News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Torture--Paranoia and Fantasy Become Reality

Friday, December 09, 2005

Torture--Paranoia and Fantasy Become Reality

In one of his essays, the ehticist Bernard Williams comments that torture had become in Europe outlawed during the 19th century; and yet in the 20th it has made a comeback.
Historically, Europeans were familiar with the spectacle of seeing victims tortured in public, as well undergoing torture any time they were accused of a crime--any crime. It's a lesson that they--in general remember--although the French in Morocco and now the British in Iraq do not see its use against "others" as outisde civilized behavior. In America, torturing (or "harsh interrogation methods") was commonplace in police departments into the 60s and probably goes on still--think of New York's scandals with Abner Louema.

But how to account for the prevalent mind-set among 61 percent of Americans that--in ceratin situations--torture is appropriate? I call this the "24" MENTALITY, alluding to the semi-popular TV show where torture and extreme anti-terror methods are extolled and glorified. I suggest that the reason torture in America is not considered out of bounds is because the assumption at the popular level has become "guilty until proven innocent," contrary to what the law says. In fact, I think most people believe that the latter is a polite nicety that can be dispensed with when the rubber hits the road, so to speak.

I also think that there is such a disconnect between reality and fantasy in our country--as in "24"--that people simply do not understand what torture entails either ethically or morally. They only think in terms of "what if my wife or daughter were captive of a serial killer," or some such other paranoid fantasy.

Of course, politicians ride such fantasies to victory, as GBush1 proved against M. Dukakis. Remember that infamous debate question to Dukakis about whether he approved of the death penalty even if his wife/daughter had been raped and mutilated/killed. Dukakis answered he would still oppose the death penalty. He lost the election that very moment.

This still gets nowhere near answering the question about whether torture is ethical or not. I think as public policy it cannot be. This relates to the liberalism of fear philosophy I told you about. The state maintains control via its implied threat to use force and fear. As such, a policy of torture tells the world that the US is willing to use that terrible responsibility in an illegitimate way since torture--as history has shown--often includes the innocent as well as the guilty.

A policy of torture tells the world that the US believes that it has this ultimate power of death and will use it to get what it wants. Instead of a country that comes across as ehtical and law-abiding, it projects the image of the US as a mortally dangerous force that will stop at nothing to get its way. And it will justify such fear and force in terms of pure self-interest. Instead of relying on the rational procedures of identifying malefactors and using legalmeans to prosecute and condemn them, the US will use its lethal force to be judge, jury, and executioner.

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