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.


Anonymous 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...


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.

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.


...and here...


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

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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