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