If we can move beyond torture, do we not have a responsibility also to think for a moment about the obvious fact that torture is not the cruelest thing we do? Torture offends us, in part, because the torturer is not at risk, but neither are most pilots dropping bombs. And how exactly does the risk taken by ground troops mitigate the suffering of those they wound, kill, and terrorize? Hanging someone by the wrists offends us, and yet we might rather have it done to us than be kept in 23-hours-a-day isolation for a decade, a practice that is part of our accepted justice system. Clearly our morality is a scrambled hodge-podge of reactions that could use some improvement.
One book I find helpful in this is Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror, and Sovereignty, by Paul Kahn, an exploration of how those who support torture and war tend to think. In Kahn’s interpretation, many modern westerners make exceptions to the rule of law for the rule of sovereignty, or nationalism. We place in the flag and the body politic (not to mention the imperial president) a sacred importance once given to royalty, and we treat terrorism as an act of war rather than a crime because it is an affront to our nation. We give ultimate value to the military act of sacrificing one’s life in order to take the lives of those who fail to worship at the god of the Stars and Stripes. War, as the title of Chris Hedges’ terrific book (Collateral Damage) puts it, is a force that gives us meaning.
“Is it moral progress,” Kahn asks, “that we have become more tolerant of collateral damage or that we are now experts in the military application of casuistry? The incidents at Abu Ghraib may deeply offend us, but they are not the worst thing Americans have done in Iraq — if our measure is injury, death, and destruction.”
Kahn traces the history of torture through the ages, and finds that its tendency to produce false confessions and faulty information was always known and generally deemed irrelevant:
“More was at stake in torture’s production of the confession than the certainty that the victim had performed an alleged criminal act. It does not take modern science or modern sensibilities to understand that under torture someone might confess to a crime he had not committed. Aristotle writes of this, as do Augustine and a whole succession of others. Torture was maintained not because of a failure to understand the negative epistemic value of pain. It was pursued for reasons of faith, not fact.”
Kahn’s claim is that this same faith-based thinking exists today and drives the decisions of those who support torture, Guantanamo, and war. To understand this thinking, I highly recommend Kahn’s book, but not without serious misgiving. As someone with a book of my own long since written that won’t be sold until next September I hate to point out where someone else’s book has fallen behind the times, but Kahn writes as if any act of terrorism must produce torture in response, as if that were a law of physics. And he writes as if torture will never end. And yet we are now moving in the direction of ending it. In fact, Kahn treats George W. Bush as a model of essential human traits, insulting not just this reader but a majority of Americans. Kahn proposes that the goal of international law is either an “idle dream” or a “dangerous” one.
But it is dreams and fantasies and images of torture to which Kahn devotes most of his attention and far too much importance and respect. He seems oblivious to the possibility of recognizing the ticking time bomb scenario as a bit of nonsense that cannot occur in the real world. He predicts the likelihood of terrorism producing in us a reaction that eliminates all our foolish childhood notions of peace and justice, but he never for an instant asks where terrorism comes from or what we might do in the way of ceasing to provoke it. Kahn gives us a rich understanding of why we must challenge nationalism and mystical thinking if we want to outgrow torture and war. But he takes nationalism, or what he calls sovereignty, to be all or nothing, excluding the possibility that we might enforce international standards of human rights without eliminating the United States and bringing on swarms of black helicopters.
Richard Seymour’s recent book The Liberal Defence of Murder offers an historical account, including the history of seven years ago, of liberals’ support for aggressive war. We think of the Bush-Cheney era as having been built only on the punditry of full-fledged rightwing neocons and forget how many liberals added their voices to the screams for blood, and the points at which — at least momentarily — a majority of all Americans kneeled and worshiped at the throne of precisely the sort of primitive bullshit Kahn analyzes. The shameful accounts Seymour offers should be kept in mind as the era of middle-eastern occupations evolves from Bush-Cheney to Bush-Cheney-Obama.
Kahn’s analysis helps with this, and with understanding why the necessary step of recovery that Kahn avoids mentioning represents the ultimate indignity to those who believe in sovereignty and blood. Kahn points out that those prosecuted for Abu Ghraib were scapegoats, but he dares not even suggest the possibility of prosecuting those at the top who created the policy of torture. The president is a symbol, like a flag, of what Americans pledge allegiance to. The idea of placing him in prison offends those who still think in the terms that Kahn imagines most or all of us can never escape from.
And yet it is only 22% of Americans who, through fear or belief, say they approve of Bush. And the historical account that Kahn offers, whether he recognizes it or not, is one of dramatic changes in human outlooks. There is no reason to imagine that we cannot overcome torture, war, hyper-nationalism, vengeance, and retribution. In fact, all changes in human morality have been preceded by discussions of why such changes would be impossible.
Vincent Bugliosi, famed former prosecutor and author of The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, has proposed something beyond even the enforcement of international law in terms of assaulting the sensibilities of the sovereignists. He has proposed putting a former president who lied a nation into war on trial for the murder of the nation’s soldiers. This would transform those soldiers from heroes of self-sacrifice into victims of a sleazy crime, of an embarrassment to a nation. I side with Bugliosi on this and believe that we as a people are ready to take this step. I’m not sure we’ll survive long as a global community if Americans or others, or all of us together, do not hold Bush-Cheney accountable.
But there is something Bugliosi and Kahn have in common. When I tell Bugliosi that I want prosecution purely for deterrence, and that I think his encouragement of retribution and advocacy of the death penalty is counterproductive in the struggle to outgrow war, he tells me that vengeance and retribution are “normal” in humans, and therefore good and/or inevitable. I can imagine telling Kahn, whom I don’t know, that I have no use for his gods of war and him telling me that they are “normal” and therefore unavoidable. Brilliant thinkers are capable of the most basic failures of will and imagination. So are we all, of course, but as a society we replace our old with new generations capable of thinking in new ways without knowing they are doing so. Before long, war will be, as Dennis Kucinich says, archaic. I can say that because it is so obviously possible, because so many war-making nations have changed their ways, and because if I’m wrong we’ll all be dead.
David Swanson is the author of the upcoming book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press and of the introduction to “The 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush” published by Feral House and available at Amazon.com. Swanson holds a master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich‘s 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the , and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Swanson is Co-Founder of AfterDowningStreet.org, creator of ConvictBushCheney.org and Washington Director of Democrats.com, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, the Backbone Campaign, and Voters for Peace, a member of the legislative working group of , and convener of the accountability and prosecution working group of .