Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Here be Tygers

Time to bring this up again:
Torture, as the former vice-president's words suggest, is a critical issue in the present of our politics—and not only because of ongoing investigations by Senate committees, or because of calls for an independent inquiry by congressional leaders, or for a "truth commission" by a leading Senate Democrat, or because of demands for a criminal investigation by the ACLU and other human rights organizations, and now undertaken in Spain, the United Kingdom, and Poland.[3] For many in the United States, torture still stands as a marker of political commitment—of a willingness to "do anything to protect the American people," a manly readiness to know when to abstain from "coddling terrorists" and do what needs to be done. Torture's powerful symbolic role, like many ugly, shameful facts, is left unacknowledged and undiscussed.
By "this" I mean:
We are sure that there are "universal" values that have always been respected by "decent people," or that what has changed is a result of "progress." We consider slavery universally reviled, even as it is still practiced in some parts of the world. We abhor torture, even as we teach other countries (our neighbors to the south, for example) to do it. We are quite sure we long ago gained the pinnacle of civilization, and yet children did not begin to be valued as "little adults" until after the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the "middle class." Child labor laws were tacitly upheld by Teddy Roosevelt (he refused to meet with "Mother Jones" when she lead a "Children's Crusade" march to his summer home in upstate New York when he was President). It was later into the 20th century than most of us think before child labor was outlawed. When Jesus said "you must become like a child" to enter the basiliea tou theou, most NT scholars today agree that meant become as worthless as a child in 1st century Palestine, not innocent as a lamb in 19th century Britain (and then only if you were white and aristocratic).

But surely on more "serious" issues, such as death and torture, there has been agreement throughout time, or at least throughout Western culture?
" ... the modern liberal’s revulsion toward torture is unusual. As Nietzsche and Foucault remind us, through most of human history there was no taboo on torture in military and juridical contexts, and so no need to repress the infantile sadism that nature has be-queathed us. Indeed, Judith Shklar notes a remarkable fact, namely that cruelty did not seem to figure in classical moral thought as an important vice: "[O]ne looks in vain for a Platonic dialogue on cruelty. Aristotle discusses only pathological bestiality, not cruelty. Cruelty is not one of the seven deadly sins . . . . The many manifestations of cupidity seem, to Saint Augustine, more important than cruelty." It is only in relatively modern times, Shklar thinks, that we have come to "put cruelty first"—that is, regard it as the most vicious of all vices. She thinks that Montaigne and Montesquieu, both of them proto-liberals, were the first political philosophers to think this way; and, more generally, she holds that "hating cruelty, and putting it first [among vices], remain a powerful part of the liberal consciousness." Shklar also observes that putting cruelty first, as liberals do, incurs genuine moral costs: "It makes political action difficult beyond endurance, may cloud our judgment, and may reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy . . . ."
David Luban (pdf file) makes a compelling argument. His argument, in a nutshell, is this: "I am arguing that torture is a microcosm, raised to the highest level of intensity, of the tyrannical political relationships that liberalism hates the most." The arguments against it, he points out, are based on five "illiberal" motives: cruelty; victor's pleasure ("The predominant setting for torture has always been military victory. The victor captures the enemy and tortures him."); terror ("a practice that exists to make it easier to subdue and tyrannize people is fundamentally hostile to liberals’ political philosophy."); punishment ("Foucault argues that the abolition of punitive torture had little to do with increased humanitarianism. Instead, it had to do with a change in the distribution of crime in Western Europe. As the West grew more prosperous, property crimes eclipsed crimes of passion as a social problem. This led to calls for a milder but more certain system of punishments. The trouble with torture is that when the punishment is so awful, the temptation to mercy becomes too great. Imprisonment, out of sight and out of mind, replaced the public spectacle of torment."); and for extracting confessions.
"Imprisonent out of sight and out of mind," Foucault mentions, replaced the public spectacle of torment. So we got Guantanamo; and "black sites." And an Administration determined to hide what is was doing, even as it still tries to assure us:
I think those programs were absolutely essential to the success we enjoyed of being able to collect the intelligence that let us defeat all further attempts to launch attacks against the United States since 9/11. I think that's a great success story.
Now, one side of this is that we are being told now that this is news, something known no earlier than 2008. But Jane Meyer's reporting on medical personnel involved in torture dates back to 2005. This isn't news at all. But, as Mr. Danner says:
We will continue in an endless round-robin of revelation, in which we tell ourselves we are learning something new though in fact, when it comes to the central problem of torture—what we as a society should do about it and whether we will in fact do anything—we are in the end simply repeating to ourselves things, however increasingly detailed and awful, that we already know.
So that process has already begun.

The fact is, we like torture, even as the arguments against it become utilitarian ("Torture doesn't work!") rather than moral ("Torture is cruel and unusual punishment.") Indeed, the Constitutional phrase is a problematic one, redolent of a more moral universe, and a poor guide to current deliberations. Is capital punishment banned under such a phrase? Solitary confinement? But what if they are effective? What if they work? Surely what is effective should override any objections about what is cruel. Perhaps that is why the ancients had no discussion of cruelty in the first place. Aristotle's ethics, after all, were not about what is universally right, about what we generally mean when we talk about "morality." The Nicomachean Ethics are about what behavior most efficaciously achieves the telos of happiness. And that depends, for Aristotle, upon bending your behavior to fit the pattern of the most successful and happy persons in your society. Concern for cruelty is concern for the other, no matter who the other is; and that is a spiritual, a religious, concern. It is neither utilitarian, nor classically Hellenistic.

The "endless round-robin of revelation" can begin again because Mr. Cheney is out of power. Now the press can acknowledge what has been in plain sight all along. But it's worse than that, in so many ways. At the bottom of the NYT article there's this:
Another critic of medical involvement in harsh interrogation, Dr. Steven H. Miles, a physician at the Center for Bioethics of the University of Minnesota, said he had counted about 70 cases worldwide after World War II in which physicians were punished for participating in torture or related crimes. Most were in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, he said. None have been in the United States.
So even as we reveal the truth to ourselves again, even more inconvenient truths arise; and will be bat them away? These truths threaten to uncover more truths; the circle of discovery widens. As Ms. Mayer notes, it wasn't just medical personnel who were involved:
“I spent two years trekking around the country, finding out that they were manifestly untruthful,” Sands said. “I’ve got a particular bugbear about lawyers,” he added. “If not for lawyers, none of these abuses would have ever occurred.”
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But is this merely a "liberal" sin, one conservatives don't deem a sin at all? Did 9/11 really change everything?

Danner says of Cheney's story on US torture:
Cheney's story is made not of facts but of the myths that replace them when facts remain secret: myths that are fueled by allusions to a dark world of secrets that cannot be revealed. At its heart is the recasting of President George W. Bush, under whose administration more Americans died in terrorist attacks than under all others combined, as the leader who "kept us safe," and who was able to do so only by recognizing that the US had to engage in "a tough, mean, dirty, nasty business." To keep the country safe "the gloves had to come off." What precisely were those "gloves" that had to be removed? Laws that forbid torture, that outlaw wiretapping and surveillance without permission of the courts, that limit the president's power to order secret operations and to wage war exactly as he sees fit.
But is that a myth? Do we all agree on "the tyrannical political relationships that liberalism hates the most"? Have we fully accepted those as definitive of the body politic, if we understand "liberalism" in this context as the Enlightenment political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, rather than loosely defined political labels? We say we have, and so torture is cruel, and cruelty is bad on a variety of well reasoned political grounds; but Mr. Cheney arises to put the lie to our convictions. Is he weaving a mythology of his own making? Or is he reverting to a world we thought as dead and buried as the Manichean heresy or the flat earth theorists? Maybe heresies are as unkillable in social orders as they are in religious ones.

What is not mythological is the world as Mr. Cheney sees it; and, ironically, it is a world not that far removed from the world of Mr. Danner. Mr. Cheney thinks our failure to torture will lead to further attacks on the U.S. Mr. Danner believes our inability to protect the country from any future terrorist attack means we will once again demand torture against our perceived enemies in order to prevent, or at least respond to, further attacks after the imagined next one. Both assumes radical effects from relatively simple causes. Which view is mythological, and which rational? Where were the cries for torture of prisoners after 9/11? Where were the cries for incarcerating any male with a "Muslim" name or "Middle Eastern" appearance? The latter happened, and there was little outcry against it, but it wasn't widely supported and it faded rapidly. Were there public demands for black sites and Guantanamo? If so, they never reached the ears of the Supreme Court, which never supported any legal theory the Administration put forward for the prison camp in Cuba. And no one ever took to the streets demanding such places for our own protection. Elections might not have turned on the issue as a negative one, but neither did they ever turn on the issue as a positive one, either.

Whose myth explains this?

The myth that torture works is usually exemplified by the ticking bomb scenario. It is the myth that torture works as a kind of infallible "truth serum," and the myth that truth is objective, real, and can be known. We know this isn't true. Even Christopher Hitchens admits that. So many myths; so little time to dismantle them all. And when we do, what do we have? We still have men like Dick Cheney, insisting the world is safe because of them. Or men like Douglas Feith, insisting they had no responsibility for what was done with their opinions, that they were only advising a President:
“It’s not a happy thing for the Spanish Court to think of prosecuting Americans for advice they gave to the President of the United States!”
We still have entertainments like the "Saw" series, in which victims are tortured until some truth, which justifies the horror and turns the audience from sadistic voyeurs to judge and jury, is revealed. And we know it's true: why would a torture victim lie?

Foucault notes the change in attitudes toward torture, and the behavior of Feith and Cheney confirm it. We don't torture; so they do back flips to justify their actions, point to invisible evidence as proof of their claims, even deny any responsibility for jobs they were proud to do when the mantle of power protected them from the consequences of their actions. Torture is as damning as racism, as verboten as racial prejudice. But is that because putting cruelty first "makes political action difficult beyond endurance, may cloud our judgment, and may reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy"? Or is it the opposite? Or is there a political way to avoid a debilitating misanthropy, at all?

Well, first, let's be honest: we put cruelty first among political vices only by paying lip service to the idea. We regularly keep prisoners in solitary confinement, housed in a cell just large enough for a cot 23 hours a day. Oddly, we don't consider such isolation either cruel or unusual, even as Russian astronauts go into a locked room for 105 months to train for a Mars mission. 6 men will share 2,152 square feet, but the test is necessary because:
"It is of paramount importance to understand the psychological and physiological effects of long-duration confinement, to be able to prepare the crews in the best way possible and to learn about important aspects of the vehicle design."
Important for astronauts; but prisoners are not people. Dick Cheney is not like us; not in the least:
When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.... These are evil people. And we're not going to win this fight by turning the other cheek.

If it hadn't been for what we did—with respect to the...enhanced interrogation techniques for high-value detainees...—then we would have been attacked again. Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the US....

—Former Vice President Dick Cheney, February 4, 2009
So cruelty is, like so many terms, a relative one. It's application all depends on whose ox has been gored, and who we are being cruel to.

What we are forced to confront, as a country, as a culture, is the true legacy of World War II: that America is above the world, and beyond reproach, and can do no wrong because whatever we do is just, and we cannot be subjected to international proceedings and foreign courts. That's essentially Douglas Feith's response to the Spanish investigation into his work in Washington under George Bush. Philippe Sands tells Jane Mayer :
“If I were they,” he said, referring to the former officials in question, “I would think carefully before setting foot outside the United States. They are now, and forever in the future, at risk of arrest. Until this is sorted out, they are in their own legal black hole.”
But frankly, that's advice that makes more sense in Europe than in America. It's easy to travel freely in America and never leave the country. Unless the Spanish government is going to send officers to arrest Mr. Feith or any of the other six currently under investigation in Cozumel or the Bahamas, it's hard to imagine them feeling terribly restricted in their movements. At least not as restricted as an American would feel if he or she was confined to Germany, or Switzerland, or Belgium. Still, there's a certain schadenfreude in thinking John Yoo wouldn't dare take a vacation in Paris, or attend a seminar on law in London or Berlin. It's better than nothing.

But it isn't justice, is it?

It's a start, yes. The legacy of World War II has withered from America as the salvation of the world, to America as Lord Protector of the world. The legacy of Vietnam was, for too long, the unjust war that left us so ashamed it took Rambo to make us feel better, and left the lingering doubt for decades that POW's and MIA's were left behind. Maybe this will become the true legacy of Vietnam: that justice must be done among nations, not just war. But in the meantime, we still have to deal with torture; and not just as a nation, not just through our representatives and our government's lawyers, our courts and juries and prisons; we have to deal with it in our souls. What does it mean when we, the people, torture? Because nothing is done in this democracy that is not done in our names, in our authority, in our place. What does it mean that our agents perpetrated torture, whether our best and brighest (our lawyers, our doctors) or just our most dutiful and honorable servants: our soldiers? Do we truly consider cruelty one of the seven deadly sins? Or is that only when it applies to us, and people like us? Has our abandonment of cruelty allowed our political system to "reduce us to a debilitating misanthropy"? Or is it our ethical system that has done that? The one that places what makes us happy, above what is right?

We aren't to blame, but we are responsible. We can engage in the "endless round-robin of revelation." Or we can face facts. We are no better than we have ever been. But we can be; we can be much, much better.

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