck and they will continue to defend the muck.
For everyone who wants to see America lead the world to peace, prosperity, harmony, morality, and freedom, join up with us libertarians. We provide the antidote to the statism that both conservatives and progressives have brought our nation.