I recently learned that Colin Powell and John McCain are pen pals. Both of them oppose Bush’s proposal to bend the interpretation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention to allow for coercive interrogations of prisoners by the CIA.
What is Common Article 3? Common Article 3 refers to the treatment of “persons taking no active part in the hostilities” during an armed conflict “occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties.” It requires that these people “be treated humanely,” and in particular prohibits the following treatment:
- violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
- taking of hostages;
- outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
- the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
Apparently, McCain has told members of his staff that he is willing to sacrifice his shot at the presidency in support of this principle.
Although both camps have let their opinions be known, it is difficult to make any defintive argument as to whether bending the principles set forth in Common Article 3 will put troops at greater risk, stop terrorist attacks, make the country safer, or make the world more dangerous. A more compelling question arises when one notices the tension between one’s principles and perceived gains for bending said principles. Which principles is one willing to bend and by how much in the hopes of a gain? The danger of bending one’s principles is that there is no guarantee that the actions taken place will lead to gain, just the perception that they might. The level to which one is willing to bend one’s principles will then depend on how much uncertainty there is about the perceived gains compared to how comfortable a person is with bending said principles.
An alternative is to sacrifice the hope of these perceived gains for the sake of principle. While this sounds noble, circumstance often makes it difficult to realize. Even McCain bent his principles by speaking at Jerry Falwell’s university, a man whom he once called “an agent of intolerance.”
Sometimes the potential sacrifice may be so great to a person that principles are completely abandoned. Paizanos familiar with the Super Mario Brothers Super Show might remember King Koopa’s lines as he escaped, “He who koops and runs away lives to koop another day!”