What we learn from the torture debate

(Sekhnet, sticking to her guns, found this post to be more bullshit.  No defense I can offer will justify that sick, misleading shit I posted yesterday, according to her.   Her real horror, I think, is that not only did I describe a truly ugly scene, I presented myself as a merciless bully and a brute, two things I have dedicated myself to not being.) 

The main thing we learn from the torture debate is that humans are capable of justifying virtually anything, in the name of something else.   It is particularly true if the thing we are justifying is a total abstraction to us.  If something doesn’t touch us, if we never see it, hear it, or smell it, it remains completely hypothetical.  

If we’re forced to look at something truly, unbearably ugly, and not allowed to turn away, we might be sickened by it, probably will be.   As long as it’s unseen, far-away, abstract, a matter of principle or wartime strategy, something we personally will never experience, well, that’s not so bad.  We can easily deal with any discomfort a mere idea might raise, make arguments that sound quite reasonable in support of how easily we can dispose of such hard questions as “is it right to torture?” and “isn’t it just your own tough shit that you’re a poor, powerless asshole?”

We can use powerful hypotheticals to support our hypothetical beliefs.  In support of torture we have a great one.  You’ve captured one of the terrorist bombers who knows where the ticking time bomb is hidden.   You see this on TV and in movies from time to time.  We’ve seen the evildoer planning this, grimly laughing about it, planting the bomb, we all know he’s the guy, and then, against all odds, Jack Bauer captures him.  Bauer knows the rules, put in place by privileged, high-minded legalistic pussies, but he also knows the stakes.   He knows he has a duty to do whatever it takes to get this evil bastard to tell him where the bomb is that is going to blow up thousands of innocent people.  He breaks the guy’s nose, for starters, to show he’s serious as cancer about saving those children.  Who could blame him?

In the real world this “ticking time bomb” scenario is very unusual, having the guilty terrorist shackled to a chair with hours or minutes until the bomb he planted goes off virtually never happens.   Yet, the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical is convincing enough for most people to reason “hey, they hate our freedom, they’ve already killed thousands of us, are currently beheading and crucifying others of us… better to err on the side of caution.  Sometimes you have to go to the dark side and do unthinkable things to protect higher values, and innocent lives.”

I always picture the “Worst of the worst” in Gitmo, most of whom have been quietly released over the years.   I imagine the ugly smirk on the face of the longtime enemy of the sixty year-old Afghani pediatrician as he walks away counting the $25,000 in tip money the Bush/Cheney Administration doled out from a huge wad of bills to those who turned in terror-related bad guys.   He is picturing his old enemy stripped naked and doused in piss, in a freezing cell, denying, ever more weakly, that he has any connection to Al-Queda or the Taliban or anyone else they are harshly questioning him about.   The laugh of that cynical, mercenary weasel who gave false witness against his neighbor is what I picture when I think of many of the people America tortured recently.  

Again, the “ticking time bomb” rationale is  good enough for those who feel due process is not due to bad people, or people we strongly suspect may be bad people, or people somebody said are bad.  It’s more than good enough for people who never need to think about  things like due process in the first place.   If the person is innocent, he has nothing to worry about while he’s being tortured, right?   Besides, we have a million other more pressing problems than what’s being done in our name, to protect us, in secret sites around the world.

I decided in the previous piece, duly objected to by Sekhnet who raised a loud alarm (she’d been a victim of a sick sibling’s bullying as a girl, doesn’t tolerate bullies and urged me to take down the offensive post), to show in action how easy it is to torture anybody you have the power to torture, if you have no qualms about doing it.  

The narrator believes he is making a point worth making by any means necessary.   I would argue that the narrator’s treatment of his guest was far less harrowing than a similar session at any of the “black sites” where people suspected of being America’s enemies were roughed up far worse.   Nonetheless, it was undeniably a horrific breach of one human’s duty of decency toward another, in its quiet, sick, immediately identifiable way.  I mean, everybody’s got to urinate after they drink a lot, that’s a pretty universal human need.  I, personally, would never do it to anybody, but I can clearly see it, and exactly how it would turn out.

As I wrote to Sekhnet: 

The point I was trying to make in the piece is that if someone is determined to be brutal, and is stronger than the other party (or well-armed), an individual, with all the best arguments in the world, with right completely on his side, cannot resist that brutality.   It’s that helplessness against inevitable violence that is the corrosive heart of torture.

The fictional wealthy lawyer who was subjected to this cruel psychological experiment would be rightfully filled with anger and hatred towards someone who could pose as his friend only to win a stalemated argument by forcing him to piss himself.  Totally unfair!  Inhuman.

Exactly the point I was trying to make about the cruel, merciless heart of torture.   Once you go to the dark side, and justify it with highflown moral arguments, hell’s the limit.  No?

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