"Grapple not with monsters lest you become one."
It's often hard to know how to defeat evil but becoming as evil and vile as our adversaries is definitely not the way to go.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump doesn't see it that way. Along with promising to make America great again, he promises that "I would bring back water-boarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than water-boarding," presumably meaning torture (or "harsh interrogation" as the torture-apologists still insist on calling torture when the US does it). And doing this is totally justified because "in the Middle East we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people" and saying "how weak, how pathetic Americans are."
The argument that we have to be as ruthless as our adversaries to survive isn't as original with Trump (or Cruz or Rubio, who've embraced versions of it). I've been hearing it for years: the only way to stop the bad guys is to be as bad as they are. We can’t worry about rules of war or the Bill of Rights when we're fighting an existential threat. The gloves have to come off.
It's a bad argument for multiple reasons, starting with the fact it isn't true. Consider WW II: we beat the Nazis and we never sank to their level. We didn't elect a fascist government to fight them, we didn't send German-Americans to death camps, but we still beat the Axis. We did commit one massive violation of our principles, interning Japanese-Americans in prison camps, but that didn't actually help us win the war (the vast network of Japanese-American traitors internment was supposed to break up didn't exist). We violated our principles for nothing.
As for the argument that our enemies will think we're weak if we don't torture them, that's been around since 9/11 and probably before. It's really amazing anyone can say that with a straight face when we've spent the 21st century showing how well we can play hardball. We invaded Iraq based on trumped-up evidence, and pushed to stay there even after the country wanted us gone. We invaded Afghanistan, pushed a regime change in Libya, and use drone strikes to target funerals and senior citizens. We locked up countless innocent people in Gitmo and used torture in Abu Ghraib. If ISIS or anyone else attacks us, it's unlikely because they think we're too nice to fight back.
Donald John Trump, Sr., born June 14, 1946, is an American business magnate, investor, television personality, author, and 2016 US Presidential candidate. | Photo: Gage Skidmore | Donald Trump, Investor, Presidential Candidate, Money, Real Estate, Hair, Personality, Wealth,
But Trump's argument isn't about geopolitical strategy, it's about appealing to our ugly side, something he does well. The side of us that wants to lash out and punish people, not in the sense of justice — do the crime, do the time — but in the vicious sense that celebrates lynching and relishes prison rape (maybe that dirtbag only got five years, but at least he'll get raped a lot!). That nods in agreement when pundit Jonah Goldberg says it was good to invade Iraq because "the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."
Trump's argument is that it's okay to enjoy being the bully or the torturer because we're bullying and torturing scum. They'd do it to us if they could, why shouldn't we do it to them? It’s the same reasoning by which I've seen some anti-Muslim bigots argue we should ban mosques because some Islamic countries repress Christians: why be better than they are?
The desire for revenge, the desire to see our enemies suffer isn't unique to 21st century America. It appears to go back as long as we've had recorded history. It's one of the reasons we have things like rules of war, the Geneva Convention and the Bill of Rights. Not because the people who drew them up were soft and wimpy, but because they were realists who saw the necessity of leashing human ruthlessness. And because they realized the morality of America's actions is determined by our own standards and principles, not the standards of our enemies. When other countries oppress religious believers, our mission is to stick to our principles and show religious freedom is the way to go. Not to lower the bar and be no better than anyone else.
Trump flies in the face of that. It's depressing to see him flying so high.