Tuesday, September 19, 2006

I Want My Country Back

In a "war on terror" - even if it isn't, properly speaking, a "war" - it should not be too hard to hold on to the moral high ground. After all, the "enemy" - even if said enemy is really an over-simplified homogenized construct - has as their modus operandi mass death and destruction, failing to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, the military and civilians. Against such an enemy (or better, against such enemies, as there is no centralized terrorist organization against whom we are fighting, nor any real way to unify the disparate elements whom our government lumps together under too neat a heading), it really should not be too hard to come off looking at least a little bit sympathetic.

After all, how hard is it, really, to look at least a little bit morally superior to people whose idea of a successful event is chaos and destruction? How hard is it, really, to be the morally preferable choice when your opponent sets up roadside bombs which kill indiscriminately, or takes aid workers hostage and publicly beheads them?

Yet my beloved homeland, the United States of America, is constantly losing the PR war and the war of ideas. Unable to morally distinguish themselves from the terrorist networks that they so ineffectively combat, the current presidential administration's policies in this never-ending "war on terror," which is really a struggle against Islamism (which can be distinguished from Islam in the same way that, say, the KKK and other "Christianist" hate groups can be distinguished from Christianity), are often so morally reprehensible that it is impossible to tell who the "good guys" are.

Our president is famous for his "moral clarity," a phrase which is growing increasingly ironic. Liberalism, the tired refrain goes, blurred the firm moral distinctions which are the foundation of our great nation. Tolerance, relativism, situational ethics, these amount to nothing more than a front for self-indulgent hedonism. This long-obvious truism, so the neo-cons would have us believe, was made most manifest in President Clinton's loose sexual relations, and even looser relation with the all-important "truth." Our new guiding light, a born again Christian and man of integrity, was to restore our faith in simple moral absolutes, cutting through the fog of liberalism.

But, I have to ask, what good is moral clarity if it focuses primarily on, say, sexual issues, rather than more serious social and moral issues such as the justifications for war and violence, and fundamental civil and human rights. It is becoming increasingly clear that such moral clarity amounts to a divine mandate to do whatever the hell you want.

Both the AP and the New York Times published stories today on the sad case of naturalized Canadian citizen Maher Arar, one victim of the Bush administration's morally dubious policy called, in a marvelous case of the sanitization of public language, "extraordinary rendition." And, while this policy, which amounts to kidnapping a suspect and then transferring them to the custody of a nation whose idea of "moral clarity" includes the divine right to beat the hell out of someone for information or just plain fun, allowing the United States to at least in the eyes of a few lawyers adhere to letter of international treaties to which we are a party, is no longer accepted, it is worth meditating for a moment on the moral damage of ever having thought that this was a good idea.

It has been well established that Mr. Arar, who is just one of many victims of the morally bankrupt policy, "was detained at New York's Kennedy Airport on Sept. 26, 2002, on his way home from vacation in Tunisia." After his detention, he was sent to Syria, where he was tortured. For all of the images that the word "torture" conveys, it is still a relatively sterile word, taking some of the punch out of the facts of the case. We can all agree that torture is bad, but by coming up with a handy heading under which to bundle any number of behaviors, we, with our delicate stomachs, can conveniently avoid concrete images. Images of a man being beaten, whipped with electrical wires, deprived of food, deprived of sleep, deprived of light, deprived of human companionship, deprived of air, deprived of space. Confined, isolated, physically and emotionally abused in unspeakable ways, for what certainly seemed like a very, very long time.

Time, as has often been noted, is relative. Writing from a Nazi prison, German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer meditated often on the way in which our experience of the passing of time depends on our circumstances. And for him, time in prison was interminable. How long must Mr. Arar's year in Syrian custody have seemed to him? How can one ever be compensated for such a loss?

And now, in the words of Ian Austin's New York Times article, "[a Canadian] government commission on Monday exonerated a Canadian computer engineer of any ties to terrorism." Exonerated is a strong word, but Mr. Austin didn't make it up. The head of the commission which spent a whopping two and a half years studying Mr. Arar's case said this at a press conference yesterday:

"I am able to say categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada."

In other words, the computer software engineer is so innocent that there is no credible evidence at all against him. Because of an ill conceived American policy, a man whose only crime was to be an Arab at a time when all Arabs are being lumped together under the heading of "terrorist," was subject to twelve months of torture at the hand of a Syrian agency working for the United States.

That Mr. Arar was so obviously innocent, while compounding the tragedy of his case, should not, however, distract us from the larger moral and political considerations here. It is easy to condemn such treatment when the victim is innocent, but the guilt or innocence of a subject should not mute the moral outrage at such intolerable behavior. The rights of the accused do not, cannot, depend on the guilt or innocence of the accused, particularly in an environment so emotionally charged that, the law be damned, all are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Simply put, "torture," whatever form it takes, constitutes the physical and emotional harming of a moral object (that is, someone who can be the object of moral behavior - this term is not meant to imply that a moral object cannot also be a subject - that is, one who acts, and whose actions can be morally evaluated). Any such harm should be both

a.) justified on some grounds, with greater justification needed for greater harm, and with some harms being so great that there may be no conceivable justification, and

b.) balanced by some good which is brought about by the harm.

That is, every harm must be balanced by some good, and every harm must be in some way justified. The justification and the resultant good must be proportional to the harm caused. These twin checks ensure

a.) in the case of justification, that no contrived harm (that is, a harm which is artificially and intentionally constructed) may be justifiably imposed on an innocent person, and

b.) in the case of balancing harm with resultant good, that every contrived harm must aim for and be reasonably expected to achieve some countervailing good.

I could flesh out these consideration in much greater detail, but that would distract from my purpose here, which is to provide these as a rough and ready tool to evaluate the moral value of cases in which great harm is done to "suspects," especially in the case of torture, such as the torture or Mr. Arar. Those of you, like Brian, who do this for a living can, I'm sure, offer a valuable critique of the moral theory presented here. It surely needs some refinements, as it borrows heavily from Utilitarian moral theory while trying to answer some serious concerns about Utilitarianism.

Anyway, in the case of the extraordinary rendition of a person with suspected ties to a terrorist organization, what moral considerations do we have?

The primary harm is the physical and emotional damage of being carried far from home and being, say, beaten, confined in solitude, deprived of vital needs, and the like. While there are other, lesser harms, these harms are so strong we almost need not consider them. But, in a less extreme situation, those harms might be serious indeed.

Mr. Arar, for instance, was held against his will for over a year. During that time he had no contact with his family, which I am sure caused more than a little distress and anxiety not only to him, but also to those who care about him. He was also economically harmed, prevented from practicing his trade while in custody. No doubt the implication of his (now known to be fictional) association with terrorist organization, in this climate of fear and hostility, further harmed his ability to practice his trade, and did serious damage to his social standing.

But those peripheral harms might be justified. They are, after all, fairly common products of any criminal justice system. Any moral theory which holds that such harms are not in at least some case justified has few if any options at its disposal for curbing criminal behavior. The primary harms here, however, may never be justified. Not only is it difficult to imagine any behavior which would warrant such treatment, it is even more difficult to imagine that any countervailing good could be used to offset these harms.

What good, after all, comes from torture? While it has often been used for interrogation, there is no credible evidence that any reliable information comes from people who talk to end their immediate physical suffering. People are inclined to say anything to make the pain go away. That means far from providing authorities with any new information, often dubiously confirming what is already "known," even if such "knowledge" later proves to be false.

Meanwhile, aside from the obvious and immediate harm done to the object of torture, the practice of torture opens the door to more subtle harms. When torture becomes public - and if the Abu Garib and "extraordinary rendition" scandals prove anything it is that torture almost always eventually becomes public - it does great harm to the very people who justified using it against others for their own self interest. The standing of the United States in the world, its public moral authority, so necessary to its standing as a super-power, has been irreparably harmed by its inhumane treatment of terror suspects. Far from making this ill-conceived war on terror easier, moral dubious US policies have made our nation's task that much harder. Our allies are few, our enemies numerous, and our moral authority bankrupt. At a time in which we need the world to trust our judgment as we use our unprecedented power to attempt to solve serious global problem, our dishonest justifications from unjustifiable actions have made those few states which trust us look foolish in the eyes of an ever suspicious world.

The Bush adminstration's promised "moral clarity" has proved to be neither particularly moral nor particularly clear, and I am left with a country I barely recognize. Long cherished values of due process and the rights of the accused have been tossed aside at the very moment we needed them most. While power has long made America secure, it is not only the tangible power of military might which has aided our security. It is also the power of our ideals, ideals which the Bush administration appropriates in language and denies in action, which, in helping our standing in the world and lending us the moral credibility necessary for difficult actions, secures us.

When we act with the moral bankruptcy of the disparate Islamists who use terror to reshape the world according to their disturbing ideals, we are indistinguishable from them. This lack of moral distinction, far more than the too few and too quiet protests against morally dubious administration policies, truly gives aid and comfort to the "enemy": aid in the form of increased donations to "charities" who fund terrorist organizations, and comfort in the illusion of the divine mandate which comes with opposing an enemy that is so obviously unrighteous.


Troy said...

I've always thought the Iraq war a distraction of resources, an easy (but unncessary) show of force masterminded by those who did not understand the human cost of war, a war that came at the wrong time for Iraq and the US, a war that has killed children (as all wars) and made the US look like imperialistic idiots to the rest of the world.

So, yeah, I want my country back too.

I am not pro-torture, though I admit coercing the right suspects at the right time could save lives. The problem, or one of them, is finding the right suspects. If Bin Laden is caught tomorrow I'm not hoping he gets milk and cookies. He knows too much (whether torture, in whatever form, is effective in getting information I don't know). But this poor Canadian...there have been others like him. Men in the wrong place at the wrong time whose civil liberties were grossly terminated. Truly, our Bill of Rights was written to keep such atrocities from happening.

And NTW is on the way, Chris. Enjoy. He's more history than theology, but for me he's been quite a kick. I am, of course, looking for a historical center for my faith, trying to cope with scholars who have undermined, in whole or part, its historicity. You may not wrestle with this.

Still, NTW is a solid writer and his work an enormous contribution to the study of Christian origins. I'll be curious to see what you think.


Brian Cubbage said...

Excellent post, Chris. I'm still mulling over your underlying theory, especially since you called me out by name and all. One thing I find interesting-- not wrong, but interesting-- is that you argue against torture without relying to any great extent on claims about rights. I suspect that this is because you adopt an explicitly consequentialist framework (perhaps it's utilitarian, but it's not of a narrow hedonistic sort).

I find this interesting because (a) I don't have the same consequentialist intuitions you do, but (b) nevertheless find much in your account compelling. I think it's because torture is, almost by definition, incredibly, barbarically painful, and not just physically. Even G.W. Bush would, I think, have to agree to that. But is torture wrong _because_, or only because, of the incredible pain it causes? Or is it wrong because it violates one or more of the torture victim's rights?

I'll have to think about this. More later.

Sandalstraps said...


You're right that my consequentialist intuitions limit the extent to which I talk about rights. But, there is at least one very strongly implied right here: the right of all moral objects to not be subject to harm without certain criteria being met. What I wrote here dealt more with the criteria which must be met in order to over-ride that assumed right. I just didn't phrase it as a right. And since I can't conceive of a situation in which torture by any description could meet the criteria, you could add to it a more specific assumed right not to be subject to torture.

I think that the difference between us lies in how we arrive at such a right. Your intuition, it seems, starts there - it is a priori the case that one has a right not to be subject to torture. Mine rests on consequentialist assumptions - torture is a harm so great that it has no justification, and no possibility of a countervailing good.

One weakness in my position is that, in not assuming the right not to be subject to torture a priori I am open to the charge that I could theoretically justify torture at some future point, when there is more data available on whether or not information gained through torture is ever accurate, and when there may be some greater security concern so strong that - assuming the data gathered by torture could be accurate and extraordinarily useful (perhaps directly leading to the thwarting of a serious terrorist threat) - torture could result in a very strong countervailing good.

I just can't imagine that could happen in the world as it actually exists, for the reasons stated in my post. It is becoming increasingly obvious that information obtained by torture victims is not reliable. Simply put, there must be some way to ensure that the information obtained by a torture victim is accurate, and if we could ensure that up front I doubt that we would need to torture anyone to obtain information. If anyone is really interested, I could give my reasons for saying that in some future post, but I don't want to spend time and space discussing that unless someone here disagrees with the premise that information obtained by torture is not reliable.

The other serious consideration, as the post states, is that the harm done by torture spreads so far and so wide that it is almost impossible to calculate. And being unable to calculate harm makes it very difficult to imagine that we can find a good so great that it outweighs a harm so large yet so undefined. We can't predict all of the political fallout of being caught torturing prisoners, but we are starting to experience it. US standing in the world is plummeting, in large part because of this.

So I would say, in effect, that someone does have the right not to be subject to torture, if by right we mean that it is never morally permissible to treat them in that way. But I suspect that you mean even more than that, and I'm interested to learn more.