One of President Obama's strengths is his mild manner. It tends to give the impression of reasonableness, and is reinforced by his habit of presenting strongly ideological moves as mere pragmatism. Rather than acknowledge that he is choosing sides, he spins tales of transcending "the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long..."
In reversing his predecessor's executive order regarding embryonic stem cell research, the president outlined the choice as follows: "In recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case, I believe the two are not inconsistent." You see, there really is no moral quandary worth considering because "I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering." Everyone is for easing human suffering. That begs the question: Would the president be in favor of easing human suffering if it required using the organs of, say, 6-month-old fetuses? The problem is not that some people are against "sound science" but rather that science cannot answer questions like "When is human life worthy of respect and protection?" Those are inherently political questions that can only be answered by the whole society.
A few sentences later, President Obama himself acknowledged that "sound science" is not the only consideration. He declared that "we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society." Come again? What if human cloning could get paraplegics to walk again or deliver diabetics from a lifetime of needles? What if the federal government's refusal to fund such research caused "some of our best scientists (to) leave for other countries that will sponsor their work"? Apparently there are moral constraints on science and President Obama stands ready to impose them.
One of President Obama's first official acts was to announce the closing of the detention center in Guantanamo Bay and to issue a new executive order on permissible interrogation techniques. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," the president proclaimed in his inaugural address. Once again, he dismisses a genuine dilemma as a false choice. There is no conflict between the two because "It is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and moral high ground to … deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorism organizations around the world." Is it? Before 9/11, the U.S. was not known around the world for subjecting prisoners to harsh questioning. Did that protect us? Former CIA Director Michael Hayden has offered the view that tough interrogation succeeded in getting some of the worst al-Qaida terrorists to talk. "The Abu Zubaydahs, the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds, I just can't conceive of any other way, given their character, given their commitment to what it is they do" he told the BBC.
This is not to suggest that stress positions, sleep deprivation, or waterboarding (which was reportedly used in only three cases) are or are not torture. But it is possible, reasonable people can agree, that in certain situations such rough treatment of a detainee might actually be the more moral choice -- for example, if half a million people would die from a nuclear explosive hidden in a large city. And once again, one senses that Obama himself knows this and simply chooses to de-emphasize it.
Buried in his statement about interrogations was the promise to create a committee to consider whether the Army Field Manual techniques are too limiting "when employed by departments or agencies outside the military." And when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee asked CIA chief Leon Panetta about a ticking-bomb scenario at his confirmation hearing, Panetta said, "If we had a ticking-bomb situation and, obviously, whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the President of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need."
The White House did not contradict the CIA director, which isn't surprising. We're beginning to understand the pattern. Wave away serious moral and or policy quandaries; grandstand about your own superior morals; and hope no one notices that you are contradicting yourself.