Getting at the point I was trying to make below, this excerpt from a book due out in June:
Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created the most famous detectives in literary history: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. As skilled as those two sleuths were, they missed the nineteenth century's most outrageous crime, the death of the human being. People began to lose their essence. Scientists, philosophers, and writers all tried, unsuccessfully, to recalculate what it meant to be human. Ghosts and shades replaced human beings, and they mouthed off, from this side and the beyond.Barry Sanders, Unsuspecting Souls: The Disappearance of the Human Being (Counterpoint Press, June, 2009).
We in the twenty-first century have paid a steep price for that monumental loss. We have a hard time today, recognizing real people. Instead, we read of enemy combatants, terrorists and extremists, who get blown away, dusted, or eliminated. Iraqi men, women, and children vaporize as euphemisms--collateral damage. When the CIA resorts to extreme interrogation methods, it does not torture fully alive human beings, but suspected Al Qaeda members.
We must once again recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals, not just for our own sake, but also to create a much-needed community. I see no other way to put a halt to the growing fascination with the total annihilation of the planet.
I'm not sure this is really any different from when Roman soldiers slaughtered the citizens of Jerusalem with impunity, or when medieval torturers tweaked screams out of prisoners with techniques even Dick Cheney would blanch at employing. So I don't "human" has really disappeared from our vocabulary, so much as it has never been fully realized in human society. We have always too easily drawn a line between "us" and "them," and in tolerating George Bush for 8 years, we have done so again. This description of the "enemy" in our "war on terror" is certainly accurate; and it is that "enemy" which was the subject of our torture.
And that's the problem with prosecuting torture: unless we establish a community that is more concerned with morality than existence, we cannot condemn inhuman acts done in the name of our survival. And oddly, the much-praised analsyes of Reinhold Niebuhr are not much help to us here; indeed, they are a hindrance. To get around his conclusions, we first have to establish that torture makes us more vulnerable, not stronger. The better argument for torture has always been that it is inhumane. But what about modern existence doesn't collide directly with our ideals of humanity? Who among us doesn't think Sanders is partially right, and we've lost the sense of what it means to be human? That such a loss may not be so historically new is beside the point. That such a loss may reflect on the failure of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to save us from ourselves, is almost irrelevant. The quesion is, if it is true, what can we do about it? In terms of the current question of what do to about the soon-to-be last Administration: whom can we prosecute? And will that restore our national soul?
As Sanders indicates, the solution is not governmental, it is societal. "We must...recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals, not just for our own sake, but also to create a much-needed community." I would go further, and say the solution is spiritual. Whether a prosecution, any prosecution, would reign in the powers of the Presidency, or establish as a matter of Constitutional law that our system prevents any President from committing illegal acts, the question remains: how do we learn to "recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals"?
Because until we do, can we really expect any system, no matter how well designed, no matter how well intended its function, to do it for us?