Monday, April 27, 2009

Why it matters....



The recent revelations of the American torture policy have obviously struck a nerve with me. A week has elapsed since the release of the OLC memos detailing the horrific legal justifications for institutionalized torture and I still can't yet let it go. Now that the sensationalistic aspects have had a chance to mature, I find myself less appalled by what occured than by what has been the subsequent response of the American people. It's shocking to me that there is not a national unanimity in condemning what was, in essence, a state sponsored and organized torture program. For some reason, the national response has not been one of collective embarassment and mourning. You read the op-eds from national newspapers, the blogosphere, and you find, maybe not a 50-50 split, but nowhere near the overwhelming majority of Americans you'd expect who denounce this national travesty. The talking heads on Fox News. Glenn Beck. The opinion pieces from the Weekly Standard and the National Review. Michael Hayden and Rush Limbaugh. We have the ludicrous Mike Huckabee joking about how "he's stayed in hotels with scarier bugs than the ones Zubaydah had to deal with". (HAHAHAHAHA!) And of course, there's the incredible Peggy Noonan dismissively saying that some things ought to "remain mysterious" and that we ought to just "walk on by" without looking.

That we don't have a unanimous stance on these revelations is simply mind boggling. You see, this torture issue represents a benchmark of sorts for how we gauge our relative moral standing. It isn't just the latest 24 hour tabloid phenomenon a la Craigslist med student killer! or Obama kneels before an Islamic ruler! What's happening now is actually quite rare. The torture revelations must make us pause, look under the hood so to speak, and make sure that the hidden moral engine that has kept American life humming along without much critical examination for so many years is worthy of continual operation. How we manage the aftershocks of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib is extraordinarily important. Rarely does life present us with an event that challenges those fundamental principles upon which we base this thing called western civilization. Resorting to cliched partisan motifs would be disrespectful to those who have lived, thought, and struggled with the same philosophical difficulties over the past two thousand years.

Philosophy is not just some esoteric activity that occurs behind ivy covered walls amongst elitist intellectuals. Philosophy is all around us, invisible, the ghost in the machine that keeps the machine from breaking down. It determines how we interact with one another, our conduct and how we agree to govern our behavior. It's about what it means to be a human being on an integral level. How do you think it all holds together otherwise?

So I'd like to get inside the torture apologist's head for a moment; to try and discover what rational principles are driving their vitriol. When dealing with questions of moral conduct, we can simplify the various systems into those that focus on the Action (normative ethics) versus those that attribute more weight to the Effect of said action. Means and ends. It's the simplest way to organize moral philosophy. Action-dominated moral codes are best represented by Plato's Forms, Kantian categorical imperatives, and even most religious dogma (i.e. the Ten Commandments.) The Act of an individual determines one's relative moral standing, irrespective of the outcomes of said act. Murder is wrong. Theft is wrong. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Of course, not all Act-dominated systems are so inflexibly black and white. There is a spectrum, from situational ethics to iron-clad dogma. Nevertheless, normative moral codes are obviously ill-suited to the goals of the torture apologists. No one would try to make the argument that torture is ok, in and of itself. Your only recourse is to deny that torture occured, to alter the language of the discourse. It isn't actually torture, we've been hearing. Alternative procedures. Enhanced interrogation methods. Torture-lite. Choose your own euphemism. Of course this evasion of reality crumbles upon closer inspection. Torture is clearly defined. The United States tortured. Therefore, the apologists have no choice but to resort to consequentialist justifications.

Utilitarian or consequentialist ethical systems are not so concerned with one's behavior. The determinant of moral worth instead rests on whether or not the Act leads to a positive result, i.e. "the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people". The argument then becomes: torture, or whatever you want to call it, is justified because it "saved lives" and prevented future attacks on American soil. This is what Dick Cheney is trying to tell us. He wants memos released that will demonstrate unequivocally that information gleaned from torture led to actionable intelligence which helped protect America. That's his ace in the hole.

But does this reasoning satisfactorily justify the Act of torture? Cheney's rationale represents the simplest, most superficial interpretation of utilitarianism imaginable. He is basically promulgating the conjecture that any means will justify the stated end, arbitrarily defined as "American security interests". The reality of the situation is that consequentialist moral codes are much more complex and nuanced. An Act will inevitably have a variety of effects. Arbitrarily focusing on the effect of "improved national security" ignores other consequences that arise from nationalized torture: international condemnation, violation of the rule of law, its function as a propagandistic recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic sects, the untrustworthiness of the intelligence gathered via such methods, and the betrayal of American ideals. Taken all together, how well did torture actually "work", from a pragmatist perspective? If this is Cheney's only argument, I feel bad for him. It's inane, intellectually trifling, and almost insulting to any average person who would take five minutes to think about it. And now we are hearing from front line FBI interrogators (Ali Soufan, Robert Mueller) that the torture campaign was neither reliable nor especially effective, when compared to classical, legal interrogation methods. There were no ticking time bomb plots that were foiled. It seems now that much of the torture was used on detainees in order to establish a now discredited link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. You're damn right Zubaydah was waterboarded 183 times! We have a war to justify!

All that aside, I would like to grant for a moment Cheney's claim that torture preserved American security for the past eight years. Let's say Jack Bauer broke up a plot to explode a nuclear bomb in Cleveland, Ohio in 2005 by torturing a terrorist to get the vital information. Is this sufficient? Is Cheney off the hook, morally?

The problem with strict consequentialist morality is that it allows for any Act, as long as the desired End is achieved. But all results, all effects are inevitably darkened a bit by the shadows cast by Acts which give rise to them. The shadow cast by torture is much darker than most. It is one of those intrinsically evil acts that poisons our lives, no matter what fruit is produced by its labor. If it's ok to torture to protect American lives, then everything is permitted. The equation becomes sadistically simple. As long as it "works", the CIA/military has carte blanche to do what will. The same argument can be used for rape and child abuse and the murder of innocents. Whatever it takes to maintain "national security". Let Cheney come forward with his memos. Let him show us what his evil has wrought.

On previous posts on this subject, anonymous commenters have asked me what I would do if someone broke into my home and threatened my family. (Not that this is in any way, shape, or form analogous to illegal state-sponsored torture). I would do whatever it took to protect them, obviously, including killing the intruder. But I wouldn't feel good about. I would be angry that I had been placed in the unwinnable position of being forced to either watch loved ones be harmed or to violate my moral principles. Although justified, the murder would defile me to some extent. I would feel diminished, a lesser human than the one I had been before. But it would be a burden I bore on my own, through my own doing. Cheney is asking us to bear an indefensible moral burden for far more abstract, depersonalized, and uncertain reasons. We are bearing it despite never being asked. It was thrust upon us. And this is why accountability is crucial. What Cheney et al did was an unconscionable betrayal of the public trust. We cannot just simply "turn the page". There must be punishment. It's too important. The fabric of human society is precariously thin; once you start allowing threads to unravel, it isn't long until the entire structure comes undone. That is all....

24 comments:

AB said...

Wow Buckeye, excellent post.

BR Morrissey said...

Keep up the excellent commentary on this subject. Your insight is a lost art.

azcrazy said...

I agree wholeheartedly. I hate that so many of us remain quiet when our values, rights and trusts were trampled on by the last administration in the name of "terror fighting". We should be clamoring for trials of those who determined that torture was justified and praying that our stance in the world may be redeemed by such trials.

rlbates said...

Yes, it matters a lot.

mark said...

This is an excellent and important post. How this country responds to these revelations is critical for it will define what this nation becomes in the future.

Anonymous said...

Ask the 3000 families affected on 9/11 if the pain and hurt is abstract and ethereal. A large problem in this debate is the removal of the American public in time and space from that day. The perpetrators have not changed their intentions. I don't believe anyone thinks enhanced interrogation is something to be particularly proud of. However, it is a necessary evil.
And honestly, if you want to avoid torture; avoid hanging out with known terrorists.

John J. Coupal said...

I agree fully!

Like, on December 8, 1941, we should have indicted that Japanese admiral and The Emperor for their crime of hurting Americans. That would have shown them how we take care of criminals the right way.

Anonymous said...

What I still do not understand is this. The approval rating for the current administration to send unmanned drones into civilian populated areas in Pakistan to bomb al-Qaeda is very high. However, we are unwilling to forcefeed detainees a bland diet, deprive them of sleep, and desensitize them.
How does that make any sense? We are willing to risk civilian casualties, but we get our panties in a bunch when we push a known terrorist a bit hard in a jail?

Ridiculous, do not let your narrow-mindedness allow you to forget the larger picture. Security is easy when it is done via joystick, just like prattling via keyboard. Get your boots on the ground and look the enemy in the eye. We will see what your decisions are then.

Buckeye Surgeon said...

Anon-
If we were deliberately targeting unarmed civilians with predator drone sorties, then I could buy your point. Collateral damage occurs in a field of war. It's regrettable and any combatant ought to take measures to avoid it. But intent is an important consideration in any moral evaluation. Intent to kill civilians is genocide, a war crime, and ought to be prosecuted to the same extent as torture. Your point, as formulated, is incoherent. Torture is not only evil, it's a self-sustaining evil. Torture begets the need for more torture to justify the need for it to continue. As opposed to an enemy combatant in the field of war, pain and suffering is inflicted on unarmed captives who have forfeited their autonomy. They're not confronting you with an AK47 anymore or plotting to blow something up. In that scenario, you've brought the field of war with all its unbridled violence to someone who has already opted out of it. Why would anyone want to surrender to America ever again, if these are the consequences? It's stupid, unreliable as a tool of gathering information, morally reprehensible, serves as a terrorist recruitment tool, and is just plain sadistic. So again, when Cheney comes bearing his memos of "actionable intelligence" garnered from torture, our collective response ought to be "so what", if we have any national sense of decency.

Frank Drackman said...

I still don't get it...

So lets say you catch Mohammed-All-Shaif-Herboush at JFK with a copy of "Hydrogen Bombs for Dummies" and throwin off more neutrons than Fat Man and Little Boy combined...and he's got a little yellow cake under his grubby little finger nails....

You can't bring in Briscoe and Green to slap him around a little bit??? If he wants a lawyer before questoning, you gotta give him one??

Whatever

Frank, Agressive Interrogation Supporter

mark's tails said...

I think part of the reason the American people are so complacent is that many just want to forget the past 8 yrs and move on. To that end, Cheney needs to crawl back under his bridge.

Having said that, I do agree with your post and, like others have already stated, it is an excellent commentary.

Anonymous said...

Buckeyey,

I respect you as a surgeon and a professional and unfortunately we are going to have to disagree on this matter.
You are right, captives have forfeited their autonomy. They forfeited their autonomy when they decided to hold an AK-47 or plan a terrorist attack. In a fair and just system criminals do not retain their individuality when they perpetrate crimes upon others.
Just because a mob boss is not holding a smoking gun does that mean we should not capture him?
And if we do capture a terrorist, should we not seek to find out who else he knows and has been working with in order to preserve our way of life?

BR Morrissey said...

John J. Coupal et al-

Maybe you would like to read then about how the Japanese used waterboarding during WWII and were later convicted of war crimes for its use!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/02/AR2007110201170.html

Hooray for morally and logically bankrupt arguments!

Anonymous said...

Of note today, KSM was not waterboarded 183 times as is widely report in the hypemongering MSM. He was in fact ill-treated during five occasions. During those five session, a total of 183 pours of water occurred.
My only reason for pointing this out, is to refute those who think there were 183 sessions of waterboarding.

Anonymous said...

So, when you were in training you never tried your skills on an unsuspecting victim ? Sure, he gave you consent but did he really knew how little you knew ? You thought that it was for the better good in the end, that your training was worth the risk, that it was no better way to achieve the higher purpose. How arrogant ! The same way now, those people wanted to serve their country (yes, the country that gives you the opportunity to teach moral lessons from a pedestal). They agreed to do that dirty work so that noble souls like you feel good about how noble they are. Maybe they did not feel good about themselves and maybe they felt really bad but, like you, they had a conviction and a love for something : serving their country and preserving your freedom. You know, jews in Europe thought that they can keep peace with Hitler. If somebody wants to kill your kids, there is no time for negotiation, it's time to buy a gun.

platensimycin said...

Agree with Buckeye.

If we uphold civic and societal values, we would question the validity of torture. It matters.

Frank Drackman said...

Was ist mit dem Rommell Bild, Herr Platensimycin??

Heidi said...

Great post! You say everything I've felt about the torture issue, but in an eloquent, easily read train of thought.

Trader Bob said...

Dick Cheney needs waterboarded and jumpjackslapped. We shouldn't let the issue of torture go unpunished. We shouldn't let the trillions of dollars that the bankers stole via fraud go unpunished either.

Good post Dr. Parks.

Norma said...

And we should believe the Obamedia about this because. . . ?

Anonymous said...

Re: Norma

Don't need to. Read it with grain of salt, compare it to other alternatives and be your own judge.

Buckeye Surgeon said...

Actually Norma, the mainstream media were the last ones to report the torture story. The Washington Post/NY TImes still refuse to use the word "torture" without quotation marks, as if it's still controversial...

Unlike Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky "scandal", torture is not a media-manufactured circus; this is the real deal. Choosing to blame the "left wing media" for a state sponsored torture program is rather disengenuous...

Anonymous said...

What amazes me is that the former Administration drew the line at Water Boarding! If water boarding was OK, why did they not use electric shock or cigarette burns, etc.? Because it leaves no marks? It is such a slippery slope. Not hard to understand how fragile our freedoms are when you remember that our country imprisoned many thousands of Japanese-Americans during WWII with no due process and no concern about their civil liberties.

Anonymous said...

FYI:

Prof. Alfred McCoy briefly interviewed by Amy Goodman :

http://www.democracynow.org/2009/5/1/torture_expert_alfred_mccoy_obama_reluctance