Books: Memorial Day

Arguments regarding the morality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” often focus on the “ticking-bomb” scenario, a hypothetical situation where a terrorist (in custody) has information regarding a plan to use WMD, possibly a nuclear bomb that will wipe out an entire city. Conservatives tend to point to the number of American lives that would be saved by using whatever means necessary to get the terrorist to talk, and that he deserves some pretty severe punishment anyway for his part in a mass murder conspiracy.

Liberals tend to point out how extremely unlikely such a scenario is, and that there is no way of knowing whether a captured suspect actually does have knowledge of the details of what is planned, or that he will tell the truth if he does speak. Using a highly unlikely scenario to justify torture of actual human beings, who may not even be complicit in the acts of terror they are being questioned about, gives too much power to government agency officials who may abuse that power. And the victims of that wrongly wielded power could someday be us.

Conservatives – who on other issues are often far more suspicious about government having too much power – prefer to err on the side of security rather than personal freedoms when it comes to the fight against terrorism. I find my sympathies more with the liberals on this one, but I also think that most people on both sides have far too little knowledge of real as opposed to hypothetical scenarios to be good judges of the matter. Personally I am glad not to have to be making those life-and-death decisions.

In the book I just finished listening to, Vince Flynn puts flesh on the hypothetical nuclear bomb scenario. Al Qaeda has managed to obtain the material needed to make the bomb, has apparently managed to smuggle it into the U.S., and plans to use it to destroy a major city. Mitch Rapp, a CIA operative, is charged with finding out the where, when, and how soon enough to avert the disaster.

Rapp’s methods are whatever it takes to get the job done, not necessarily within the parameters of what is officially allowed. Unofficially, he is granted a fair degree of latitude, because he is known to get results. And he is trusted to do what is best for the country, not for his own personal gain or satisfaction. That is, he is trusted by his boss and some others high up in the nation’s security apparatus. There are others who are adamantly opposed to him, whether for philosophical or personal reasons.

Rapp does avert the disaster, though just barely. (Sorry, I just gave away the ending, but I don’t think it was ever seriously in doubt, just the details of how it would happen.) Along the way he kills a man he has in custody (in Afghanistan or Pakistan, I don’t remember which), in cold blood, as a psychological encouragement for the man’s comrades to spill their guts figuratively instead of literally. He shoots two of these men in the knee when they seem to need more encouragement. This gets him the intel he needs, and he heads back to the States on the trail of the bomb.

Here he is enraged when he finds out that two men, taken into custody after attempting to take delivery of the container holding the bomb, are being held in a county jail as ordinary criminals because they are American citizens and have to have their rights respected. The Assistant Attorney General responsible for this move is vehemently opposed to the Patriot Act, arguing that it deprives citizens of their rights, and just makes the government look bad when cases go to court showing how the Act was misused.

It’s unclear how much she is motivated by genuine conviction and how much by political opportunism. What is clear to Rapp is that the only chance he has to find the bomb before it detonates is to interrogate one of these two men and force him to talk. In one of his more spectacular infractions, he snactches one of the men out of his jail cell, takes him to a secure location, and throws him in a swimming pool – knowing the man cannot swim. It may be that Rapp would have rescued him before he drowned, but the man has no way of knowing that, and as he desperately flounders in the water he gives Rapp the plan of attack.

There’s more to the chase after that, but from that point on it’s normal detective work, then an assault by a highly trained team to get control of the bomb, and finally a difficult choice what to do with it when it becomes clear that it can’t be deactivated before the time it is set to go off. In the end, having saved the day and countless lives, Rapp doesn’t want public recognition. He wants change – firing the people who made it harder for him to do his job and replacing them with people who see the war on terror the way he does. There’s only one way to fight it, he concludes, “with brutal and overwhelming force.”

Of course, the author of any novel gets to make people and events turn out the way he chooses. In real life, though, is it only the people arguing against the Patriot Act that are motivated by political opportunism or afflicted with poor judgment? Are the people given the latitude to cross the line, as Rapp did, as purely motivated as Rapp, and as astute in choosing the objects and means of interrogation? Do terrorists subject to Rapp-style interrogations give accurate information, in a timeframe sufficient to defeat the plans they give away?

As I say, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those kinds of decisions myself. The people on the front lines of the war against terrorists have to make decisions with the very limited information they have, and often in a very limited timeframe. They are human, and they will sometimes make mistakes. Some of those mistakes might be trusting people who don’t deserve that trust – either Americans or foreigners.

As a novel, this was reasonably entertaining reading (or listening) material. The characters are pretty much one-dimensional (I was surprised by some reader comments that spoke of deeply drawn characters) and the plot is formulaic, but there’s enough suspense to keep it interesting. I thought some of Rapp’s lines were very clichéd, but for all I know that’s how some people who communicate better by actions than words really talk.

It was very interesting to read all the different reader comments at amazon.com (I read or at least skimmed all 135 of them). Most are enthusiastic cheerleaders of Mitch Rapp’s no-holds-barred approach and wish we had more people like him protecting our country. (I would guess that not too many people who take the opposite approach will have read the book.) Quite a number make a point of how realistic it is, and how plausible the scenario Flynn creates.

It certainly sounds plausible. But that may just mean that Flynn is a capable writer. I would be interested in an insider’s take on whether a nuclear bomb could be smuggled in the way Flynn describes. (One reader comment does point out technical flaws in the description of how the bomb was created to begin with.) I think most of us could easily believe that there are government officials every bit as self-serving or incompetent as the ones Flynn describes, but do they so dominate our leadership that only a maverick like Rapp can save us?

One reader’s comment highlights my concerns.

Vince Flynn’s books are essentially primers on what is needed to combat and defeat terrorism and the “bad guys.” It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, because it is painfully honest in it’s assessment of where our problems lie and unfortunately they often lie with some of us. If you genuflect to the altar of political correctness, this will be a tough read.

If I don’t think it’s wise to give a real-life Rapp the carte blanche he wants to go after terrorists, does that mean I genuflect at the altar of political correctness? For the most part I am inclined to see the men and women on the front lines of the war against terrorists as more trustworthy than the average citizen, because they do put their lives on the line. But does history justify faith that military and covert forces will only be used for the public good?

If it were always clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, I might cheer Rapp on myself. But in real life people aren’t these easy-to-judge cardboard characters, and the kind of people who slow Rapp down provide time to try to sort out who is who. Is there a ticking bomb in the background, so that only Rapp’s approach will defeat the enemy? I don’t know, but Flynn’s book does make me think about it.

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