Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Would Saul Alinsky Do?

As President Obama tries to decide what, if anything, should happen to the former officials in the Bush administration for allowing waterboarding to take place, I’m sure he’s getting advice from all kinds of people. There is one person, however, that Obama seems to be ignorning on this issue, even though he’s been a big influence on the president when it comes to domestic policy. Perhaps it’s time that President Obama ponder the question, “What would Saul Alinsky do?”

I’m sure most liberals would automatically assume that Alinsky would never condone an activity like waterboarding. They would be wrong. In his 1971 manifesto Rules for Radicals, Alinsky made it perfectly clear that, unlike the president, he wouldn’t say that waterboarding “violates our ideals and our values”.

Alinsky wrote, “The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s ‘conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action’; one does not always enjoy the luxury of a decision that is consistent both with one’s individual conscience and the good of mankind. The choice must always be for the latter. Action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation. He who sacrifices the mass good for his personal conscience has a peculiar conception of ‘personal salvation’; he doesn’t care enough for people to be ‘corrupted’ for them.”

What American value is violated by allowing interrogators to use coercive techniques on interrogation subjects? The sanctity of life? The inherent dignity of all mankind? Alinsky would find it preposterous that we would think that risking the lives of innocent civilians is worth it, as long as the dignity of our enemies is left intact.

Alinsky was (rather oxymoronically) an absolutist when it came to pragmatism. Throughout Rules for Radicals he exhorts his followers to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. When you view the world through clear lenses, you see that we have an enemy that is devoted to killing as many American civilians as possible. Our enemy has declared war on us, and the fact that we no longer say we’re engaged in a War on Terror doesn’t change that. Alinsky’s third rule of the ethics of ends and means is this: in war, the end justifies almost any means. In fact, Alinsky wrote, “Agreements on the Geneva rules on treatment of prisoners or use of nuclear weapons are observed only because the enemy or his potential allies might retaliate.”

If that’s true, then we should be under no practical or pragmatic obligation to refrain from coercive interrogation techniques. After all, we’ve seen that our enemy doesn’t operate under the rules of the Geneva Convention. Alinsky points to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, “believing that the civil courts were powerless to cope with the insurrectionist activities of civilians. ‘Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert…’”

Under Alinsky’s view of the ethics of means and ends, coercive techniques like waterboarding are hardly controversial. After all, no one dies. No one is physically harmed. In fact, considering the brutality of our enemies, one can imagine a National Security Advisor Alinsky encouraging the President to “do whatever it takes” to ensure the survival of as many Americans as possible, even if that meant a suspected terrorist had to feel like he was drowning.

There is one caveat to this argument, and it is this; Alinsky made it clear that (in his mind), the world is divided up between the “Haves”, the “Have Nots”, and the “Have A Little/Want Mores”. It’s been quite some time since Barack Obama lived in the world of the “Have Nots”, so maybe he feels that Alinsky’s rules no longer apply. I’m not convinced. This is, after all, an administration that seems to apply Alinsky’s ethics of means and ends on an almost daily basis. Need new pictures of Air Force One in action? Who cares if it terrorizes thousands of New Yorkers, let’s go buzz the Statue of Liberty! Have a failing car company? Force executives to leave and hand over control to the auto union! If Alinsky’s ethics of means and ends has found a home in our domestic policy, but is being ignored when it comes to foreign policy, the only explanation for this contradiction that I can see is that forgoing the use of coercive techniques (and putting them forever off limits by calling them torture) is, in Obama’s mind, a worthy means to an end. That leaves me with one question: Just what is the end President Obama is seeking?

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