How norms die: Torture and assassination in American security policy

That’s the title of a paper by Christopher Kutz in Ethics & International Affairs. Kutz argues that that there was a “norm” against torture and assassination in American policy until 9/11. Although these norms were violated from time to time, this was done so surreptitiously, and generally speaking policymakers believed that torture and assassination were off the table as policy options rather than choices that could be subject to moral balancing. (I think he is more likely right about torture than assassination so I will confine myself to torture henceforth.)

Kutz believes that the anti-torture norm is (probably) dead; the best evidence of this is that public opinion polls suggest that most Americans think that torture is now acceptable in limited cases. There is no public pressure to punish the Bush administration torturers. Kutz makes the interesting point that in government the greatest opposition to torture came from the military and FBI where an honor-based ethic prevails. Civilian policymakers overruled or worked around these “professional cadres,” based on a utilitarian approach in a panic atmosphere where the consequences of failing to capture terrorists were thought to be catastrophic.

As I interpret Kutz, the anti-torture norm could prevail as long as there was no major threat to U.S. security. Once this threat materialized, all bets were off. But on this view, the anti-torture norm was not a very strong norm. Torture was just not an issue, it was never thought to be needed, and so anyone who proposed it as a policy would have been regarded as a sadist, and so no one did.

I think Kutz misses another dimension. In the nineteenth century, the Great Powers made a distinction between civilized powers (themselves) and “savages” (the rest of the world). The humanitarian norms that they observed applied only to limited wars among themselves; they were suspended when dealing with tribal groups, which they sought either to wipe our or to subordinate. In the twentieth century, the norms collapsed even among the Great Powers when wars became unlimited.

Thus, as I have argued in various places, what keeps norms in place is a strategy of reciprocity. Great powers fight limited wars with the expectation that peace will return; all sides gain if the war can be kept as a test of strength and a descent into barbarism is avoided. Governments abandon those norms in two cases: (1) when they see themselves as fighting to the death; and (2) when they confront opponents that don’t comply with them themselves. Al Qaeda was a toxic combination of both of these factors.

So another way to see the change in moral psychology that Katz describes is as a recognition that norms thought be universal–at a time (really, only the 1990s) when the United States considered itself fully secure–were in fact restricted to those the United States regarded as “civilized.” (“Terrorist” has become a quasi-synonym for “savage” as that word was used in the nineteenth century: a person who does not follow certain norms that restrict the use of violence.)

Kutz makes another interesting observation; I quote from the abstract:

While democracies surely do better than authoritarian regimes in adopting and internalizing certain kinds of constraints, in part because of a greater sensitivity to public mobilization around normative questions, that same sensitivity makes the long-term survival of these norms precarious. But in a democracy the values and arguments of those cadres [the military, etc.] are susceptible to being undermined by a combination of public panic and the invocation by policymakers of a public interest that can override the claims both of law and pragmatic restraint. Democracy, hence, can be at the same time both fertile and toxic: fertile as a source of humanitarian values and institutions, but toxic to the very institutions it cultivates.

I don’t think this is right. Authoritarian regimes routinely use torture against domestic political opponents; democracies hardly ever do. What the two regimes share is that they place little weight on the interests of people who live beyond their borders.