Killing Versus Detaining and Interrogating in the War on Terror

News of a U.S.-supported attack on a suspected Al-Qaeda operative meeting in Yemen reminds me of a curious dynamic in the public response to how the U.S. fights the war on terror: Killing Al-Qaeda suspects seems to be much less controversial than detaining and interrogating them.

Consider a hypothetical example. Imagine U.S. officials have reason to believe that an Al-Qaeda leader is in a house near the Pakistan border. Our intelligence indicates that the man is in the house with his wife and three children. Now imagine the U.S. authorities have two choices. First, they can send in a team of commandos and seize the Al-Qaeda leader and send him to Gitmo, where he will be detained and waterboarded. If they do that, his wife and children will not be seized, but rather will be let go. Alternatively, U.S. officials can order an airstrike that will just blow up the entire house to smithereens. Everyone in the house will be killed, including the Al-Qaeda leader, his wife and three children, and anyone else who happens to be inside or nearby.

What interests me is the U.S. public reaction to these options, assuming the press learns of and reports on what happened. My sense is that if the U.S. authorities take option one — that is, detaining the suspect and waterboarding him — there will be a tremendous public outcry. Waterboarding is torture, and it is a moral imperative that we do not torture, many people will say. And it will be important to a lot of people that the seized detainee has constitutional rights that entitle him to a hearing to determine the lawfulness of his detention, together with an appointed attorney.

But if authorities just blow the house up, well, I suspect not that many people would think twice about it. Waterboarding may be an outrage, but blowing a suspect to smithereens together with his wife and children, well, that’s just war. There’s no hearing or lawyers or constitutional rights, to be sure. But again, few people seem to mind.

Let me be as clear as I possibly can be: I am not in any way criticizing either of these reactions individually. Rather, I’m just puzzled by the juxtaposition. In particular, I’m trying to figure out how these two views can coexist given that the “blow them all up” option seems pretty clearly worse from the standpoint of abuses or affronts to civil liberties than the “detain one and interrogate/waterboard” option. My sense is that the widespread public reaction to detention has changed U.S. policy so we rarely detain and interrogate these days. We just blow up the houses rather than try to capture suspects. But I’m trying to figure out what explains the coexistence of those two reactions.

One possibility is that blowing up a house fits into our traditional conception of war, whereas indefinite detention and interrogation doesn’t. Another possible explanation is that dead people can’t tell tales. Blowing up a house ends the matter, so there is no more press coverage of it. In contrast, detaining and interrogating a suspect can lead to continuing press coverage of the ongoing event. I can think of other possibilities, too, but I’m not sure how strong they are.

What do you think? I am eager for comments that respond to the question. Given the nature of the question, though, I will delete comments that are not directly responsive or are not civil.