On the morality of waterboarding

Last week, the Internet briefly lit up with the claim that President Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, Gina Haspel, repeatedly dodged and evaded when asked to opine about the morality of waterboarding and other forms of “enhanced interrogation.” California senator Kamala Harris was particularly tenacious in trying to tie Haspel to a yes or no answer to the question of whether “previous techniques” were immoral.

It’s not a question susceptible to a yes or no response. The true answer is highly dependent on the technique at issue and the circumstances of its use.

Morality in war is a complex and shifting thing. Let’s take, for example, two of the most famous and most successful operations in American military history — Sherman’s March to the Sea and Truman’s atomic-bomb strikes on Japan. Both of them involved deliberate, mass-scale targeting of civilian assets. The atomic bombings also included the deliberate mass killing of innocent men, women, and children. In ordinary times and in more “ordinary” wars, the morality of both actions is clear and unequivocal. They’re wrong. Indeed, in ordinary times and in ordinary wars, they’re more than just wrong — they’re unlawful.