Panelists debate moral side of war on terror

by Charles Gardner | 3/6/03 6:00am

Four speakers drawn from the Dartmouth faculty and the U.S. military and government wrestled with the ethical and moral implications of waging a war on terrorism at a panel discussion yesterday.

Speaking before a full house in Filene Auditorium, the panelists discussed the ethical challenges posed to the United States by working with governments that often do not share a respect for human rights, as well as the infringement on civil liberties brought about by sweeping domestic security legislation.

Robert Leicht, former Army Special Forces Colonel and liaison to the CIA, said the area of covert operations is one that often lays moral obstacles in the paths of U.S. servicemen.

Members of U.S. special forces, Leicht said, sometimes work in coordination with soldiers from nations that regard torture as a legitimate means of deriving information from suspects. In such situations, U.S. troops are instructed to intervene and talk the soldier out of using torture, or failing this, report a war crime, Leicht said.

The very nature of a war on terror sets it apart from traditional notions of the due process of law, according to Daniel Byman, military analyst and staff member with the Joint 9/11 Intelligence Committee.

The few publicized trials of terrorist suspects that have taken place have not characterized "the vast majority of the war," Byman said. Instead, unconventional tactics and warfare as well as the training of foreign governments to fight insurgent forces have produced the greatest strides in containing the terrorist threat.

Ronald Green, chair of Dartmouth's religion department and director of the College's ethics institute, said that while terror is clearly in violation of the principles of just war theory, as its principal aim is the targeting of innocent, non-combatant populations, the United States' response to the threat must not go so far as to endanger the liberties of American citizens.

Recently introduced legislation to combat terrorism at a domestic level has produced a "steady erosion" of civil liberties, Green said. Additionally, arguments such as one made by Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz -- which talked in favor of legalizing torture in the United States -- have added to the array of threats facing basic American freedoms.

"A society that tortures at all loses its right to be called a just society," Green said.

Nor must America set its national interests and principles apart as competing interests, government professor Ned Lebow said.

Drawing an analogy between the United States of the present and the case of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, Lebow warned that America risks falling into the same trap as the defeated Greek city if it maintains its present course of ignoring its "web of obligations" to other countries and organizations.

The U.S. government has "ridden roughshod" over the opinions of its NATO allies, the United Nations and other organizations, Lebow said, thereby undermining the very principles that allowed the United States to exert effective and non-coercive influence on the global stage.

Lebow also agreed with Green that the United States faces growing danger to its own unique freedoms through restrictive legislation.

"We are mimicking the behavior of those who are our enemies," he said.