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....