He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Torture is in the news again this week. Apparently, Democrats are saying that more torture has happened than was originally claimed, or it was worse than it was originally thought, or something along those lines.
I haven’t looked at the claims carefully because I’m not sure that it matters. What is more interesting to me is how Americans are reacting to the news.
Some of my conservative friends are telling me that this is a calculated move by Democrats to distract America from the things they should actually be upset about. That claim probably has some merit. After all, the Democrats don’t have a very good record on torture either. If you look at the promises that President Obama made about transparency, and handling detainees, and about ending the worst civil rights abuses of the Bush administration, he’s been an abject disappointment on all of these topics. So, if the Democrats had a principled problem with torture, they’re choosing a strange time to make noise about it.
You can always count on the two party system to sidestep principles, and to instead attempt to berate the other team for doing the same darn thing. I think what’s going on lately has that odor to it.
But the other reason that I haven’t looked at the claims carefully is because my opinion hasn’t changed since this stuff first hit the news years ago. If the claims are true, then basically, the US government has, at some point, been behaving even worse than we were led to believe, and was being dishonest about it. Would that surprise anyone?
What is surprising to me – and why I’m writing – is because of how some of my friends are reacting to the news. Specifically, I’m seeing more people than I expected to see defending the alleged activities.
When American citizens defend torture, that’s worth writing about.
I come at this problem from a slightly different perspective than many traditional opponents of how we handle combatants in the War on Terror. I actually don’t care very much what happens to those people. I’ve seen a lot of memes on facebook and elsewhere where folks are expressing that they don’t lose any sleep over how terrorists and terror suspects are treated, and emotionally, I’m inclined to agree with that point.
Rather, the reason I am opposed to the US government engaging in torture is not because it is bad for the bad guys, but because it is bad for us.
There are two angles of this that I think about – the societal one, and the personal one.
The personal one is easier. In short, most of the people who have been asked, on behalf of the American government to go out and hurt others – didn’t like it. I don’t mean that our Veterans aren’t proud of what they did. I mean that for those of our Veterans who took lives in combat, the majority of them – the overwhelming majority of them – are haunted by it.
There appears to be a relationship between the moral ambiguity of the situation that leads up to a killing, and how the killer feels about it later. People that are in a self-defense situation where there is a clear aggressor that cannot be escaped tend to feel better about having taken life. Guys who think they are responsible for firing the shot that killed an innocent kid often return from the job emotionally broken.
The point is that most of us are hardwired to suffer when we inflict suffering upon others, and the less certain we are that we did the right thing, the more we suffer.
The scope of this suffering is wider than you might suspect. Research indicates that butchers who work in animal slaughterhouses have a higher than average frequency of psychological disorders than do office workers. It would appear that even frequent killing of animals in the most humane and methodical way possible can have a negative impact on the humans doing the killing.
Consider then, the act of torturing another human. There is no way to deny that you are harming a human, and there is no ambiguity about who is causing the harm. I have never heard anyone claim that is it healthy for person A to torture person B. Even in psychological studies of revenge, which might be applicable, the human satisfaction comes only from observing that the victim of revenge understands why they have been punished. This may be the case if the victim is actually guilty of something, but for so many of the victims of US torture, there is no evidence that this is the case – certainly not evidence that would meet evidentiary standards in the US justice system.
I’m not sure we’ll ever get to ask the people who have been torturing others on behalf of the US government how they felt about it, but I feel comfortable saying that it isn’t good for them. One of the factors that is implicated in having a soldier successfully reintegrate into American society post deployment is when he has a support network that believes in his mission and that he behaved honorably. Some Americans would feel very good about inviting over “the torture guy” for backyard grilling, but many wouldn’t. Americans are split on the issue.
One of the things I’ve read from my conservative friends this week is that “I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe”, and variations on that theme. All I can say is that, I honestly hope they aren’t serious. I hope that they haven’t really thought through what they’re saying.
This brings me to point two: the societal cost of torture.
I think it is important for America to continue to be the moral leader of the world. Not leader in terms of an authoritarian entity which orchestrates world affairs, but a leader that demonstrates the correct values and behavior; a leader that all people and all societies should want to imitate.
Sometime in the last 50 years, the nature of Heroism changed in America.
One stark illustration of this is the treatment of government and justice in American Comic Books. I’m going to nerd out on comics for a moment, but for many years, the Comics Code forbade negative depictions of police or government, forbade positive portrayals of insurrection or civil disobedience, and required comics to depict a general respect for authority.
Think about the comic book characters of your youth. Did Batman kill the bad guys, or did he tie them up? What about Superman? Spiderman? What about every other classic comic hero?
In the classic comics, there was a stark, incredible difference between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. That difference was based on values, ideology, and behavior. Superman has always had the power to vaporize anyone he wanted to, anytime he wanted to. Why didn’t he? Why did Batman work so hard to put guys away, only to have the apparently incompetent prison system release them within a few months so he would have to catch them again?
In America’s history, good guys behaved a certain way. Critically, not only did they not torture people who were comic-book levels of evil, but they didn’t even kill them. They had values, and they opposed methods that only criminals or evil-doers would use. There was nothing subtle about this – it was spelled out and monologued at length by the various protagonists.
Now, consider the comic heroes of the modern era. They are anti-heroes. Punisher was my favorite comic hero as an angry teen, because he just killed whoever needed killing and didn’t bother with the red tape of “the system”. Look at how Batman has been recast in the latest series of films. Today’s comic book heroes use methods that the villains of yesterday couldn’t get away with. The heroes of today are morally ambiguous. A theme of the modern anti-hero is to question if he is doing good at all; readers are asked to consider yet again if the ends justify the means.
A fair – and old — question is: how do we tell the good guys from the bad guys if they both do the same things?
What I grew up learning about was how evil the USSR was – because it was an authoritarian place, with secret prisons, and torture, and where people were jailed without ever having charges filed against them. When I was a kid, that was the picture of evil that was painted… a picture provided to be the contrasting backdrop against which to paint my own government… my Just society.
And to what end? The US now runs secret prisons, and now tortures people, and now detains people indefinitely without ever charging them. Certainly, the degree to which the US does these things has not approached the degree to which the USSR did them, but when I was a kid, the conversation wasn’t “The USSR tortures more prisoners than the US”, the conversation was, “the USSR tortures people, and the Good Guys don’t”.
We now have Americans – patriots who truly mean well and love their country and their neighbors – who have said, “I’d do anything [to get information from a terrorist]”
I hope that’s not true — because “anything” covers some pretty deplorable acts of evil.
If you claim you’d do anything to fight terrorists, how far would you go? Would you make a video of yourself beheading a terrorist, and broadcast it in Muslim nations? Would you film yourself raping enemy women? Would you authorize blowing up schools full of enemy children? Would you indiscriminately attack civilians in places where you think terrorists might be?
Would you still think you were one of the “Good Guys” if you did these things?
Note that I don’t fault the individuals who say this. I think the instinct of most people is to say, and to believe about themselves, “I’d do anything to protect what’s important”. It is precisely because we know this about ourselves that we have a system in place that is supposed to prevent us from getting carried away while doing it. Our system attempts to suppress the emotional response; to suppress the revenge response, and replace it with a process that can be audited; that is fair, that is Just.
I’ve heard someone else say, specifically, that “we have to use terrorist tactics to fight terrorism”.
I just can’t accept that.
If we allow our ideology to be perverted to the point that we torture others, or rape, or distribute films of beheadings… what do we stand for? If we actually go and do those things – the very same things that are deplorable when terrorists do them – what are we?
If we change what we stand for and what we do, to be roughly identical to our enemies, why even fight them? They are us. We are them.
I understand that comic books aren’t real. But the America I grew up in doesn’t torture people – even bad people. It doesn’t have indefinite detention. It doesn’t have secret prisons. These are values – statements of principle; lines we do not cross. They are boundaries that good people don’t go outside of; they make it clear where the good ends and the bad begins.
They are inconvenient. They are impractical. But they are important. What we stand for — and critically, how we behave – are the only differences between us and the bad guys. If we want to be the good guys – if we want to tell our kids why our society is worth fighting for – we need to be able to paint a clear picture between right and wrong, good and bad. And then we need to live within it.
I’m glad that so many fellow Americans want to bring the fight to terrorists. Ours is the greatest nation that has ever existed. It is worth fighting for.
Let’s not destroy it in the process of saving it.