Sunday, March 09, 2003

Dehumanizing ourselves

A very thought-provoking post by Dr. James Rockford in Atrios' comments. He asked for this discussion to spread, so here goes:
I am quite gratified that you mentioned the increased tolerance for torture in this post. I hope you see fit to devote a post (or more) to it.

I am quite disheartened to see several prominent bloggers -- ostensibly sane, liberal bloggers -- justify torture. Oliver Willis supports torture ( and so does Radley Balko ( And Counterspin Central's Hesiod e-mailed me to declare as much.

This is very disheartening indeed. Our values are in far worse shape than I thought.

I don't know if Willis is trying to be cute or prove that he's a "tough" liberal so that he can get his much coveted radio show. Just like with his support of the death penalty, he does not offer any thoughtful reasons for supporting torture. He simply states he does because Al Qaeda is hateful. This is hardly an argument since nobody is suggesting torturing people whom we do not consider hateful, evil, etc. The challenge we face, as presumably civilized people, is to resist the temptation to torture horrid people -- because we do not want to become horrid ourselves.

But even more obscene is Balko's argument that it's OK to torture Khalid Shaikh Mohammed because, "He's not an American citizen. He wasn't born here..." This is the sort of jingoism that really justifies anti-Americanism. Does Balko think that being a natural-born American citizen endow one with basic rights that should be withheld from non-citizens? Doesn't he realize that the selective application of rights implies that not all people are equally human? Racism, sexism, and countless other bigotries have been justified on the idea that the protections of the U.S. Constitution should apply only to a privileged class worthy of citizenship by virtue of color or sex -- or in Balko's case, birth.

I'm certain many people -- myself included -- have had revenge fantasies after 9/11. The sadness and the fury all caring people felt is undeniable. If this was a movie I would have derived immense visceral pleasure seeing Bruce or Arnold cut Osama's testicles and stuff them in his ears. But this is not a movie. This much should be obvious.

Those who defend torture will often base it on the Alan Dershowitz "ticking nuclear bomb" scenario: There's a nuclear bomb ready to go off and kill thousands of people. The one person who knows where it is won't say. In this case, who wouldn't use torture to extract the information?

Well, it is only fair to ask the pro-torture people to explain how far they would go. Torture, after all, it's not really about causing physical pain; it's about applying unbearable pressure -- which may involve physical pain but always involves degradation.

Since this is inherently a very unpleasant subject I will be uncomfortably, gruesomely specific: What if a nuclear bomber won't respond to mere pain? After all, terrorists like the 9/11 villains are prepared to die; I'm sure they can put up with a little pain. Now, the clock is ticking. Should we try sexual torture? Should we rape his child in front of his eyes to make him break? Cut the toddler up in pieces, a piece at a time?

Would Willis, Balko and Hesiod be willing to perform these services for their country?

It is only fair to ask those who support torture to provide a public answer. For the record, I'd rather go up in a mushroom cloud with my whole family and all my children and all my friends and pets and compatriots and acquaintances, and the whole country and the whole earth if need be than surrender my humanity. After all, in the long term, we'll all be dead. I'd rather die earlier and die a human.

I'm truly shocked that anyone left of Savage would ever advocate torture under any circumstances. Please give as much publicity as possible to this subject. Only a lot of light will illustrate it for what it is, a descent into barbarism, a surrender to our baser, reptilian impulses. If this attitude is as widespread as I fear, Al Qaeda won. It cost them a few terrorists and it cost us a country.

Dr. James Rockford

Eloquently put. I've had the same debate internally -- particularly considering the case of Ramzi Yousef, who sits in a U.S. prison and, until Khalid Muhammad's recent capture, probably held more valuable information in his head about Al Qaeda's plans than anyone in their power. I have often thought Yousef would make a prime candidate for a little sodium pentothal.

But as I've thought it through, I've reached the same conclusion as Dr. Rockford: If we let fear win -- if we let the desire to get these terrorists stampede us into sacrificing our basic standards of decency, of the rule of law, of respect for civil rights, and ultimately our national soul -- then the terrorists will have won. We can do better.

No comments: