“If someone tells you he is going to make ‘a realistic decision,’” Mary McCarthy wrote, “you immediately understand that he has resolved to do something bad.” Calling a course of action "realistic" is, of course, a rhetorical strategy. Everyone, after all, thinks they're being realistic. You make a point out of how realistic you are being only if you're proposing something others are likely to find objectionable. When you say you're being realistic, what you're really saying is that objecting to your plan—or even imagining that there could be other options—is naive.
The realist worldview—however valid it may be—is essentially cynical. At bottom, realists believe where there is no strong legal authority—as there isn't among sovereign states—actors who refuse to consider some of their strategic options on moral grounds will inevitably suffer at the hands of those who are more ruthless. So as a nation our choices are either act without scruple or be destroyed.
After September 11, America became much more cynical. It is easy to take the high moral road when you don't think you are ever in any serious danger. But the attacks of September 11 showed us that we were vulnerable. Concerned that the next attack might be worse—that it might be a dirty bomb or a biological attack—we began to reconsider our options. Appearing on "Meet the Press" a few days after the attacks, Vice President Cheney told Tim Russert that "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful. That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective."
The danger of another—and possibly more serious—terrorist attack is very real. But do we really have to use any means at our disposal to protect ourselves? Since September 11, we have detained and tortured hundreds of suspected terrorists without charging them with any crime. At the same time we have begun to eavesdrop on and collect vast quantities of information about our own citizens. And we have done all this in clear violation of federal statute and international law—and have even begun to change the law to make what we've been doing legal. Setting aside the real question of whether we should do these things under any circumstances, it's worth considering whether these strategies have actually helped keep us safe at all.
For it is not obvious that working on "the dark side" is our only viable option. However necessary these policies may have seemed to Vice President Cheney, the truth is there were always reasons to think that they might be counterproductive. While Cheney has always claimed that the information gleaned from torturing detainees "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives," CIA memos actually show that we got almost all of our actionable intelligence through ordinary interrogation methods, while torturing detainees largely extracted false confessions. At the same time our torture program—which drew consciously from Nazi and Soviet interrogation techniques—created new enemies around the world and made our own allies reluctant to work with us. And by establishing the precedent that it is okay to disregard our own laws—against arbitrary detentions, against torture, and against warrantless wiretapping—in the name of national security, we have eroded the same laws that protect us from abuse by our own government.
While we certainly do have enemies who are willing to behave savagely, that doesn't mean it would be a good strategy for us to do the same thing. It doesn't even mean it's a good strategy for them. In his book The Origins of Alliances, political scientist Stephen Walt argued that part of the reason we were able to win the Cold War was that we were able to attract more allies by being more open and less aggressive than the Soviets. As dangerous as the world is, violating international norms can backfire, and sometimes it pays to do the right thing.
The truth is that terrorism does not pose the same kind of existential threat to our country that the Nazis or the Soviets did. As devastating as another attack would be, we are still safer now than at almost any other time during the last eighty years. And while we undeniably did take some extreme measures in the name of our security—including using nuclear weapons against civilians at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki—we nevertheless still chose not to mistreat our prisoners or give up our civil liberties. If we took a risk in making that choice, we did it because we felt that a country that stood for certain principles was more worth fighting for.
We should always be suspicious, in any case, of the claim that we have no other choice but to follow a particular course of action. Saying that other points of view are unrealistic isn't, by itself, much of an argument. It's more of a way of cutting off debate by preying on people's fears. Whatever the dangers we face, genuine realism means weighing all our options carefully, not acting reflexively out of fear. For, as William Pitt the Younger said, "Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves."