A friend of mine asked the following question of me:
“Quite often in 24 (and in real life) a known terrorist is offered full “immunity” in exchange for information leading to the apprehension of other criminals or the prevention of criminal acts. What is an Objectivist’s view on this, in legal and moral terms?”
I can’t promise that my answer is truly “Objectivist”, in the sense that other Objectivists might think of something that I haven’t, or I might have missed something, and I can’t speak for the philosophy as a whole, but as someone who considers themselves an Objectivist these are my initial thoughts on the matter. My response was:
In my opinion, this is a form of moral compromise. Terrorists and prisoners of war should be tortured for whatever information we can glean from them. In most circumstances, once we get what we want from them, we should shoot them.
In cases of less serious criminal offences, it’s possible that a criminal wants to turn over a new leaf. He might offer to give up information, indict his accomplices, etc etc. He should be allowed to do so, and an offer of leniency here wouldn’t be a compromise of morals because he would still be required to pay the price for his crimes in terms of restitution. The difference here is that he has surrendered, acknowledged his wrongdoing, DEMONSTRATED his willingness to change, agreed to be punished, and promised never to re-offend.
This is different to a terrorist or enemy combatant that is ideologically committed to your destruction. Rendering them harmless through capture doesn’t give them any Rights. They are the same enemy as you met on the battlefield. Only if the enemy combatant truly sought to defect would it would permissible to spare them. For example, soldiers aren’t afforded the opportunity to refuse to fight during wartime. But once an enemy soldier has been rendered harmless he can choose to defect – and he should do so at the first available opportunity; as long as he holds a weapon he is a target. I don’t believe this should be an OFFER, but if the soldier surrenders and pleads for mercy on the grounds that he was only following orders, and gives up any and all information we require, and demonstrates his desire to live as a free non-criminal citizen, he can be considered a non-hostile once the war is over. Such an offer shouldn’t extend to the initiators of the conflict, for example, a captured Stalin, Hitler, or Hussain. If we need information from them, we should take whatever steps are necessary to obtain it. In matters such as these, there is no question of guilt. The show of a trial where defence is supposedly offered is a mockery of justice. The criminal shouldn’t be permitted to make a defence or have any last statements or testimonies. At most, a “trial” should be a list of the criminal’s offences and then the sentence announced. Execution should be carried out as soon as possible in the most efficient manner.
What about pretending to pardon a criminal or offer them a deal, then go back on it once we have what we want?
This shouldn’t be entertained because on principle, we should not compromise with evil. We shouldn’t even pretend to compromise with evil.
It is because we shouldn’t compromise that going back on a deal wouldn’t work anyway, for two reasons: our enemies should know in no uncertain terms that complete surrender is their only option. They know what we stand for and that we don’t compromise on our morals, so even if we offered a deal they should know we’re lying. Secondly, and this is tied into the first, it would only take ONE betrayal of our agreement to make enemies see that we can’t be trusted on any deal we agreed to. This would make anyone extremely reluctant to believe any pact we made, knowing that we’d just go back on it. (Incidentally, this is why even on 24 and other such shows they never go back on their deals. That, and because their legally bound to honour them, even the President.) So we would have to consistently make deals and always honour them, or consistently never make deals. Furthermore, it isn’t in one’s self-interest to lie or renege on deals, regardless of the other party’s feelings or intentions. With enemies, one should simply avoid making deals.
What if a bomb goes off because we refuse to compromise with a terrorist?
Whilst this is a possibility, if a terrorist is so committed to our destruction as to blow up innocent people (and often themselves), it is doubtful they will tell the truth in exchange for a deal as opposed to telling the truth in exchange for the torture to stop. There is nothing to stop them reneging on the deal once the bomb has gone off; after all, once it goes off their mission is accomplished and we have no reason to torture them anyway. Logically, the terrorist would lie, get the deal, then laugh when the bomb goes off, then get shot. (Death itself clearly holds no fear for them.)
If we agree that compromise is not acceptable, and that any sort of deal would involve compromise, the moral thing to do is never offer a deal that involves excusing an evil criminal the responsibility for their actions. The consequences for the terrorist’s actions are always his, not those who refused to bargain with him.
Even allowing him freedom, perhaps to return home, would only put him in the position of inspiring millions more to treat him like a role-model; it would boost enemy moral; it might provide the enemy with inside information; it would provide him a chance to regroup and launch yet another attack on us; and most importantly it would show the enemy that we DO compromise.
The moral thing to do is always act consistently with your principles, and over the long-term it will always result in the best outcome.
If our enemies know in no uncertain terms that any form of aggression against us or our interests will be met with swift certain overwhelming and lethal force, not only will they never succeed against us, they will be so demoralised and cynical of success they won’t even try. As a bonus, it deters any potential enemies from even thinking of moving against us. But this is only possible if one acts consistently, and one can’t act consistently without objective principles, and objective principles are derived from the facts of reality. And just as one cannot compromise with reality, one cannot compromise on principles. Ever.