Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Huge Obligation


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.

15 comments:

dan mcenroe said...

i hadn't considered to this point that the torture bill wasn't designed to to make people feel safer but rather to offer them some satisfaction to their blood lust against a faceless enemy. after reading this, i can't think of it any other way.

yesterday an art teacher in texas was fired for taking his fifth-grade class to a local museum that exhibited a nude statue. this occurred while our leaders debated the merits of torturing fellow human beings. what the hell is going on here?

ERic said...

Fascism

Nanette said...

This is all so terribly depressing, but I'm determined to find a kernel of hope in it. It's difficult to fight something if no one believes it even exists.

For years I've been of the opinion that, far from doing (mostly) newly evil things, what the Bush admin has done is basically slit open the underbelly, for some reason that I can't really imagine, spreading out the dark entrails for all to see.

Whether this was through incompetence, hubris, the desire to get things like warrantless surveillance, indefinite detentions and torture codified in law and approved of by the Supreme Court or what, the end result is that we have no more excuse. We now have a huge obligation, as you say.

It's pretty weird to be accused for years of being an "America hater" and a "Blame America Firster", lying because of course the US would never do this or that and so on, when pointing out actions performed by the US govt and its surrogates... and then, now that it's out in the open - being debated (and voted on, in approval) in Congress of all places - to have the same people saying "Well yes, we do do those things, and it's a good thing too!"

A no win situation, that.

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.

No more way around that, I'm thinking. Changing everything. I'm no revolutionary, partly due to age and temperament, but also I cling to what is probably my own myth... that as long as they have not, in fact, killed all the lawyers that there is something that can be done and tied up tightly through the law.

Then again, I look at the composition of the Supreme Court and think of checking Canadian immigration laws ;).

Not that they are far behind, mind you... or Britain, or Australia or other countries. This seems to be a pretty widespread effort - including the US right wing funding policy "think tanks" in those and other countries. A bit more difficult in the parliamentary systems, but they are having some success.

Maybe Tonga, then.

Tulsmif said...

Just finished reading House of War by James Carroll, son of the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In a word, it's about the evolution of the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower warned us, but each president since (all documented in the book) has either abetted or at least countenanced increased ramp-up. He chronicles the development of the neocons over the last 4 decades. It's hard to imagine how the spiral can be broken.

Phila said...

but also I cling to what is probably my own myth... that as long as they have not, in fact, killed all the lawyers that there is something that can be done and tied up tightly through the law.

I feel the same way. But at the same time, it bothers me when I catch myself thinking "Someone else will fix this." I assume most other folks are thinking the same thing.

This post is a reasonably heartfelt expression of a state of mind. Whether it's insightful political analysis is another matter. But these are the issues that are preoccupying me right now.

It's difficult to fight something if no one believes it even exists.

That's precisely the wall I'm banging my head against here.

Nanette said...

I don't consider it thinking or hoping that "someone else will fix this". Well, not exactly. And, of course it could be said that I would say that, considering my position. But still...

I think of it more as attempting to provide the framework within which the lawyers (and others) can work. We have, now, a population that approves of torture - or at least does not disapprove of it in any overwhelming numbers - and barely blinks at the loss of essential liberties, and all the other stuff that's going on and few even make a peep.

A good portion of the reason for that is fear, of course, but the fear didn't start with the islamofascistjihadi boogeymen - that's just a continuation of a long series of boogeymen to fear and hate. The fabric of our lives, so to speak. Just before 9/11 I had right wingers screeching at me that leftists just couldn't understand the true dangers facing the country, the worst of which were the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were going to, for some reason or other, surge across the Panama Canal, meet up with seemingly inoffensive Chinese restaurant owners already here and take over the U.S. Seriously.

Of course now, when you point out that there was really no need for all that messy canal hopping - Chinese banks own a large portion of our national debt, which is far more effective... there are just shrugs.

But anyway, you know all this stuff, but one of the points I was going to make is that while I have no faith at all in the general "essential goodness of the American people" - history is enough to disabuse one of that - I do have faith in the belief of many of the American people in their own essential goodness. In the myths of the country and so on... and I think that can be worked with, even as the right wing has worked with it and manipulated it for the past few decades. We, of course, don't have that amount of time, but anyway.

Isn't there some kind of saying, "They also serve who sit and write?" Something like that ;). There is a tendency to make fun of all those Young Republicans who agitate for war with loud and bloodthirsty cries, but who wouldn't think of putting on a uniform and going to fight it. You'll hear some of them say that they feel their place/calling is on the home front, influencing the discussion. Basically.

It's funny and pretty disgusting, but I think they are dead serious in their belief that that is actually a job of war, whether it's a "culture war" or an occupation like now or both. And they are correct, of course. None of what is going on today could have happened had it not been for not only rant radio, policy think tanks, Federalist society types, etc, but also thousands of these young worker bees constantly reinforcing the messages in the small spaces, in churches and so on.

All this has worked to set the framework in society and in congress for what we have today, and indeed seems to have been the pattern (allowing for differences in technology) for the same sort of things in the past. Me, I think some of these people have learned well from history what we'd rather forget or assign to some aberration, European nutcases and all, and are attempting to repeat it... but without the mistakes made by others that caused invasions or national uprisings, and so on.

So... I've lost my train of thought, which I tend to do in these small comment windows, but before the lawyers can get to work we do have (I believe) a short window of time to not only call things by their name (torture, totalitarianism, whatever), but now that the existence of these things is sort of out in the open - who can deny that we torture people when the discussion is over how much to do it, not whether to do it at all? - we can not only work to publicize this but work with the myths many in the US have grown up on of America the great, the kind, the beacon of light and so on, in order to provide space (and backup) for those who can work through the laws and political legislation and stuff.

Then again, one can always keep a pitchfork handy too.

Seven Star Hand said...

Hello Phila and all,

Why do religious leaders and followers so often participate in and support blatant evil?

The time is long past to stop focusing on symptoms and myriad details and finally seek lasting solutions. Until we address the core causes of the millennia of struggle and suffering that have bedeviled humanity, these repeating cycles of evil will never end.

History is replete with examples of religious leaders and followers advocating, supporting, and participating in blatant evil. Regardless of attempts to shift or deny blame, history clearly records the widespread crimes of Christianity. Whether we're talking about the abominations of the Inquisition, Crusades, the greed and genocide of colonizers, slavery in the Americas, or the Bush administration's recent deeds and results, Christianity has always spawned great evil. The deeds of many Muslims and the state of Israel are also prime examples.

The paradox of adherents who speak of peace and good deeds contrasted with leaders and willing cohorts knowingly using religion for evil keeps the cycle of violence spinning through time. Why does religion seem to represent good while always serving as a constant source of deception, conflict, and the chosen tool of great deceivers? The answer is simple. The combination of faith and religion is a strong delusion purposely designed to affect one's ability to reason clearly. Regardless of the current pope's duplicitous talk about reason, faith and religion are the opposite of truth, wisdom, and justice and completely incompatible with logic.

Religion, like politics and money, creates a spiritual, conceptual, and karmic endless loop. By their very nature, they always create opponents and losers which leads to a never ending cycle of losers striving to become winners again, ad infinitum. This purposeful logic trap always creates myriad sources of conflict and injustice, regardless of often-stated ideals, which are always diluted by ignorance and delusion. The only way to stop the cycle is to convert or kill off all opponents or to end the systems and concepts that drive it.

Think it through, would the Creator of all knowledge and wisdom insist that you remain ignorant by simply believing what you have been told by obviously duplicitous religious founders and leaders? Would a compassionate Creator want you to participate in a system that guarantees injustice and suffering to your fellow souls? Isn’t it far more likely that religion is a tool of greedy men seeking to profit from the ignorance of followers and the strife it constantly foments? When you mix religion with the equally destructive delusions of money and politics, injustice, chaos, and the profits they generate are guaranteed.

Read More...

...and here...

Peace…

Nanette said...

And, of course, most of the above (that I wrote) is basically pablum. Although I do believe it, as to what needs to be done, what I meant to say was...

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.

I believe our (collective) will was broken long ago, but not beyond repair. I hope. I was thinking today, wondering - while I felt the horror that this country had codified torture, excessive executive power and things like indefinite detention in law - why I was not quite as upset as many I've read around the internets. Why, in fact, I took hold of my tiny kernel of hope pretty much immediately.

It finally occurred to me that, beyond the horror and rage at the actions of congress and the President, what any number of people were feeling was a sense of betrayal... by their government, their (Democratic) politicians and their country at large. And that, I think, is where some of the difference comes in.

One woman wrote a fine rant on one of the big box blogs a few months ago... something about how incensed she was that her concerns weren't listened to, how marginalized she felt at being shut out of the debate, at not having any power to influence the direction of congress or the country because her politicians were in the minority, and how she was just not going to take it anymore, but she didn't feel there was anything effective she could do. Vote, maybe. Protest. Rant. Make her voice heard, even if no one in power was listening. Etc. There were tons of comments in agreement and expressing the same frustrations.

And I'm afraid that my reaction (which I did not voice/type, whatever) was probably less than she was hoping for... more of a snort of amusement and the thought... "well, congratulations, you're all Black folk now."

As you've noted, we've had some terrible chapters in our history, and in our present day... rape and torture in the prisons - I believe Graner was a prison guard or something in civilian life - is not only accepted in our society, but encouraged and anticipated (for others) by some. It's only a very small step from that to the acceptance and encouragement of it for people who might even be suspected of wanting to kill us, and who are not citizens anyway.

Me, I'm all for letting the sun shine in... I'd like all our contradictions in myths vs actions dragged out for all to see, so that we have to look at them and talk about them honestly. Because it's really not til then that we will be able to actually change anything, I don't think. We can paper it all over again (as I believe will happen if/when Democrats gain a majority), but that won't do any good for the long term, structural change in this and other countries.

I don't think we'll have it though. For one, I doubt there is widespread horror and consternation at what we have openly and legally become with the signing of this law. I'd like to be wrong, and maybe I am... it's possible that with all the other stuff that is going on with the various occupations, people are just in no mood to also be known around the world as the one Western country that (openly) approves of torture.

We'll see... something (dunno how wicked it is) this way comes, though, and it's possible that the Bush admin is just hastening it. And maybe then we'll get to the point where we (collectively) can look at things and deal with them as they are, not as how we wish they would be.

Phila said...

something (dunno how wicked it is) this way comes, though, and it's possible that the Bush admin is just hastening it. And maybe then we'll get to the point where we (collectively) can look at things and deal with them as they are, not as how we wish they would be.

A lot ot chew on, as always, so I'll just take it from here.

I think this is right, though I note that some countries have taken the wise step of launching national "truth and reconciliation" projects, and I tend to think we need our attention focused by a similar process or event. Watergate led to a fair amount of reform because it was a public spectacle; since then, it's increasingly been argued that public spectacles of that sort are somehow demeaning or destructive. (Which they are, of course...but to politicians, not citizens.)

I think we can be made to see the truth about ourselves. I hate to think of what it might entail, though, not least because our national moral awakening seems very likely to come at someone else's expense.

Eric, above, says "Fascism." True enough, but the historical baggage of the word has a distancing effect, and allows us to argue over definitions and analogies instead of directly confronting the way we live now. America's not 1930s Germany or Italy, and it can't be, by virtue of its size and heterogeneous population. We have advantages the citizens of those country didn't have.

And yet, it's disturbing when one thinks about the unprecedented amount of intellectual power directed against fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the most brilliant people who ever lived fought it passionately with words and more. It came about nonetheless, of course...not because it had better arguments, but because it didn't need arguments. It communicates on an entirely different level.

"well, congratulations, you're all Black folk now."

That's a good point...a lot more subtle and serious than it might seem at first glance. Of course, it involves a worsening of the situation of minorities, too. While the floodwaters of institutional suspicion may be rising high enough to inconvenience "ordinary" people, they can keep their heads above water by standing on the backs of the submerged. These aren't the happiest times to be a Black Muslim, God knows, or a Sikh...

Phila said...

The time is long past to stop focusing on symptoms and myriad details and finally seek lasting solutions. Until we address the core causes of the millennia of struggle and suffering that have bedeviled humanity, these repeating cycles of evil will never end.

Anyone who thinks that religion is the root cause of war, oppression, and genocide is nuts. In its absence - which is an impossible state to attain, by the way - we'll simply find others. And we won't have to look far. We have plenty of other stuff to fight over.

To a certain entent, thinking like this is simply the mirror image of the thinking you decry.

Mr. Karate said...

I'm enraged and scared. My only hope is that the Supreme Court throws it out. When this whole war on terror started, not even the largest world-wide protest in history could stop it.

And yet, at the same time, there is that poem

"They came for the Communists, and I didn't object - For I wasn't a Communist;
They came for the Socialists, and I didn't object - For I wasn't a Socialist;
They came for the labor leaders, and I didn't object - For I wasn't a labor leader;
They came for the Jews, and I didn't object - For I wasn't a Jew;
Then they came for me - And there was no one left to object." - Martin Niemoller

Nanette said...

I'm glad you posted that poem, Mr. Tyler. I was going to reference it myself, even though the older I get, the less I like it. It seems to place the onus of doing something not on doing it because it's the right thing to do, full stop, but because of self interest. I wonder if he was a Libertarian? ;) Also, it leaves the impression that he would have been okay with everything had it just not gotten to him at the last (which, from what I understand, is basically true as he was a supporter of some of the earlier actions).

It does have its uses though.

Nanette said...

I need to come back to some of this, as too many thoughts are jumbling around at once. One thing, though:

Of course, it involves a worsening of the situation of minorities, too. While the floodwaters of institutional suspicion may be rising high enough to inconvenience "ordinary" people, they can keep their heads above water by standing on the backs of the submerged.

See, I sort of think of that as the status quo. We're not far enough removed (or advanced) from a generation or two past for things to have changed that much, except the laws and some things here and there. But, for the most part, I believe this is how things are, and have been.

I do think there are changes happening, however.

I remember (I think) seeing a cartoon when I was young... I think actually the scenario was used in a number of older ones, but anyway... someone is chopping down a tree, but instead of the tree falling down, a portion of it at the bottom just shoots out and the rest of the tree settles down on to the stump, shuddering mightily, but still standing. The person sawing tries again and the same thing happens.. the tree is shorter, but still standing on the stump. This continues on til there is little left of the tree but the leafy tops and a small bit to stay on the stump. Eventually the wood cutter is able to just topple it over with a push of a finger.

It seems to me that a lot of what is going on now, federally and in the states, has been built on the enactment of various laws over the past few decades (with sometimes great and majority approval), all of which can theoretically be used against anyone, as we are all equal under the law, but which have primarily targeted minority populations, so there was not as much outcry as there could have been because of, well... fear, racism, "law and order" stuff, and because the vast majority of the mainstream population were not affected.

Now, we have the same things going using non citizens as a sort of shield, I guess, but wording things in ways that seem to also include the citizenry (but no one seems really sure).

Well, I did have a point but I might be too tired to really make it, so will just leave that part as is.

Nanette said...

Anyway, I think what I meant to convey was that I don't believe it's so much the water that is rising as it is, instead, the people - ordinary, mainstream, usually more powerful or influential by virtue of being middle class, or of a paler hue, etc - who are sinking.

A slight distinction, maybe, but one I feel is much more dangerous overall, especially when considering the various laws that are now on the books.

Some of the most brilliant people who ever lived fought it passionately with words and more. It came about nonetheless, of course...not because it had better arguments, but because it didn't need arguments. It communicates on an entirely different level.

There is that, true. Sort of like today with the right engaging people using myths and fear, and the left engaging them (or attempting to) using facts and policies. And lots of words, but not enough (I don't think) of appealing to or replacing the myths with better ones.

Then again, maybe that wouldn't (didn't) work either.

Also, I am not sure we are as good at learning from the past in order to repeat it, but better this time, as some are.

It's odd that a country so filled with churches, mosques, synagogues, temples of various religions (I agree, by the way, on religion itself not being the root cause of war, although it is sometimes used as a cover) would be so reticent about taking wrongs out, looking at them, and attempting to right them in some way.

I am not religious myself, but from what I understand, most of them have some sort of process for this at least on a personal or congregational level (I don't know how honest or effective such things are), so it would seem like doing it on a national level would not encounter quite as much resistance as it does. Well, except for from the politicians and government structures and so on.

Anyway, I'm just thinking out loud. I keep feeling that there is some vital piece of all this (probably a great many of them, sigh) that I am missing or not taking into account, but maybe it's just that my reflective headgear needs polishing ;)

Anonymous said...

Torture may have short term benefits but long term it will chance the perception of our countries to those outside. I belive in good and of course it does not work all of the tim, but the long run it will not work.
remember we are talking about torture to people who will glady die for their cause amd proably ahve been trained fo such times.
When does the torture stop?
The USA and UK will be on their own if the torture bill goes through, countries are already refusing more troops to the Alfganisthan issue, because there is a bad feelin worldwide on teh Iraq situation.
Creating a culture that tortures anuone will push the rest of th world gurther away.
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