Plumb Lines

May 4, 2009

Are “We” Guilty of Torture?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 2:45 pm

After Andrew Sullivan highlighted my post on why we should not impute bad motives to torture advocates, John Schwenkler had a thoughtful and forceful reply:

At some point, the unwillingness to let in that light becomes as grave an evil as the inability to be moved by what it reveals. At some point, we can only say of those who continue to dwell in darkness that they do so of their own willing . At some point, ignorance passes into deliberate self-deception, naïveté into apologetics, good intentions into a willing blindness to the harsh reality of sin.

For a great number of torture apologists, that is a point that has long since been passed.

Schwenkler could hardly be more right. We cannot tiptoe around the fact that our government engaged in profoundly evil acts in the name of American citizens. No matter how vehemently we disagree with the actions of the torturers, the fact remains that they were done in the name of the American people. It is true, of course, that “we”  the citizens of the United States are not morally culpable for what our elected representatives and their subordinates did. But we are politically responsible. If we fail to pursue justice and punish the malefactors, we start to share in the blame for the actions they performed.

It is tempting to think that the only thing we need to do is prosecute the wrongdoers (or talk about doing so) and then walk away. But if we want truth in addition to criminal justice, we need to ask ourselves why the same society produced  the evil of elite authorization of torture  as well as the  grassroots ghoulishness of Abu Ghraib. Surely it had to do with many things, including those person’s anxiety to save American lives and blindness to evil. But in addition to all that was our shared cultural belief that the body is different from the person, that we as humans don’t realize what neuroscience partially suggests, namely that humans are their bodies.

The body is not property that can be disposed of however one wants. This Lockean view, that we are citizens who “have” bodies (instead of being citizens who are bodies) leads to a state that, just as it can seize property when it wants to build a highway, can torture a body when it wants to win a war. Maybe this means that we all deserve blame for torture to the extent that we buy into a shared cultural idea that undergirds many of the not-so-bad things we do, but is ultimately capable of buttressing brutality.

-Matthew Schmitz

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12 Comments »

  1. Here, here, Matt. But I disagree with your assertion that what happened at Abu Ghraib was “grassroots ghoulishness.” Much of what those guards did was authorized by the policies of the Bush administration. One method in particular, the iconic hooded prisoner on a box with wired hands, was a Soviet method of torture if I recall correctly, and certainly something a bunch of hicks could dream up. How would they know, for example, that Muslims think dogs unclean?

    I will never believe the back-benchers at Abu Ghraib were acting independently of the brilliant, evil torturers of certain agencies. I believe the Abu Ghraib crew were the patsies for protecting the US’s image abroad. Rumsfeld, etc. certainly believed they could stop it by blaming it on a “few bad apples,” but it goes beyond that.

    Comment by Michael E. van Landingham — May 4, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  2. In the absence of evidence, I am very reluctant to say that Abu Ghraib’s abuses were authorized by higher ups. That said, it seems quite certain that no one cared what was happening to these Iraqis. It certainly doesn’t mean that our nation’s leaders were innocent. What we have learned in recent weeks is that they were not.

    Comment by Matthew Schmitz — May 4, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

  3. […] receptivity to torture was made possible by the widespread and deeply-held belief in body-self dualism. That said, beliefs do not merely exist. When central to a society, they are expressed and […]

    Pingback by Sex and Torture « Plumb Lines — May 4, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

  4. […] receptivity to torture was made possible by the widespread and deeply-held belief in body-self dualism. That said, beliefs do not merely exist. When central to a society, they are expressed and […]

    Pingback by Grainy Fantasies « Plumb Lines — May 5, 2009 @ 12:06 am

  5. Interesting link on dualism, but it seems to be quite confused about metaphysics based on a poor understanding of physics. Repeatedly the author uses adjectives like “mere” to diminish the standing of the physical universe, and specifically to reduce all of science to mere Newtonian determinism. Under modern quantum physics it’s reasonable to suggest that something like free will exists everywhere, all the time, subject to certain rules; even vacuum is not stable or predictable except on a large scale. This understanding and appreciation of the physical universe is subtly informing modern liberalism. Not that this has much to do with torture per se.

    Comment by Tim H — May 5, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  6. Tim H, I think you make a good point about the use of words like “mere” that prejudice the argument a bit, but I’m not sure how indeterminacy at the quantum level has anything to do with free will.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 5, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  7. I can understand why we should not assume that the people in the Bush administration who ordered or countenanced torture did so with bad motives, but I don’t understand why we should therefore assume they had good motives. Most of us do things from a mixture of motives. Others cannot see into our hearts & know why we did things — but that is true for both good & bad motivations. Let’s concentrate on their actions, in toto.

    Comment by Carol J — May 5, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

  8. our shared cultural belief that the body is different from the person

    Wow, do I disagree. One would then assume that a less dualistic culture would be less prone to war crimes — the Japanese, for instance.

    No, I think the reasons for both the high-level and low-level torture policiess were perfectly outlined by John Dean several years ago, in Conservatives Without Conscience: this is authoritarianism.

    Comment by Doctor Science — May 5, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

  9. Excellent, Matt. We should also heed Andrew Sullivan’s admonition to pursue justice in a non-partisan fashion – he’s called for the prosecution of Speaker Pelosi if she, like the torture apologists, enabled that evil. And Sullivan has rightly called upon us to ignore false distinctions between war crimes, to be intolerant of any tactic which purports to “save lives” at the cost of deliberately-inflicted human suffering. Quite bravely, he’s condemned the incineration and maiming (i.e. torture) of innocent human shields in Pakistan through drone missile strikes. Although that does not appear to be the continuing or systemic policy of the Obama administration, and appears to have been made on a military level, Sullivan has called for an investigation of precisely how far up the chain of command authority for those atrocities rests.

    Comment by Vera Hunter — May 5, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

  10. Three themes run through:

    the themes and my thoughts:

    1) motivations of Bush Admin Sr. officials. (I think, Abu Ghraib was an enhanced version of “Lord of the Flies” in which admin officials looked the otherway, which does not release anyone from cupability). Which in so far as Prez Bush himself is concerned we saw his unrestrained vote infavor of torture in that wolfish grin when before Congress he called for Bin-Laden dead or alive. Later morphed into: “Hide Witch Hide, the good folks come to burn thee. Their keen enjoyment hid behind a gothic mask of duty.”

    2) “Ethics of torture” or as to paraphrase Cicero in “On Duties” wrote “is that which is expedient ethical?” Cicero says, “never.” GB Shaw, writing as Undershaft (a weapons maker, suggests otherwise, “I would rather be a thief than a pauper, a murder than a slave.” But we know that torture does not work, so this question is moot.

    3) the Mind/Body problem: historically Christians believe that the mind is separate from the body, so what happens to the body does not matter … Locke only tries up update it. I happen to believe like Korzybski and countless others that we have only neuro chemistry.

    Results: While they knew torture does not work, various Bush Administration officials developed a number of reasons to torture because they wanted to see the people they thought responsible for 9-11 suffer.

    Comment: Their emotion for revenge is understandable. We all have emotions but what makes us civilized is that we do not have to act upon them if we choose.

    Comment by Kurt — May 5, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

  11. “3) the Mind/Body problem: historically Christians believe that the mind is separate from the body, so what happens to the body does not matter”

    This is not the case. A sharp distinction between mind and body never made it into any mainstream Christian theology, even if it’s commonly assumed by most modern people, including most Christians. Catholic theology in particular repudiates body-self dualism explicitly. It follows Aquinas in viewing the human person as having matter and form, or soul. Neither of these corresponds to what we now call mind or body.

    Comment by David Schaengold — May 5, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

  12. “In the absence of evidence, I am very reluctant to say that Abu Ghraib’s abuses were authorized by higher ups.”

    In other words, you really think Graner and England, when they packed their gear for Iraq, foresaw the utility of dog collars and leashes?

    Comment by I_conoclast — May 6, 2009 @ 12:13 pm


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