Democrats & Liberals Archives

Tortured Logic

“At least”, they say, “we are not as bad as Saddam was.”

“Look at those decapitations, see why Abu Ghraib was necessary?”

“You liberals care more about terrorists and insurgents than your own people.”

There’s always an excuse, really, always somebody who has done worse, always some ad hominem comment that allows one to avoid the issue of one’s own behavior. But at the heart of each rationalization is both a concession to our darker sides, and a masking ambiguity that robs us of our good judgment.

"At least", they say, "we are not as bad as Saddam was."

We could say that we are not as bad as Saddam Hussein up and way past the point where have become just as bad. That's because, unlike him, we believe in something greater than ourselves. We can justify to ourselves that we are doing what we are doing with good intentions. It's for Democracy. It's to fight the terrorists, it's for Iraqi freedom.

But in the end, the torture at Abu Ghraib has no place being administered by Americans. It is one thing for our spies and agents to occasionally use such means to protect us. It is quite another for any government, much less our own, to make a customary thing out of torture.

Torture does not spare the innocent. It hits them worse, because eventually it twists their minds, made suggestible by pain and suffering, into believing, or being willing to confess to anything the torturers suspect. Torture is not an exculpatory tool, like evidence, or interrogation.

Our system of government, the one we evangelize to the world has a legal system built on the notion that it is better to eliminate a guilty suspect by mistake, than to punish and innocent suspect in error. By that logic, torture has no place in our legal system, or any we would practice abroad. Once we start allowing a system that allows the government to overstep the bounds of presumed innocence, we become as bad as Saddam, because past the point of presumed innocence lies a government that can establish guilt without evidence of crime.

"Look at those decapitations, see why Abu Ghraib was necessary?"

Emotionally, it's an argument that's quite persuasive. Our cruelty is made necessary by theirs. We must take vengeance for these unjustly murdered people.

But that impulse neither requires, nor justifies torture by our hand. We've seen many spots in the world go to hell based on the sentiment "An eye for and eye." Ironically, the talonic system of justice, as that is known, was an attempt to stop people from taking the law into their own hands. In those times, things went farther than a reciprocal punishment. Somebody might kill somebody over a lost eye, or a lost ox, or a broken bone.

The Talonic code was set up to limit the damage, so it would not be a vicious cycle of revenge. This guy gets his eye plucked out, and that's the end of it, it said.

Unfortunately, as happens with all rules, people found their loophole. Neglecting the aspect of judgment by a third party, most have taken it, ironically enough, as a justification for taking the law into their own hands.

So vengeance follow vengeance, and as Ghandi once famously remarked "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." And so it has. In Isreal, in Northern Ireland, in many other places, the violence continues and the bloodshed never ends. There is no sense of a higher law strong enough in these places to keep the back and forth violence to person, property and rights from escalating, or at least perpetuating itself. In the end this is what makes the rule of law necessary.

When one gets the sense that no justice can be found beside what one works with one own hands, and that a third party either doesn't exist or can't be trusted to intervene and settle on one's own behalf, then the outcome is inevitable. So it is with Iraq. We waded into a country and destroyed a source of law and order, however evil it was, which served to put an end to such lawlessness. Unfortunately, the way we planned the invasion prevented us from quickly asserting the same degree of authority, quashing rebellion and lawlessness before it began.

In essence, we are punishing innocent Iraqi's for the results of our mistake, all the while failing to uproot the sources of lawlessness that grabbed at the power vacuum we left. If we want true vengeance for Zarqawi's actions, we should use evidence and witnesses to catch him and put him on trial. It is unfortunate that we have borrowed the extralegal tactics of the Israelis, which as we all know have worked so wonderfully there.

"You liberals care more about terrorists and insurgents than your own people."

Watch it there. I've seen that Cox and Forkum cartoon where the hippy protestor upbraids the hostage for thinking it's his life the liberal's worried about. Actually, it's that persons life. The terrorist is just incidental. Perhaps, through torture, we'll get one or two more terrorists than we'd otherwise get.

In the process though, we will have set a precedent that means our soldiers, sometimes with sensitive knowledge, would be subject to the same abuse. We are also setting the fairly disturbing precedent of saying that outside one's own country, in lands occupied or invaded, one can dispense with all civilized treatment of prisoners.

If we are trying to encourage a certain country to turn over in revolution, governments can use our justifications for torture and human rights abuses to further their own dark agenda. The price of freedom goes up in the world, and some people may not be willing to pay that cost.

In the end, what makes these judgments difficult is the dilemma, often false, where one is offered a choice between committing and evil and suffering it. As a writer in a dramatic field, I am very familiar with such choices. They are what make good stories.

But for those stories to have a happy ending, often a character must be willing to risk an evil outcome in order to avoid doing evil him orherself. Often this entails reassessing the situation, taking a different look at their antagonist, or taking another look at their own actions, and seeing whether they require redemption. However it's done, it is compelling to people. It's very uplifting, very cathartic to see somebody who was either in error or in crisis avoid or evade the dark choice, and choose a means of solving their problem that at the very least preserves their integrity, and at most saves the day for all concerned.

Our problem in intervening in both Vietnam and Iraq, is that in doing so, we became the villains of the piece for the people involved. Even as we set out to win hearts and minds, we did so in such a way that convinced many that our efforts at persuasion were really efforts at deception.

What we need in Iraq, is swift and fundamental reform. We need to almost literaly change our tack in the occupation so fast that people in the Arab world will have their heads spinning. We need people to be uncertain, unnerved, and most importantly, invested in what happens next. The degree to which we can surprise the Arab world in our willingness to broker alliances and beat down abuses by our people, and those of our allies.

In short, we need to take the initiative and change the paradigm of how we deal with the Middle East. We cannot continue to confirm the arab and muslim world's worst expectations.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at July 1, 2004 10:06 AM