Thursday, January 10, 2008

POLITICS RELIGION- Torture, the Jack Bauer Strawman

The Hairy Fish Nuts blog brings up the question of torture in referencing an article by Joseph Farah. Hairy is one of my favorite blogs but often his rants are built on simple answers to complex questions. While I find that he is a wealth of common sense (and frequently damn funny), I also realize (quoting Voltaire) that common sense is not so common.

So I've been thinking about this a lot and trying to figure out how anyone can think that it's all right to torture someone. The answers boil down to- desperate times require desperate measures, our enemies don’t deserved civilized treatment, waterboarding (replace with whatever action you wish to justify) isn’t REALLY REALLY torture, or the school lot favorite- they did it first. All of those things may be true. But are they really pertinent.

The “desperate times” argument is conditional. How desperate are the times? But the real question is DO desperate times require desperate measures. Conditionally, yes. If your life is in danger most people would agree that you are justified in killing the person trying to kill you. But killing is not torture. And the War On Terror isn’t that type of situation at all. We are not in danger of being exterminated, occupied, or subjugated to the fringe elements of Islamic culture. The Soviet Union might have done it. The Nazis had no other goal. And we opposed both to preserve our right to self-rule, the basis of America. But there is no real danger that Al-Queida is going to overthrow the US government. So this war is one of attrition. And the last half of the 20th century proved that wars of attrition are not desperate, they are endless. Ireland, Palestine, Chechnya, all support the idea that the only way out of a war of attrition against a guerilla force can only end when the parties decide to compromise. And of these, the only place the terrorism has stopped is the place where the parties have decided to talk the most- Ireland. Torture does nothing to further this single solution. In fact, it does and is the opposite.

A corollary to the Desperate Times argument usually employs what I call the Jack Bauer Scenario. Mr. Farad’s article reiterates it without anything new. You’ve all heard it. Some terrorist has been caught and we have info that indicates something terrible is going to happen shortly if we don’t stop it. Sort of like every season of 24. While this passes for plausible on television, the only instance I can find of something like this happening is during a war. Yet we don’t torture prisoners of war. Even when it is clear that the lives large numbers of troops are at stake. Why not? A military man will say because you can’t trust what you are told by someone under duress. Our legal system sees this as a truism, saying that contracts cannot be entered into by anyone under duress. This is why the Jack Bauer argument fails so completely. Even when you invent a circumstance where every variable is slanted towards justifying your methods, they still don’t work. Take the scene in Star Wars where Princess Leia is tortured. (If fiction is going to justify the argument then the only rebuttal has to be fiction.) Leia gives up the position of the Rebel base as Dantooine. But even Peter Cushing knows this is hogwash and has already decided to blow up Alderan since it makes a better statement about the Empire’s intent. The Empire’s real motive for torture is sadism. In Empire Strikes Back*, Han Solo is tortured but when returned to his cell he exclaims “They didn’t even ask me any questions”. So fiction justifies torture, rebuts torture, and eventually exposes torture for what it really is. Torture is sadism.

Argument two is that our enemies aren’t civilized so they don’t deserve civilized treatment. This is an empty syllogism. Not only does it use the age-old method of dehumanizing the enemy to justify atrocities, it completely misses the point. So, our enemies are savages. Take that as a given. The question is- ARE WE? I leave that argument to the words of Thomas Jefferson, “We find these truths to be self-evident. That ALL MEN are created equal”. Our ideals extend beyond our borders. That is why the United States has been a beacon to the rest of the world. What about practical reasons? We say that we don’t do it so our own troops won’t have to undergo the same sort of treatment, but that argument doesn’t hold up either. There are many instances when an opposing force has used hunger, mock executions, simulated drowning, or much more heinous methods of extracting information. Some cultures believe that torturing captured opponents is only just. We consider this viewpoint inhuman. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. If we are to be humane, civilized, enlightened, then we have to act like it. Talking the talk and not walking the walk is why so many people around the world have lost faith in the United States as the bastion of freedom and civility in the world.

Waterboarding is not torture. This argument is both a definition of terms (it depends of what the definition of is, is), the oldest and most hollow of the first year debating student’s mistakes, and negates itself by it’s intrinsic assertion that waterboarding is effective. If it isn’t physically stressful then it isn’t effective. Physical stress is what delineates torture from other interrogation methods, such as questioning. If it isn’t effective, then there is no reason to use it. Imagine a courtroom where questioning attorneys could administer physical pain when they didn’t get the answer they wanted. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it?

It sounds horrific but it isn’t outside what we could do. History is full of incidents of the US government employing torture to achieve some end. And if you believe that the ends justify the means then you should have no qualm with torture. In fact such a philosophy naturally endorses it. However that is not a morally based argument. Instead it is the purist form of cynicism and dangerous in the extreme to anyone who finds themselves outside the mainstream on any issue. This is the heart of the argument that we don’t torture because we don’t want our own troops tortured. It is simply the Golden Rule. Someday the shoe may be on the other foot. This is the basis for morality. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. An eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind. And if your morals are do disposable then you aren’t really moral at all?

Now I know that some conservatives will consider this a blame America defense. Shame on you. What has always made America great is that we are at the forefront of espousing the defense of human rights. The two finest moments of the American era were (first) the idea that government was a servant of the people and not the other way around and (second) to fight a war to free a subjugated people in our own country. It is a shame that we were the last modern country to abolish slavery. But we did and we paid the greatest price to do so. Now we find ourselves in the position of finding certain American citizens arguing for a barbaric practice again. Shall we make the same mistake a second time? People who love America love an ideal, not the flag or land or any other manifestation of fealty. Of such things are dictatorships and atrocities built. If your love of America goes not deeper than that, it’s no better than support for your favorite sports team. “I live here. This team represents this place. This team deserves my absolute support.” Of such are brawls on playing fields made, not reasoned policy for the direction of humanity. It isn’t blaming America to point out a poor direction the country is taking any more than it is hating your car if you correct its tendency to go off the road by moving the wheel. Both correct the same natural tendency for things to go awry. That’s the essence of democracy.

So we are left with “they did it first”. The schoolyard defense. I hope by now you realize that saying that is juvenile and only lowers you to the level of the thing you hate. If the actions of the people who hate us are the barometer of what we do; then we are already lost. The difference between America and any other country boils down to different colors on a flag. It is the definition of the lowest common denominator. You might as well say that the difference between Soviet Russia and America boiled down to economic systems. Or the difference between Communism and Fascism is who exploits the workers. (Okay, that one might be true.) The real difference between Muslim extremism and western phylosopy has to be our protection of the smallest member of the society. Otherwise we are a Christian theocracy and they are a Muslim theocracy and the only difference is how we force our citizens to worship.

You may want to say that America is built on Christian principals but that means nothing if you aren’t willing to espouse the principles of Christ. He was tortured. Did he say to do unto others as they have DONE to you. Nah. He took it all and said “turn the other cheek”. The message of Christ is one of forgiveness and truly shows the path to God’s kingdom on earth. It isn’t more of the same. It’s a guideline for a better humanity. Do unto others and you would have them do unto you, not as they have done. Do you hail only your brothers? Do not the publicans the same?

There are a lot of reasons not to torture anyone. But they boil down to what your actions make you.
The only justification for torture that I've been able to come up with is that folks that advocate this kind of behavior have the same mindset as the terrorists themselves. They feel that something terrible has been done to them and that justifies a secession from the laws of human decency, giving full vent to their own inhuman impulses. This is not the way we want to go. This is not the path to a better world. This is just more of the same.

America is better than that. It has to be if it wants to be any better than its enemies.

(* Corrected from Return of the Jedi. Thanks to G. F. for catching a mistake that would have gotten me drummed out of the geek union posthaste. That is, if using words like posthaste hadn't already earned me a lifetime membership.)

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