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War, torture, and the failure of the American experiment

Once again, an online conversation has elicited enough words from me that I’ve realized they would make for a good blog post. A word of warning, though: I’m afraid it reads like a sermon or lecture. And a rambling one at that. Or worse, it may read like a one-sided conversation — which indeed it is. So caveat lector (let the reader beware).

The topic is the U.S. Senate’s passage last Thursday of the detainee interrogation bill that President Bush had been pushing. In the words of an AP wire piece, “The bill would create military commissions to prosecute terrorism suspects. It also would prohibit some of the worst abuses of detainees like mutilation and rape, but grant the president leeway to decide which other interrogation techniques are permissible.” On the positive side — at least as I see it — the bill “would prohibit war crimes and define such atrocities as rape and torture,” but on the negative side it “otherwise would allow the president to interpret the Geneva Conventions, the treaty that sets standards for the treatment of war prisoners.” In other words, it allows the President to flout international laws, as the AP piece specifically explains: “The legislation . . . says the president can ‘interpret the meaning and application’ of international standards for prisoner treatment, a provision intended to allow him to authorize aggressive interrogation methods that might otherwise be seen as illegal by international courts. ” It also strips away certain standard rights from prisoners who are being held on suspicion of terrorism, including the right to habeas corpus, which allows them to challenge the lawfulness of their imprisonment.

Over at the trusty Shocklines message board, which, if you’re not using it, I can recommend to you as a haven for civilized, intelligent discourse on all sorts of topics beyond the board’s primary association with horror entertainment, someone started a discussion thread about the Senate’s passage of the bill. The thread rapidly grew to gargantuan proportions, with a great many people weighing in with all sorts of views and opinions, some conservative, some liberal, some approving of the content and/or general intent of the bill, others disapproving strongly.

Among many other interesting tangents and angles, one thing that grabbed my attention was the assertion that the U.S. government should simply be allowed to do “whatever it has to do” in order to deal with terrorists and terrorism, including resorting to the “aggressive interrogation methods” — i.e., the use of torture — made possible by the bill in question. This view was stated and supported by more than one participant in the conversation.

It is a view that I simply cannot endorse, for the simple reason that its adoption would ultimately destroy anything of value that America still represents. If we in the U.S. truly give in to the mentality and morality represented by the “whatever we have to do” position, then we may as well go ahead and drop the facade of being a nation founded on principles. The United States was the first nation in history to be founded consciously, rationally, and intentionally upon a set of philosophical, ethical, political, and economic principles, as opposed to just growing up from the soil, as it were, of ethnic loyalties, tribal wars, and the like. Yes, of course, in actual execution the founding of the nation involved all sorts of gritty real-world realities and eventualities that departed from this principled stance. But still, the principles themselves stood front and center for the first time ever, anywhere, on planet earth, and were drawn from the 18th century Enlightenment tradition, which itself emerged out of Renaissance-style humanism, which itself represented a rebirth of classical Roman and, especially, Greek humanism. These principles were central to the whole “American experiment,” as it came to be called, which was nothing more nor less than an attempt to found a nation and a people based not upon inherited membership or identity in a group, but upon rational adherence to an agreed-upon code, a set of rational truths, a philosophy and a worldview. Central to this philosophy were the ideas that all humans are possessed of innate dignity; that government should serve its citizens and not vice versa; that people, both collectively and individually, are and should be treated as ends in themselves instead of means (an idea picked up from Kant); that adherence to reason places all people on an equal footing, regardless of social or ethnic origin; and so on.

If we ever depart definitively from this basis in principles, then we’re finished. And to say that we should just do “whatever is necessary” in a given situation constitutes that very act of abandonment. It’s been repeated so many times that it’s come to sound like a whiny liberal hobby horse, but that doesn’t make it any less true: If we let our enemies goad us into becoming the monstrous entity they say we are, then they’ve definitively won, regardless of any other outcomes.

I think one of the most potent speeches in recent history comes not from a real-world political leader but from Denzel Washington’s character in The Siege, when he argues passionately with Bruce Willis’s character to try and convince him not to torture an Arab prisoner. By that point in the movie’s storyline, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the U.S., inspired by the U.S.’ capture of a popular sheikh and terrorist leader, has aroused a general panic. The U.S. government has begun rounding up Middle Eastern people and placing them in detention camps. A certain prisoner is thought to possess information that might help lead to the capture of other terrorist leaders. And Washington, standing right there in the room with the man about to be tortured, says to Willis, “Come on General! You’ve lost men, I’ve lost men, but you can’t do this! What if they don’t even want the sheikh? Have you considered that? What if what they really want is for us to herd our children into stadiums like we’re doing? And put soldiers on the street and have Americans looking over their shoulders? Bend the law, shred the Constitution just a little bit. Because if we torture him, General, we do that, and everything we have fought, and bled, and died for, is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won!”

Of course, the standard response that can be invoked to counter this type of thinking is obvious: “Okay, then what are we supposed to do if we’re not allowed to use any means necessary to extract vital information from prisoners?” I must admit that I have no specific answers to this. I’m not sure anybody does, and there’s the rub. But I will reiterate my personal opinion, which may seem hopelessly unhelpful and naive, that if we can’t find a better way to go about it than to emulate the very actions we have historically condemned our enemies for — and not just enemies of us, but of liberal humanism and democratic ideals in general — then we really ought to drop all pretense of still being the same nation we set out to be, and just admit that the American experiment has failed.

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Upon reading the argument that I’m advancing here, several participants in the above-described online conversation gave what I consider to be the single most bothersome response that it’s possible to give. One of them in particular stated it with especial blatancy, which I now pass on to you in a paraphrase: “Who cares about principles and standards? Certainly not America’s enemies! They don’t give a flying fuck about our principles and standards, so it’s counterproductive for us to get hung up on them when we’re dealing with such people.”

I can only respond to this with a hearty, “Huh?” I mean, okay, so our enemies don’t share our standards. But what the hell does that matter? The people for whom it’s important that our standards matter is us. If your principles and standards fly out the window as soon as the provocation or opportunity arises — such as, especially, when you find yourself obliged to confont and deal with people who don’t share your standards and may even be hostile to them — then you’re nobody. Or rather, you’re letting the other side define who you are, when in fact it’s those abandoned principles that ought to be doing the defining.

And this is most emphatically not just pie-in-the-sky bullshit. It’s the basic, foundational understanding that underlies and precedes all moral behavior, and all truly civilized behavior in general, in the real world of real people, guns, and wars. You must be the thing you value and the ideal you represent, most especially when you find yourself engaged in a conflict with those who oppose and challenge that ideal. Otherwise you’re just acting as an animal, propagating the jungle law of might-makes-right. And when the conflict is over, if you’ve won, you’ve lost, because what you supposedly stood for has been shredded, and you’ve become your enemy, and you deserve to be destroyed just like they did. In gradeschool terms, if you treat other people the way you don’t like to be treated, then you’re no better than they are.

If you’ll forgive me for pursuing something of a tangent, regarding the U.S. response to 9/11, which legitimately factors into any discussion like the present one, on Friday, September 29th, there was a really pertinent and fascinating interview on NPR with historian Niall Ferguson. The NPR Website summarizes it this way: “Historian Niall Ferguson’s latest book, The War of the World, examines a century of history and finds that the West is well on the way to being eclipsed by Asia. Ferguson tells Steve Inskeep that it’s a destiny that was set a long time ago.” In the course of the interview, Ferguson explained that the current and future failure of the Iraq invasion was predictable based on past experiences in which an outside force tried to spread democracy too quickly to ethnically diverse areas that did not possess a native tradition of civil peace and the rule of law. He worked this into his overall thesis of his book, which presents a rereading of the 20th century’s overall historical arc. In contrast to the traditional view of the 20th century as the “American” century, Ferguson says the decline of America and the West as the major world power began in the first decade of the century with the nascent collapse of the Western empires in Asia and the rise of various eastern nations, most especially Japan, with China close behind, to positions of economic and political importance. He thinks the growing debacle in the Middle East is another front where this trend is making itself known.

Not incidentally, this ties in precisely with Morris Berman’s thesis in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, wherein Berman argues that America is pretty much finished, that our decline on the world stage is not only inevitable but is currently in progress. He reminds us that the British Empire had feet of clay by the turn of the 20th century, which “was really when the rot set in” (cf. an interview posted at his blog). But it took several decades for this reality to become apparent to everybody, including the British themselves. To quote Berman at length:

“The appearance of England in 1902 — after all, Queen Victoria was still alive — was the sun never sets on the British Empire. This was the great power. Down to something like 1950, that was still the image of England. Then an interesting thing happened — the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower was very angry with England, France and Israel, and he threatened to cause the pound to be devalued if England didn’t back off. They knew they had to do it. At that moment, the cultural lag caught up to reality. At that moment there was an international shift. Everybody understood what some people understood in 1910 and 1920 and 1930: that England was no longer a serious player. We are no longer a serious player. It’s just that there are very few people now who recognize it. There has to be something that’s equivalent to Suez. There was some hint of that when Rumsfeld went over to Germany and said to Joschka Fischer, who was then the foreign minister, you’ve got to join us and we’re going to defeat Iraq, and he said, ‘I’m not convinced of any of this.’ That Germany would say to the United States that you’re full of crap, there was already a hint that something had shifted, but it didn’t have the international force of something like Suez. But Suez is in our future. There is no doubt in my mind about that. There will come a time when there will be an incident, and it will be understood that the United States has eaten itself alive and doesn’t have the clout to respond. After that, it will slowly drift in the direction that England has drifted today. People will pay lip service to its grandeur and its history and all that, but a poodle is not a tiger.”

I think this relates directly to what I’ve been talking about here, because all of the dominoes are lining up for America to be exposed badly in our own Suez Crisis, which is probably underway right now in the form of the Iraq disaster and its various political effects and offshoots. And a large part of the recognition that may occur globally — correction, that is occurring and has already occurred to a great many people, and not only abroad but also here at home — is not just that America is politically and economically a paper tiger, but also that we no longer stand for anything like the America of historical myth and Jeffersonian philosophy. That, I think, is and will continue to be at least as important as the more empirical issues of political and economic decline. I think we may have already defeated ourselves, morally speaking — forget about our being overcome by a force from without — and that the current flap over the torture of prisoners is just one example this. That there can even be a debate about it pretty much proves the point. Many influential people want to frame the issue by saying that the U.S. has always tortured prisoners in time of war, and that now we’re just hypersensitive about it because more people are aware of it, probably due to the machinations of a liberal-biased media that hates America. Get over it, this viewpoint counsels us. Sometimes it’s necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts. Well, sorry, but I don’t buy it, for reasons outlined above.

For the sake of clarity, I probably should add that I don’t oppose the use of force. There are indeed just wars. In the present case, I agree wholeheartedly that if we’re dealing with enemies who can’t be reasoned with, then we should forego the reasoning and simply convince them by more physically direct means that they’re fucking with the wrong people. On the other hand, we really need to avoid falling prey to the common delusion that history began on 9/11/01. We’ve manipulated and exploited the Middle East and its people quite egregiously in the name of oil and open markets. So it’s a muddled distribution of blame all around.

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Astute followers of my argument may have noted that I seem to be contradicting myself, since I’m saying in one breath that I don’t buy the claim that sometimes it’s “necessary to get tough and commit unpleasant acts,” but then in the next breath I aver that some wars are just, and that force is sometimes needed. A participant in the Shocklines conversation picked up on this and asked me not only what I think about the present issue of torture, but also about such massively violent acts as America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan in World War II. Did this, he asked, have the effect I’ve been describing here?  Did it degrade us to the level of our enemies?  My answer is that I’m afraid it is indeed a hairsplitting distinction I’m making, with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

The dicey moral dividing line I’m talking about (or attempting to, with much clumsiness probably built in) is found in, for example, the fact that the Geneva Conventions don’t condemn war per se but they do prohibit torture of prisoners, and they define and condemn war crimes. Similarly, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in article 5, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” but the document itself doesn’t go so far as to condemn war outright.

In my view, war is justified in self defense, and all violence of any kind is justified solely in response to aggression. I’ve never been able to avoid feeling ambiguous about some of the huger real-life events and issues, such as the use of atomic weapons against Japan in WWII. Doubtlessly, Truman’s decision saved many thousands of lives in the long run — or more accurately, tens or hundreds of thousands — but then it also led to the by-now almost proverbial observation that while quite a few nations have gone on to acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. has heretofore been the only one crazy enough to actually use them. In the end, yes, I do have to condone Truman’s decision, based simply on the utilitarian, John Stuart Mill-influenced doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number.

But there are some acts that I think cannot be justified under any circumstances, and torture falls among them. Some acts are so very personal, and so very intimate and immediate in their violation of the individual human subject, that they are dehumanizing in the most powerful and literal sense of the word. And this dehumanization applies not only the victim but to the perpetrator as well. It is precisely the sanctity of the individual that lies at the heart of classical American idealism. If America departs from this, it has truly lost its soul.

Having said all that, I return to the recognition of the difficulties inherent in what I’m saying. I do recognize that yes, obviously, there’s a bizarrity of proportion in my position, since I can sit here and type, “I approve of the use of atomic weapons that killed hundreds of thousands,” and then type two seconds later that I disapprove of the torture of one person who possesses information that might help to save a great number of people. I’m not completely comfortable with it, either, but I also can’t deny my own reasoning process with regard to principled action as laid out above. I do take comfort in knowing that I’m pretty much aligned with both the U.N. and the Geneva Conventions, which also harbor this type of contradiction implicitly within their respective ideological worlds.

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There’s surely more to say, and indeed, more was said in the original conversation that elicited all these thoughts from me. But the gist of it all is apparent above. I certainly don’t claim to possess the final word on the matter. I just happen to run this particular blog, and so I’ll use it to present my own thoughts on things. One thing’s for certain, though: It’s a disconcerting and difficult time to be alive and awake as a citizen of the U.S. and a passenger of spaceship earth.