News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Torture and the Human Image

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Torture and the Human Image

Update 3/15/09: The NYTimes has released transcripts of interviews of those tortured at US "black sites."

The following published 06: I've meant to write about the decision by the US Congress last month to effectively legalize the torture of people. I haven't done so yet because of personal emergencies and time constraints. I've also been trying to weed through the various angles taken by the political and legal commentators on the issue. My take--strangely to me at least--always comes back to the ethico-religious perspective. ...

I say strangely because it seems to me that there are viable arguments from a pragmatic and ruthlessly mercenary perspective wherein torture can be justified. I do not agree with these, and I think they can be undermined logically, yet I think that people are rarely persuaded to act by either logical or rational arguments. That is, as I have argued before, when it comes to "skin for skin" as the Accuser in Job says, people will resort to distinctly seemingly irrational--although understandable--actions to save themselves.

Often, these avenues of saving oneself can occur against one's will. That is, biological and psychological forces take control of a person and the survival imperative becomes paramount in how one acts--and why one acts is often incommunicable, at least at the time. It is perhaps only after years of having done something that why you did what you did that the "reasons" you acted that way actually ever becomes sayable, to use a Wittgensteinian phrase in a rather superficial manner.

The Christian apostle Paul once had a chance to undergo torture for his belief in the Christian message he was hoping to spread throughout the world. Given the choice of suffering for his good news, Paul did something that his tormenters perhaps least expected. Paul invoked his Roman citizenship. Somewhat unique for a Jew of the time, Paul’s Roman citizenship brought with it a protection against the one thing that probably evoked one of the profounder fears in his contemporaries—the usual torture to elicit a confession that was normal operating procedure in the Roman provinces.

Roman citizenship brought with it the protection from mandatory torture. Besides the other economic and social privileges that came along with being a Roman citizen, this legal protection against being tortured—whether innocent or not—is perhaps the one right that stands out for us who look back over the millennia. That is, we take our protection from torture for granted, seeing it as the mark of a civilized nation.

No doubt, the Romans used the threat of torture as a coercive means of maintaining control over those who refused Roman rule. Indeed, this one right could be seen as a stick and its promise a carrot. How much subservience would a person give to the ruling powers if they’re faced with the instruments of torture?

In passing legislation that effectively legalizes torture, the US congress turned back the clock on civilization two millennia. Given the most likely fact that US citizens themselves could be tortured, this clock is set even farther back—back before the establishment of the Roman Republic, 2700 years ago.

This disturbing historical fact is further aggravated by the notion that the US has effectively set itself up as arbiter for determining who is and who is not a human being. This goes beyond a simple political dimension—it carries with it something of a metaphysical aspect that delegates to the US a power of life and death that in many religious or philosophical systems belongs to a transcendent power alone. It is this immense power over who’s determined to be human or not—who deserves the concern of human integrity—that led many early Christians in writings like the book of Revelation to characterize the Roman Empire as a Beast or demi-god that tries to usurp the power of control of the world’s maker.

The French thinker Simone Weil carried these images to their ethico-religious conclusions. Basing herself on the perception that humans turning humans into things--as they are in war or via slavery and torture—is the main feature of every evil regime throughout time, she appealed to a basic sentiment in humans that revulses from watching the suffering of others.

For Weil, the basic feature of the Beast’s method is to create an environment of illusion wherein people are alienated from their consciences. Dealing and doling out various fantasies, the Beast attempts to create in people a world free of pain and suffering or one where pain and suffering have no reality except as the cries of characters in a fantasy world without gravity of depth.

Weil’s appeal to primitive conscience is perhaps the last gasp of an unrepentant idealist. He was without a doubt a Platonist who attempted to integrate the Platonic world of ideas into political and social dialogs. For many post-modernists, this attempt already marks her work as trying to resurrect a defunct superstition of ghostly worlds where the disconnect between that world and this world creates an inherent illusion and self-deception. One places one’s will and its dispositions in that world rather than dealing with the world as it is in this world.

Be these philosophical questions be as they may, Weil’s central point about whether there’s a conscience and a human sentiment of sympathy for another’s suffering seems unreducible. Answering that question in the affirmative—whether via scientific research or based on introspective analysis—goes a long way in answering questions about why or why it’s not moral to torture others. Certainly, there are factors that come into play to undermine this basic human sentiment. In some religious contexts, it’s called original sin, in philosophy a matter of mistaking evil for the good.

Once you accept the basic notion of a human aversion to suffering of others, as well as the desire to make others suffer, then any time that such practices of condoning suffering and institutionalizing them becomes a matter of dealing a severe blow to what old-time humanists used to call the human image, and which various religious and philosophical apologists have termed the integrity of something that transcends the merely socio-biological human animal.

Related Link Against the Grain: Series on Christian Teaching and Torture: 1, 2, 3, 4

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