Sunday, November 27, 2005

Torture, American-Style

This is the title of an interesting article by David Luban in today's Washington Post. In it, he discusses the different sides to the torture debate. His conclusion is that it simply comes down to words vs. deeds. That you can rename something to make it not torture, but it is still torture. You can rewrite a code of behavior in order to make previously-banned practices legal, but the practices remain torture no matter what your Little Book of Allowable Coercion Tactics now says in its revised form. You can tell yourself that sexual intimidation and abuse of prisoners is not "cruel, inhuman or degrading" and therefore not banned by the Geneva Conventions, but it's still something you wouldn't want to happen to your sister in the army.

Luban is right on, about torture specifically. We want to be able to do things to prisoners that none of us would wish on our sons or daughters if captured by another nation. But for us, it's okay because it's for the right reasons, and besides, it's NOT torture. It's coercion in the interest of national security.

In a larger sense, his article made me wonder whether the debate over torture is really a more micro-level discussion about where we are headed as a nation in general: a morally and ethically challenged bunch of people who still want to think of ourselves as paragons of truth, freedom and the American way. Torture is okay for us to do because, unlike the Zarqawis of the world, we promise not to enjoy it too much, maybe? Is that the moral line we're using? That if we do it and like it (a la Lynndie England, et. al.) then that is wrong and we will be punished. But if we do it and promise to feel bad about having done it, then it's okay?

It's a ridiculous argument to make, but unfortunately it does seem to reflect where we are as a culture: we change the names of things we do to make them "okay" and then we collectively deplore them while continuing to do them.

"Cruel, inhuman or degrading coercive interrogation techniques." OR--Torture.

"Men's Interest" magazines. OR--soft core p*rn.

"Owing it to yourself to pursue happiness." OR--Cheating.

"Protecting Social Security." OR--"I have no freakin' idea what any of the details of any of the proposals are because I've been too busy raising money for my re-election."

"No Child Left Behind." OR--Cutting funding for schools across the board.

"USA #1!!!" OR--I haven't formed a coherent, independent thought about political or policy issues in about 12 years.

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