I find it hard to remind myself that we're actually debating, in this country, whether to make torture and indefinite detention legal. I don't think I'm alone in that. We don't want to think about it. Or more precisely, we don't want to think about the burden of responsibility it places on us.
In Rilke's novel The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Brigge compulsively avoids a blind, abject newspaper seller who is, to him, a figure of absolute horror. Finally, though, he's forced to look at the man:
My God, I thought with sudden vehemence, so you really are. There are proofs of your existence. I have forgotten them all and never even wanted any, for what a huge obligation would lie in the certainty of you. And yet that is just what has been shown to me.This revelation - which you can view as religious or secular, as you prefer - and the obligation to which it leads, is precisely what we don’t want, because we can't face it without changing...well, everything.
Have people been tortured - and worse - in the name of our freedom or safety? Of course. But our faces weren't rubbed in it. The proper respect was paid to delicate feelings and weak knees and lazy idealism. We could put it out of our minds and go - literally - about our business.
Now, things are different. The Bush Administration - emboldened by our apathy - is daring us to feel the huge obligation that lies in the certainty of torture victims, and the indefinitely detained. We might almost thank them for it, inasmuch as they're forcing us to give up our illusions.
At least, I hope they're illusions. I hope this isn't happening because Americans are growing weary of what little civilization we enjoyed, and now wish to wallow erotically in human suffering like Leonard Lake and Dennis Rader. I hope we haven't gone mad, or fallen prey to mass sadomasochism, and learned to hear screams like music. I hope, in a sense of the word "hope" I find heartbreaking, that we're nothing worse than cowards.
Either way, the fact remains that people who will do this to other people will do it to you, and to people like you. Once a certain line is crossed, there's no law you can count on to protect you. At best, someone might conduct a cost/benefit analysis. And I think we all know how often such analyses justify what someone had already decided to do.
Would Americans really do this to each other? The short answer is that they already do - in prisons like Pelican Bay, for instance. And the work of Stanley Milgram and others has demonstrated the extent to which authority can override morality.
But there's more to it than that. Simone Weil oversimplified this issue when she said:
We experience evil only by refusing to allow ourselves to do it....As soon as we do evil, the evil appears as a sort of duty.Convicted Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Graner Jr explains that the reality is more complicated, and more frightening:
The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'People keep saying that torture doesn't work. But to the extent that it produces or reinforces feelings like Graner's, it works perfectly. The value of torture to BushCo is based not on what it does to our enemies, but on what it does to Americans. It's not about breaking the terrorists' will; it's about breaking ours.
We never wanted proof. And yet that is just what is being shown to us.