Superman, Batman, and interrogation: capability versus will

There’s a scene in just about every crossover adventure of Superman and Batman where a villain or henchman must be interrogated to obtain essential information.  Superman takes a stab at it first, but even the lowliest pistol-wielding thug laughs in the Man of Steel’s face: “What are you gonna do to me if I don’t talk, boy scout?”  The villain knows that despite his immense godlike powers, Superman’s not going to do anything terrible to break his resistance.

At this point, Batman steps up, leads the captured crook off to the side, talks to him for about thirty seconds, and reduces him to a quivering urine-soaked mess who can’t wait to spill the beans.  Batman, you see, will hurt you.  A lot.  In ways you might never really come back from.  He has a fraction of Superman’s capability, but an abundance of malevolent will when it comes to dealing with hardened criminals.  (In one amusing variation on this scene from an animated series about the Justice League, one of the other superheroes asked Superman, who has enhanced hearing, what Batman said to make the tough-guy villain crumble like a stale cookie.  Superman turned slightly pale and replied, “You really don’t want to know.”)

Superman vs. Batman is basically the enhanced interrogation debate in a nutshell, and it metaphorically illustrates a lot about the War on Terror in general.  Not even the most vicious terrorist enemy doubts that when it comes to military power, America is Superman.  Some of them are educated enough to have studied the World Wars and see what kind of damage the industrialized West can do when it takes the gloves off, even without using nuclear weapons… and both our weapons and tactics are far more advanced today.  No sane person wants a piece of that action, no matter how evil they might be.  Some of the shot-callers in al-Qaeda and ISIS are both evil and sane.

But when it comes to will, the terrorist enemy thinks he’s holding all the cards.  Partly this is the ancient boast of the barbarian, convinced he’s more than a match for even the most heavily-armed civilization because he plays by fewer rules than they do.  Barbarians are usually wrong about that for a long time, until one day they’re right, and the civilization under assault comes crashing down.  

In the current conflict, it’s not just that Islamic fascists are playing by looser rules of engagement that makes them think they can win.  It’s because they see so many signs of weakness and doubt in their enemies.  They’ve often diagnosed Western culture as hesitant and timid, unwilling to stand strong for even its most serious principles – like freedom of speech – in the face of sustained challenge.  They know Western culture harbors enemies within its ramparts, who might theoretically despise the modern-day barbarians, but share their contempt for the men and women patrolling those walls.  

One of the things I find most disturbing about this week’s hit on Bush-era interrogators by Senate Democrats is that it gives our enemies not just a useful propaganda document about American “torturers” to wave around, but it’s another example of flagging national will.  The enemy knows that much of the Democrats’ posturing is entirely false – they jolly well will sign on to enhanced interrogations, in a heartbeat, in the face of a “ticking bomb” scenario, or in the aftermath of another 9/11-scale attack.  And they can see that within a relatively short span of time – just over one decade! – the American political system can turn from unified defiance of a murderous enemy to opportunistic political backstabbing and armchair quarterbacking.  

These are not people who think a decade is a long time to wait for ultimate victory.  Meanwhile, they know they don’t have to worry about spilling any sensitive information if they’re captured – they’ll face nothing more harsh than slightly impolite requests.  They know there’s an excellent chance they’ll be returned to the battlefield after capture.  And the American Left is giving them a hit of what every terrorist, every barbarian, craves the most: legitimacy.  They’re reaping the benefits of the lawful uniformed soldier while fighting illegally, enjoying the protection of international conventions they never signed, and being treated with dignity while they methodically strip the dignity from every prisoner they kidnap, often as a prelude to torture and murder.  That’s not just a significant tactical advantage – it’s a valuable psychological and philosophical advantage, because it’s a concession to barbarism.