Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bush's Defense of Torture

The Bush Administration is making America a vile and despicable country. To make matters worse, it has now embarked on a campaign that, it seems to me, has the specific purpose of corrupting the American moral character and to seduce the American people into embracing pure, uncontaminated evil.

These are the thoughts that came to my mind as I read the MSNBC article, "White House pushes water boarding rationale." The article tells of an administration that has made a conscious decision to use the powers of the President to engage in an orchestrated mass-marketing campaign whose ultimate object is to get the American people to become co-conspirators in its own moral atrocity.

The tactic is the same that Michael Devlin used in the kidnapping of a second boy for his own sexual pleasure. A boy he had kidnapped a few years earlier was protesting Devlin's plans to kidnap another (younger) child. In order to gain the first boy's cooperation, he made the first boy a co-conspirator, involving him in the execution of the kidnapping. The idea is that, once the first boy is involved in supporting the crime, he will 'rationalize' the act in his own mind so as to justify it to himself, in order to protect his own ego.

So, now, the Bush Administration wants to involve the American people in its war crimes, to get us to embrace its own evil.

So, what is this plan?

Bush has ordered six people suspected in some involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to be tried, with the intention of seeking the death penalty. If these people had been captured and given fair trials, then there would be little grounds for objection. I probably would not have thought the issue worth writing about.

However, these people were tortured.

Of course, the Administration does not torture (Bush has told us this himself). Of course, in order to say this with a straight face, they have literally defined torture as acts of barbaric cruelty inflicted on people other than the Bush Administration. Imagine a rapist who comes to us with the claim, “I do not rape,” defending his claim by saying, “Rape is an act of forcing sex on somebody who is unwilling by somebody other than me.”

We’re talking about somebody who is evil to the core.

Now, it is also the case that every rapist will be able to tell us a story that ‘justifies’ his actions in his own mind. He will tell us that the victim deserved to be raped. “She is nothing but a tease who enjoys frustrating men and she deserved what I gave her.” Or he will defend it as an act of charity. “Women secretly enjoy being raped. It allows them to have the pleasure of sex without the responsibility.”

Gang members will explain how they are only protecting their own turn. The thief who robs the convenience store will tell us that they are robbing the people with their high prices and his theft was only a matter of getting back what the store has wrongfully taken. Even Hitler could give us a story about how the Holocaust was for the greater good, as could every slave owner, crusader, or terrorist who helped to hijack an airplane and fly it into a sky scraper.

Every one of them has a story to tell us about what we can perceive to be justified when we put our minds to it. Every one of them is, in fact, a warning about the type of world we make for ourselves when we accept these types of rationalizations. We are looking at a world in which nothing is evil, in which there is no such thing as an ‘atrocity’, except that which is committed by ‘the other guy’, which can then be used to justify us doing the very thing we have condemned in others.

So, why is torture immoral? Why is it something that no good person can accept?

Because the statement, “Torture is permissible” means anybody can engage in torture. President Bush is giving permission to every tyrant and despot, present and future, with prisoners that he wants to interrogate, to torture them. If America embraces torture, one of the certain effects of our action will be that a lot more people around the world will be tortured. By lowering (or eliminating) the moral barriers against torture, we embrace a world in which torture is more common.

One could argue that the difference between American torture and the torture done by these petty tyrants and dictators is that we have good reasons to torture and they do not. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia brings up the often-used ticking bomb example. “You know that a bomb is going to go off that will kill a thousand innocent children. You can save those children by torturing this one prisoner. Certainly, in this case, it is morally justified to torture this prisoner.”

To somebody who understands morality, the ‘ticking bomb’ example is a moral cake-walk. I have compared it to the case of a father, out fishing with his son, when the son has an allergic reaction to a bee sting, and the only car available belongs to somebody else who has left his keys to the ignition. Does the father take the car?

Yes, the father takes the car and uses it to save his son’s life. But the father still admits that taking the car is wrong. He goes to the person who owns the car and begs forgiveness. “I’m very sorry for taking your car. I know it was wrong. Please forgive me. My son was dying and I couldn’t see any other way to get him to the hospital. If I had any other option I would have used it. I know it was wrong. I’ll make it up to you.”

This type of regret is the sign of a moral wrong outweighed by a legitimate greater concern. We do not meet these types of situations by making car theft legal on the off chance that somebody might actually have a good reason to take somebody’s car. We leave it the case that car theft is illegal and, in the rare circumstances in which somebody needs to take somebody else’s car, we leave it to them to throw themselves on our mercy. And if they can convince us that a greater value was truly at stake, and that the agent made a good-faith effort to realize those values without doing evil to another person, then, and only then, do we forgive him.

Has anybody heard the Bush Administration beg for forgiveness for the evil that it has done? Has anybody heard the Bush Administration admit that their actions were ‘wrong but necessary’. Quite the opposite. They continue to insist that their actions were right. They’re acting like somebody who (claims to) have taken the car to save their sick child, without providing any evidence that the child was, indeed, sick, and who then insists that they now have the right to keep the car.

I want to stress this point, because it is important. I fear that some readers might skim over the above paragraph as pure rhetoric. The behavior of the Bush Administration is like that of the person who takes a car, when asked why he took it he claims that he had a sick child to deliver to the hospital (without providing evidence) and who insists that he may now keep the car.

This is the moral character of the Bush Administration. The contempt and condemnation that we would give the father in this type of case is what any good, moral person would give to the Bush Administration – only more so, given the greater magnitude of the evils that the Bush Administration is embracing and the fact that this evil is its preferred world-wide moral standard.

So, what do we do in this case? As I said, we condemn the Bush Administration. We should insist on a formal condemnation but, failing that, at least to the degree that we are able, we spread the informal condemnation as far and as wide as possible – among all people who do not wish to see casual torture the new moral standard. And we condemn all who do not join us in condemning this administration.

That condemnation need not be because the Administration engaged in torture – just like the condemnation in the above case need not be because the father took the car to get his sick child to the hospital. The condemnation is because the Bush Administration fails to recognize the wrongness of torture and, even where it is necessary, it is something for which a good person would still beg for forgiveness as a way of acknowledging that wrong.

Even more so, the Bush Administration deserves condemnation for this new tactic, of putting the weight of the Administration behind corrupting the moral character of America. Rather than admit the evil that it has done and ask for forgiveness, the Bush Administration now wants to seduce the American people into embracing evil as its new moral standard.

For that crime, there can be no forgiveness.

Any person who sides with the Bush Administration on this, sides with evil. They are evil , too. They are the 21st century equivalent of the “good Nazi.”

One of the goals of this blog is to convince readers that it is necessary to pick up the tools of praise and condemnation and to wield them, at times with unrestrained force, at those who exhibit characteristics that we have reason to promote or inhibit respectively. It is a summons to express contempt at those who are contemptible, and to heap praise upon those who deserve praise. That these are vital tools to making the world a better place.

When you write, and you can demonstrate that the person you are writing about exhibited traits that people generally have reason to inhibit, then make sure that you make it clear that the subject of your writing deserves contempt and condemnation. To say that they deserve contempt and condemnation is nothing but saying that people generally have reason to inhibit the formation of those character traits, that having those traits makes one a person that others generally have reason to condemn.


NAL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with your analogy. It just doesn't go far enough.
Torture on the suspicion that the person may know valuable information is more akin (in my mind) to having the bee stung child, seeing an old man walking a dog, running up to the old man and mugging him (kicking the dog for good measure), in the hopes that he'll have a key for a car nearby.
Yes, he may have a car nearby, but he may just as likely not have a car nearby, or perhaps he has a car but it's a piece of crap (you know, like the *valuable* knowledge that someone who has been in guatanamo for the past 6 years has about some upcoming plan).

Frankly, even if you apologize pretty profusely, I think that has no place in society.

Anonymous said...

I have a different problem with your analogy. In your case, the car owner is indisputably blameless; they were not his bees, he did not cause or wish the child to be stung. In the Bush/torture case, Bush is alleging that the people to be tortured are not blameless. (The Scalia hypthetical is not as explicit on this, but unless he is making a pure utilitarian argument (in which case your analogy may be more apt), I think it is implied.)

Of course, it is likely that Bush is exaggerating (or lying his head off) about the blameworthiness of the suspected terrorists, but if his premises can be granted for the sake of abstract moral argument, the problem with your analogy is clear. I think your analogy is better with respect to something like the situation of Israel and the Palestinians. If it is argued that Israel needs to act against the interest or well-being of innocent Palestinians to ensure its own security (or that the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is necessary for the security of the Jewish people -- n.b. that I am not claiming that either of these premises is true), then it should also be acknowledged that this justification does not eliminate the obligation to provide remedies and apologies to the innocent victims of one's actions. Another analogy I like about this situation is that of a person who, jumping from a burning building, lands one someone else. OK, you had to jump -- but it's not the other guy's fault that you landed on him.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The issue of the blameworthiness of the person whose car was taken is not relevant to the point of this argument.

The ticking bomb scenario is built on a premise that an act must fit into one of two moral categories - that it must be permissible, or it must be prohibited.

The bee sting example is meant to prove that the assumption that we are limited to these two moral categories is false. That in addition to 'permissions' and 'exceptions' we have 'outweighings'.

By the way, the 'apology' that I wrote about is not owed to the person tortured. The appology is owed to society - for everybody who is put at risk of torture if the social/psychological aversion to torture is weakened. (Weakening this aversion makes torture more common, and making torture more common puts innocent people at risk. Given the numbers of innocent people who are tortured today at our current level of aversion, it would be senseless to conclude that further weakening of this aversion will not cause the suffering of additional innocent people.)

As far as I know, Bush might well have visited those that were tortured and offered a personal appology. Whether he did nor did not is irrelevant. In order to promote an overall aversion to torture that will save innocent people, he needs to make a clear statement of the wrongness of torture and demonstrate that he did all that he could to avoid this dreadful act to the world.

It is to us that he should appologize.