Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture and Relative Morality


Well, there's nothing better for getting me out of the doldrums than something I feel passionate about. I've been listening to way too much CNN. It's an exercise in self torture... Commentators - even the best of them - tend to make me sputter and mutter, yell at the TV and at times use language unbefitting my alleged gentility.

So, anyway, last night before bed, I turned to CNN and they got to yapping about torture and interviewing opposing sides on the rightness or wrongness of releasing the torture memos and prosecuting people who attempted to justify torture and those who "just followed orders." Dick Cheney is busy saying... "but, but, but.... we got information from these techniques.... they didn't release that." First, I'm pretty skeptical about how much incredibly valuable information we got from tormenting and debasing other human beings, but secondly.... that doesn't justify doing it. Torture is torture. Inhumanity is inhumanity. A successful robbery makes you richer. That doesn't make it right. And nothing.... NOTHING... makes torture right. The reason there are international treaties banning torture is because it is an obscenity and beyond moral justification.

Whatever information we got or didn't get, we tortured one man one hundred and eighty three (183!!!!!) times, another 83. (What's with the 83 thing? Somebody's lucky number? Creepy.) How effective is something (even if you can cross the hideous moral boundary line that lets you debase your own humanity to indulge in it) which requires 183 tries to accomplish its end? What does engagement in such horror do to the perpetrators? Most of us from the comfort of distance and time cluck our tongues at Germans who sat back and allowed the Nazis to accomplish their horrors. We are righteous about those who tormented and killed millions. We are righteous and stunned by the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition (where water boarding was invented, I believe.) Now we - in our free society - have ignored and rationalized (granted on a much smaller scale) our own government treading into depravity.

Every villain has a great reason for why they have killed or stolen or tormented another human being. The wife abuser is convinced that it is his victim's fault. It's fascinating to me that this behavior was conducted and justified by the "What would Jesus Do" crowd (by this I don't mean all people who may ask this question, but Mr. Bush who and his cronies who allegedly used that question as the basis for their decisions). Last time I read the Bible, Jesus would have turned the other cheek. I'm not saying we have to go that far, though I do believe that if instead of responding to terrorists by behaving just like them, we held the high moral ground, they would lose much of their power. Their power comes in part from our willingness to make them into more than they are. If Israel - instead of taking the revenge times 2 route each time some deluded fool blew himself up - had continued trooping slowly, patiently towards peace.... perhaps the world would not be in it's current state of chaos. Maybe not. I don't know. History can't be rewound.

I was living in Arizona with my niece when the World Trade Centers were blown up. In the midst of all that horror there was a collective sense that the international community had a moment of clarity, of wanting to come together... not for revenge, but for peace. It was collective. It was palpable. It was a wasted opportunity because our country (with help from others) took the low road. In fact we blew up the road to Peace when we chose to invade another country with no justification. But I digress from torture.

Life is full of moral choices. Everything that happens can be used for good or ill. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney - in my opinion - chose to defend Democracy and the rule of law - by betraying everything that Democracy and the rule of law stand for. When the law didn't suit their ends, they evaded it or rewrote it. When truth didn't suit their ends, they lied. When confronted with evil doers, they became evil doers themselves. My first therapist once told me (and I didn't get it for a long time) that "we become the thing we hate." No finer example of that exists than my country justifying torture, military invasion, and violation of the principles of a democratic society in the name of protecting our principles. You simply cannot protect your principles by violating them. It's nonsense. It's irrational. It's immoral. Even if these men had drawn us maps to the hide-out of Osama Bin Lauden, it would not justify what was done.

We become the thing we hate. Horrible as the events of 9/11 were, the real damage to us as a nation came when we allowed fear mongerers in our own midst to persuade us that our values could be protected only by violating them. (The only way I can save you is to kill you.) This, in my view is the true power of terrorism... not the violence they do to the individuals they kill or the buildings they blow up - but the invitation they create for us to sell out our own values and justify behaving just like them. You become the thing you hate. Terrorism is terrorism no matter who is perpetrating it.

What would Jesus do? I don't think he'd waterboard anyone, lock him in a room with bugs, strip him, deprive him of sleep, beat his head against a wall.... Is this truly who we want to be as nation? This is why I continue to think it's important to hold the people who did these things accountable. It's too easy to try and turn away. Too easy not to look. That's how the Nazis succeeded. That's how American settlers virtually eradicated the Native American population of this country. That's how we allowed lynching and torture of black citizens in this country - a country with a free press - in my own life time. Evil is evil. Torture is evil. Evil can't be used to produce a good end. There is no such thing as relative morality. Ever. Or that's what I think.

One last thought/caveat. Having just said that there is no such thing as relative morality, I will now contradict myself slightly. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family may be a crime but it is less morally reprehensible to me than stealing from thousands to buy a mansion and a yacht. Killing another to save your own life in the moment is vile but comprehensible to me. I don't know if I could do it or not, but I think that's very different than plotting to kill... or killing in the name of some potential or imagined future event. Trying to rationalize torture as self-defense is self-deceit. Consciously engaging in intentional evil is simply abhorrent.

Phew.

Happy Actual Earth Day. I was ahead of schedule yesterday.

17 comments:

Akelamalu said...

Torture is a premeditated act and like premeditated murder is totally unacceptable. Like you though I feel killing someone whilst defending yourself is not murder and stealing a loaf to feed your family is acceptable.

Nessa said...

Putting all emotional rhetoric aside and speaking from pure practicality: information derived from torture is wholly unreliable.

Thom said...

I know I'm in the minority on this but I say they are terroists...they deserve what they get. I can't help but feel that way at all. I love this country to much to see terroristic events happen on our soil. And any means to get to the truth I say go for it. I do respect your opinions on this but I just can't get past the fact that what they do to the Americans and anyone else in the world. I wish I had the answer to stop it all I don't I know that...so I hold my anger against them. Such is life I suppose.

By the way Raven...I've left something on my blog for you

Deborah Godin said...

I totally agree. No torture - not under any circumstance, ever. Thank you for this passionate post!

Raven said...

Thom... I feel compelled to reply. Don't you see that these actions turn us into terrorists as well? I wonder if you would have been fine with torturing Timothy McVeigh - or is it only Arabs whose terrorism you feel makes torture acceptable? Were you ready to throw the Constitution away when the bomber was an American? I doubt it.

Besides its inherent evilness, torture don't make us safer. It makes us less safe. These so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" violate the very principles they pretend to protect. More harm was done to Democracy and the American way of life by those who spied on our citizens, treated the Constituion like a quaint old fairy tale, threw our laws away and engaged in activities which are viewed as reprehensible by the entire world, than was done by the bombing of the Trade Centers. When you respond to evil behavior with evil behavior of your own, evil has won.

Janie Blagg said...

Well said, Raven. Very well said.

gabrielle said...

If there is any glimmer of hope in all of this, it is that President Obama has reversed his original position on investigating and prosecuting those who wrote the legal memos authorizing torture. Ultimately, this means that we as a nation will have time to examine how our basic values were subverted. It is in this way that we as a people can begin the process of healing and reconciliation.

This was such a thoughtful post. Thank you.

CJ said...

There is absolutely NO justification for torture under ANY circumstance. Besides torture being unacceptable as a moral issue, there are practical reasons to be against it.

1. Information derived from torture is suspect. I hate pain. I could probably keep my mouth shut for about 2 minutes, then I'd blurt out anything, true or not, just to get it to stop. Even torture that is not physical, such as sleep depravation, can literally drive someone crazy ---to the point of not knowing what is true or not.

2. If we commit torture, then we can expect our own soldiers or citizens to be tortured by "the enemy."

3. We can no longer hold the moral high ground. Apparently Iran is torturing those who oppose the current regime. How can we condemn those acts when we have engaged in them ourselves?

I always wanted to ask George Bush, who claims that Jesus is his favorite philosopher, how he could justify the approval of inhumane acts. What happened to "Love thine enemy"?

As Sarah Vowell said in "The Wordy Shipmates":
" ...What happened at Abu Ghraib is...just plain sickening... America is supposed to be better than that. No: best... Even though my head tells me that the idea that America was chosen by God as His righteous city on the hill is ridiculous, my heart still buys into it. And I don't even believe in God."

When an atheist can take a higher moral ground than our so-called Christian president, it sure makes Bush, his cronies, and Chistianity look bad, doesn't it?

Dr.John said...

I agree we should end all torture and be against all torture.
I take offense at the glib way you attack " The What would Jesus do Crowd". I know a lot of those people. I visit their blogs. They are all against torture.
Don't be so quick to decide that everybody that you dislike is against what you are for.

Dr.John said...

One last note the person who defended torture in the comments on the blog where I railed against it is an agnostic.

bettygram said...

I agree with you but I question the inclusive statement that the What Would Jesus Do people supporting torture. I want to do what Jesus would do and I am sure it is not torture. Jesus loves the terrorist not the action but the individual as he loves us all. I have been taught to pray for my enemy and to do that with the mental picture of Jesus holding him or her.

Raven said...

Dr. John - I apologize for not being clear when I made the What Would Jesus Do reference. This was something Mr. Bush said. It was him and his cohorts to whom I was referring, not all people who ask What Would Jesus Do.

Betty - I have long wished that more of us prayed for those we consider to be "enemies." Glad you do that.

Thom said...

Raven...some things you do not know about me is I am not a bigot. I do not judge people by the color of there skin, their sexual preference, their religious beliefs, their politics, their ancestory or anything about them. People are people. Timothy McVeigh was just as big a terrorist as the 9/11 terrorists. His act was just as evil.

Torturing does not turn us into terrorists. It is our inherent right to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and I feel that includes any means that we are capable of doing. Torture included. Again, you go against us...suffer the consequences. We as Americans didn't ask you to do your vile act. You did it on your own.

Spying on our citizenry...yes, is something that I do not like, but I feel that it is necessary in today's world due to the fact that terrorists come in all shapes, forms and colors. That is the way our world has evolved. And I don't think that our Constitution was every treated like a quaint old fairy tale. As I said before it is being protected and preserved and whatever means we must do that...go for it.

Raven said...

Thom - I didn't mean to imply that you were a bigot. I disagree with you completely on this subject.

Torture is terrorism. It violates our law and international law and it violates moral law. It doesn't protect us. We have executed people in other countries who used it against our soldiers.

When you violate the inherent meaning of Democracy and the things you are allegedly protecting, then you aren't protecting them. I'm (or my country) will be just as dead if you poison me to protect me from bombs as I would be if you dropped the bomb yourself.

Thom said...

Well Raven...I just wanted to make sure you understand. I know you wouldn't imply or think I was biggoted but I just wanted to make sure.

We are going to have to agree to disagree on this subject. I do not believe torture is terrorism.

I just don't give a damn about what or how they are treated and what happens to them because of what they have done to our country. And if it violates all those laws so be it. Again the terrorists should have thought about all those laws prior to them breaking every single last one of them in the first place. And if we have executed other's who used it against our soldiers so be it. There were there to protect our borders and make the world a safer place. And you think torture? Think of the beheadings we have seen on TV even of American's. It disgusts me.

I don't know what else to say because I see this the total opposite of you. But that I suppose is the beauty of our country. I wish I could understand and accept what you are saying, but I just can't because it just doesn't make any sense to me and I HATE terrorists and what they do to our country and peoples. It is the only thing I have ever hated and I always will. Anyone that does such dispicable acts, even other Americans that do this kind of thing deserve nothing worse than torture, life and/or death. I didn't ask them or tell them to do what they do...they did it themselves. Suffer the consequences, In the name of Democracy...

Melissa K said...

How true that abusers of ANY kind justify harm no matter what their position. Spousal batterer or administration mouthpiece, it's all the same. Rationalizations don't change, only the people who spew them forth. One common technique is labeling the abused so that it permits the abuser to detach... he's a "terrorist," she's a drug addict, etc.

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