Saturday, January 31, 2015

On The Ethics and Practicality of Hanging ISIS Prisoners...

Posted a news article I found earlier on Facebook and got quite a discussion. The gist of it is the Jordanians have threatened to kill ISIS prisoners if any harm should come to a Jordanian pilot captured alive by ISIS during the air campaign.

I posted that I supported this policy. After all, one of the reasons armies are (supposed to be) kind to enemy prisoners of war is reciprocity--they don't want any bad things happening to their own people who fall into enemy hands. ISIS, given its propensity for killing prisoners en masse (you see this mostly with Syrian Army soldiers), taking and beheading hostages, etc. clearly needs to be taught this lesson.

Some people took issue with my supporting this policy on the grounds of both morality and practicality...

The first to object was Zaid Jilani, who pointed out that the guilt or innocence of anybody tried and convicted by Jordan is questionable given the practice of judicial torture, especially in regards to terror suspects. In case you need a source other than Wikipedia, here's al-Jazeera and here's Human Rights Watch. He also said "civilized people" don't execute prisoners, which is not something I agree with but that's not relevant to the issue at hand. My friend Evan, a college professor, said if anything merited killing ISIS prisoners, it would be that they had committed capital crimes, not that ISIS had killed prisoners/hostages first.

These are some very good arguments. If the Jordanians captured a bunch of teenage conscripts forced to fight by family members held hostage (I don't know if ISIS actually does this, but knowing them I wouldn't be surprised) or people like this teen "volunteer" suicide bomber, that would be victimizing them twice. The same if the captured female suicide bomber is telling the truth about being an unwilling participant in the scheme. During WWII the Allied powers didn't retaliate for Nazi crimes by making indiscriminate massacres among POW camps, although organizations that routinely violated the rules of war could expect little mercy. All too often the argument "don't sink to their level" is basically an exercise in putting the scrupulous at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the unscrupulous (think honorable Ned Stark vs. the crafty Cersei or Littlefinger in Game of Thrones--if Ned had been more willing to be more ruthless or dishonest about his ultimate intentions he could have won even as late as the attempt to arrest Cersei in the throne room), but this is not one of those situations.

On the matter of practicality, Zaid pointed out that ISIS glorifies the deaths of its soldiers in battle, so they wouldn't be unduly upset if some of their prisoners were hanged. Furthermore, martyrs can make useful propaganda tools, so giving them more is not a good idea. And if those hanged were not guilty of major crimes, the PR problem is multiplied on top of the morality problem. To use a WWII analogy, this isn't like bombing Germany--there are many Germanies and some of them are U.S. allies (i.e. Jordan, Saudi Arabia), so PR, propaganda, etc. is much more important.

(I didn't come up with that analogy, but it's a good one.)

Furthermore, this article depicts an ISIS emir captured by the Kurds praising them for their mercy and claiming to have been deceived by ISIS "caliph" al-Baghdadi, so even a high-ranking (and presumably guilty of capital crimes given ISIS's propensity for killing prisoners, making Yezidi women into sex slaves, etc.) enemy commander could be worth more alive than dead. The captive emir, for example, could be used to make particularly effective anti-ISIS propaganda videos and encourage ISIS soldiers facing the Kurds to surrender rather than fight to the death. Showing mercy to a defeated enemy is not just an ethical issue, but can be a practical one as well.

That said, avoiding making martyrs is not the be-all, end-all. The Allied powers made millions of martyrs for fascism during WWII and yet the occupied Axis countries are not ungovernable hellholes. Furthermore, there are martyrs and there are martyrs. If the Jordanians hanged some teenage conscripts, ISIS and opponents of Jordan's government more generally could give them such hell over it that it might not be worth it. But if the Jordanians have got an ISIS technical specialist (like the chemical weapons guy just killed in an air strike) or commander, the threat of hanging them might deter ISIS from killing its remaining hostages (since these people, unlike foot soldiers, aren't a dime a dozen) and their deaths would damage ISIS's cause so much that the "martyr factor" wouldn't compensate.

Think the bombing of the Axis countries during WWII--whatever hay Goebbels (or his Italian or Japanese equivalent) might make it of, their physical ability to make war was damaged. Severing the spinal cord of a mad ax murderer might make him more angry or psychotic than usual, but if he's paralyzed he can't do anything. And as far as the "repentant ISIS fighters make good propaganda" angle is concerned, someone who is remorseful and willing to denounce his former comrades is useful--an unrepentant fanatical twit is not.

So however much hanging ISIS prisoners might appeal to one's instinct, this course of action should be trod very carefully. It would have been better if the Daily Mail article had included more detail about who these "ISIS commanders" the Jordanians have got are, so whether hanging them is moral and/or worth the trouble can be examined. However, it is not a course of action that should be closed off completely either. However vile and racist the Confederates could be in the Civil War (see the Fort Pillow Massacre or Confederate slave-raiding during the Gettysburg campaign), the threat to kill or enslave Confederate prisoners was enough to deter (most) Confederates from treating black prisoners as slave rebels.

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