Thursday, May 14, 2009

Patriotism in the Age of Torture

Nothing has made me more wary of blind patriotism in the past several years than the debate over torture--especially the absurd justification of using torture to elicit information from suspected terrorists by the CIA and their contractors. The argument seems designed to answer concerns of utility and efficacy: torture efficiently protects thousands of US citizens at the cost of maltreating one evil anti-American.

The suggestion that torture is somehow warranted because it is efficacious bothers me enormously.

I doubt if fanatics ever consider themselves fanatical. I think of this when footage of Dick Cheney appears in the news. The notion that the US government's mission to protect America puts its actions outside or above the standards of international human rights is a fanatical idea. Why, I wonder, are sociopathic acts committed on behalf of my country more acceptable than similar acts committed on behalf of another country/people/belief system? The acts themselves are unconscionable: who's who seems secondary. Indeed, the implications of a reasoning that deems human rights violations okay if they save American lives seems as dangerous to US citizens as any nightmare a terrorist might dream up. What do we have left that is worth protecting if our own actions gut the country of any principles worthy of our allegiance?

The safest thing ethically, it seems to me, is to be absolutely vigilant about avoiding and vigorous in condemning human rights violations altogether--by anyone, for any purpose. The torture of the very worst human being alive, even one with the very greatest potential to do the world harm, is still torture of a human being; admitting torture at all seems to preclude the notion that we are inherently of value--outside the determination of any group or government that might hold some humans to be more valuable than others. A slippery slope?

So, I was thinking about torture because I am interested in Obama's decision to oppose the release of thousands of "new" images portraying the torture of prisoners who are suspected of terrorist activity. The NYT reported Obama's revised stance on the release of the photographs this morning, and the article included a weighing-in by the ACLU:

"Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the decision to fight the release of the photos was a mistake. He said officials had described them as 'worse than Abu Ghraib' and said their volume, more than 2,000 images, showed that 'it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These were policies set at the highest level'" (

For my part, I would assiduously avoid seeing these pictures and am willing to trust that they are full of horror. I wonder, though, does the world, the public, everyone have a "right" to see the images? American citizens surely have the right "to see" that their governnment systematically ("policies set at the highest level") employs practices that it exists to protect US citizens from, no?

At the same time, should the people who were first tortured now also be porned nightly on Fox News for three weeks until viewers, with questionable reasons for wanting to see the images to begin with, lose interest?

To the extent that the individuals tortured are guilty of harming or plotting to harm other people--US or not--certainly, they deserve to be tried in fair courts, and, if found guilty, to be sentenced with the punishment that law has assigned for the crimes. But the bad acts and intentions of terrorists cannot--at least as I see things--alleviate the duty of the US to account for its own inhumane practices.

Maybe the question should be whether the images of torture ought to be promptly handed over to an international human rights commission. Let the US atone for acts unworthy of a "world leader" and in that way, perhaps, regain some basis for pride among those of its citizens who need more than a big-screen TV in every livingroom to feel good about being American.

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