Friday, April 24, 2009

Notes on Torture from a Lapsed Catholic

1. I am not a believer; however, I was raised by Catholics. What remains from that is a certain ingrained morality: I believe that certain acts are morally wrong, without question, and that committing them harms the person they are committed against and the person who commits them. An example, would be lying. I believe it hurts the person lied to by deceiving them, and degrades the soul of the liar. As you can imagine, I am not tolerant towards plagiarism.

Even in the case in which a morally unjust act prevents a greater tragedy- lying to protect a potential victim of persecution, for instance- I believe that the transgression must ultimately be atoned for. In the "ticking time-bomb scenario" I would likely torture the terrorist who knew where the bombs were hidden: and I would expect to be prosecuted. This, I think, is the distinction between justice and power. It's also why I think mixing politics (power) with religion degrades any sort of ethical thinking.

2. In the case of torture, I am intolerant. Torture is ethically wrong. Full stop. The example that some people site- fraternity hazing- actually points to what is so evil about torture; a frat-house hazing victim can leave. He has autonomy over the safety of his body. Ultimately, he can determine his existential fate. Andrew Sullivan notes that the Catholic Church considers several injuries against a person to be "infamies", including, "whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself."

Another example is that of prisoners. Most societies imprison people, and there is an agreement made when we put people in jail: we can remove your freedom of movement as a punishment, but we cannot remove your autonomy over your own body. We cannot remove your right to protect yourself from violence. In fact, violence may not be done to prisoners. This is what distinguishes the loss of freedom in jail from that in the system of slavery: the slave did not just lose his freedom of movement, but the freedom to protect himself from violence, and in the basest existential sense, to determine his own fate. In some sense, this ability to be tortured at the will of another is what made him a slave. It set the psychological stamp of slavery.

3. The fact is that you cannot "untorture" someone. Torture makes the clear statement- you cannot defend your body from attack- should I choose to, I can hurt you, I can kill you, and you have no means to stop it. You have no power to determine the fate of your body. In the most basic sense, it is a removal of will. This is the most concrete sort of unfreedom, and the psychological results of torture are therefore akin to those of rape.

Therefore, I honestly do not care if we're discussing tearing out fingernails, waterboarding, slamming people into walls, physically degrading them, or psychologically terrorizing them- the message is simply, "you have no autonomy over your own body, and therefore no say in your own fate." This is imprisonment tending towards the condition of slavery.

4. This is also degrading to those who were pressured to commit the act. I remain convinced that, God or none, all healthy people retain an innate sense of right and wrong. A child could recognize torture for what it is. Party functionaries perhaps lack this ability. I do not know if Alyssa Peterson really killed herself because she was pressured to torture. But, I hear Kayla Williams, who witnessed torture as a Sergeant in a military intelligence company, and writes:

"If soldiers -- or CIA personnel, or anyone -- spend months demeaning, mistreating, or even torturing other human beings, what does that do to them in the long run? How do these people treat their spouses or small children when they come home? Do they have nightmares later? Do they begin to doubt themselves? In all of the high-level discussions, the debate on whether or not these documents should have been released, let us not lose sight of this: those who were encouraged by our highest levels of government to commit torture and told it was legal to do so -- they too are victims."

Ultimately, I would be loath to prosecute people who were put in this sort of position. But, I think this displays, if anything, the complete corruption of their higher-ups who told them torture was now acceptable and then hung them out to dry as "a few bad apples".

What is to be done? I have no idea.

5. Lastly, I think this gets at the true dangers of what people now call "political polarization": this sort of madness that views every aspect of life through a political prism succeeds only in erasing all ethical questions from the board. Political parties- all of them- exist in order to secure power for themselves. This is a moment to step back from that. I have no doubt that there were Democrats as well as Republicans who sanctioned or supported torture, just as I have no doubt that many of them will make any justification they can to condone torture. In fact, I can easily imagine a situation in which a Democratic administration sanctioned torture and Republicans argued that it is always morally wrong. These people believe in nothing- they are power people, not ethical people. They are the true postmodernists. The civilians who carry their water are lickspittles.

But this also points to a certain degradation of the mass media. CNN, FOX, MSNBC- all of them have and will continue to discuss torture as if we live in a universe without any ethics whatsoever, in which the only considerations we have to structure our decisions are "What would a Republican do? What would a Democrat do?" This is not just a matter of missing the point- it's a matter of arguing that the point does not exist.

The explicit message is that ethical considerations do not exist. It's astonishing that so many "religious" people allow themselves to be sucked into the miasma of politics and mass culture. Something wicked this way comes.

6. The key fact here: Western Civilization after the Enlightenment is founded on a Lockean idea of innate human rights that cannot exist if there are some people who are tortureable and some who are not- not just some people in America, but some people on earth who we take as such. The right to be free of violence, fear, and coercion is the basis of our civilization.

Hannah Arendt noted the contradiction here- rights are innate, but most be ensured by political powers. And yet, we trudge on. This is the ideal- it has never been fully achieved. At times, it will break down. I have no doubt that horrible things will happen in time of war. But, if we make those things the norm, our civilization as it has hitherto existed, will cease to be. If we ultimately abandon the never ending effort to live up to the ideals of the Enlightenment for reasons of power, we will have ceded civilization to a sort of technocratic barbarism, and we will we become the sort of people fit to live under such barbarism.