Torture and the Rhetoric of Evil

Since it’s apparently “Torture Awareness Week” here at the League, yet another — I’m on the road, so forgive me if I continue to ignore the comments section until early next week.  (But that also means my typos will be there for the world to see for at least the weekend!)

Working on my last post led me to thumb through Wendell Berry’s Citizenship Papers, and I was struck by the following lines from “A Citizen’s Response”:

Why do people become terrorists?  Such a question is often dismissed as evidence of “liberal softness” toward malefactors.  But that is not necessarily the case.  Such a question may also arise from the recognition that problems have causes.  There is, however, no acknowledgment in “The National Security Strategy” that terrorism might have a cause that could possibly be discovered and possibly remedied.  “The embittered few,” it seems, are merely “evil.”

My arguments against torture typically rely on the belief that there is an intrinsic value to every human life, and that torture, because it denies this value, is an unconscionable act.  I typically leave this at an assertion, because, for me, this is a primarily religious belief.  Nevertheless, we can see this belief underlying a variety of secular laws and institutions: most notably those respecting the individual’s life and liberty.  Whether it is because “all men are created equal” or because “all are created in God’s image,” the line of thought leads to the valuation of human life and the individual being.

One who is “merely evil,” by contrast, has no fragment of good within them.  To be merely evil is to be only evil; beyond repentance, salvation, t’shuva, change, or rehabilitation (choose whichever term your set of belief/non-belief prefers); beyond the possibility of anything other than evil.  The merely evil are Steinbeck’s “monsters born to human parents,” the end result of “a twisted gene or malformed egg . . . [that] produce[d] a malformed soul.”  And, like all monsters, the merely evil are wholly other.  The defining characteristic of a monster is its monstrousness—that it is not human.  The merely evil man, as a monster, is a man alone, cut off from what it is to be human, from any possibility of the good, the decent, or the simply not-evil.

This raises, perhaps, an objection to my arguments against torture.  If the rhetoric of the early days of the War on Terror is to be believed and we are to accept that terrorists—or at least the leadership of al Qaeda and similar groups—are merely evil and it is our duty to rid the world of such evil, then how does my argument from the subjective value of individual life and experience apply in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?  Or, had we captured him alive, in the case of Osama bin Laden?

My margin note beside the passage I quoted above reads: “Reduction of ‘the enemy’ to ‘merely evil’ as a strategy of pol. propaganda?”  I remember writing it; it was the fall of 2008 and I was sitting on the sofa of my then-apartment, very angry, cynical, and pessimistic—too much so, in the case of this note.  Political propaganda implies the use of “merely evil” as a post-facto justification of torture—what I was thinking about as I wrote the comment.  “Merely evil,” I would say today, was no such phenomenon.  It was an element of the rhetoric, perhaps one believed too much even by members of the Bush administration, that changed the atmosphere of our conversation about torture and the limits of acceptable treatment for fellow human beings generally.  One can see how easy a jump it is from “merely evil” to the acceptability of a judicious, controlled “enhanced interrogation” (if such adjectives can ever truly be applied).

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31 thoughts on “Torture and the Rhetoric of Evil

  1. The idea of dehumanization strikes me as quite applicable in these scenarios. In fact it seems that one of the ways we make it easier for our troops to kill other troops is by haamering the idea home that the enemy is not a person like us; they are monsters or vermin. Anything but human. Maybe this does make it easier to justify “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

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    • Doesn’t quite work that way. The boys and girls at Training and Doctrine tried the monsters/vermin proposition in WW1 and it didn’t work on soldiers. Works on civilians to a limited extent, but not as well as you might think. And it doesn’t stick: the first time you meet The Dreaded Enemy, your opinion changes. Many of the German POWs who picked peaches in Georgia went home with American wives. I knew an old Wehrmacht soldier who says his captivity in Georgia was the happiest period of his life.

      Know what really does work? Inculcate the idea we’re there to protect the civilians and drive off their oppressors. We did that in WW2 and it was a spectacular success. A whole religion emerged in the Pacific around the kindly American soldier, still going strong. This doctrine sticks, and provides a badly needed moral backstop for the fighting man.

      In our current wars, the Clear-Hold-Build starts with getting civilians out of the line of fire. The Marines worked out this tactic goes: they’ll have zones for each, as they did in Fallujah. Completely changed the perception of the Americans in Iraq. The Afghans are frustrated and seem to tell us to our face they’re perfectly willing to side with us and the Afghan government against the Taliban, but we won’t hang around to provide the security.

      There’s no perfect solution: there’s a flip side to this Manichean good-civilian bad-terrorist. We don’t see the terrorist as a human being or the sullen civilian who hates our guts for what he is: the guy who dug the hole for the IED that killed four of our guys. We believe what we’re told: war doesn’t blur lines, it creates artificial distinctions no sane would entertain. It’s Grade A bullshit, propaganda taken to heart. Yeah buddy. We’re the Liberators. You’re the Liberated. Though we’re kicking down your doors, you’re sposta love us. Please.

      Bakunin once said

      This flagrant negation of humanity which constitutes the very essence of the State is, from the standpoint of the State, its supreme duty and its greatest virtue. It bears the name patriotism, and it constitutes the entire transcendent morality of the State. We call it transcendent morality because it usually goes beyond the level of human morality and justice, either of the community or of the private individual, and by that same token often finds itself in contradiction with these. Thus, to offend, to oppress, to despoil, to plunder, to assassinate or enslave one’s fellowman is ordinarily regarded as a crime. In public life, on the other hand, from the standpoint of patriotism, when these things are done for the greater glory of the State, for the preservation or the extension of its power, it is all transformed into duty and virtue. And this virtue, this duty, are obligatory for each patriotic citizen; everyone is supposed to exercise them not against foreigners only but against one’s own fellow citizens, members or subjects of the State like himself, whenever the welfare of the State demands it.

      This explains why, since the birth of the State, the world of politics has always been and continues to be the stage for unlimited rascality and brigandage, brigandage and rascality which, by the way, are held in high esteem, since they are sanctified by patriotism, by the transcendent morality and the supreme interest of the State. This explains why the entire history of ancient and modern states is merely a series of revolting crimes; why kings and ministers, past and present, of all times and all countries — statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors — if judged from the standpoint of simple morality and human justice, have a hundred, a thousand times over earned their sentence to hard labour or to the gallows. There is no horror, no cruelty, sacrilege, or perjury, no imposture, no infamous transaction, no cynical robbery, no bold plunder or shabby betrayal that has not been or is not daily being perpetrated by the representatives of the states, under no other pretext than those elastic words, so convenient and yet so terrible: “for reasons of state.”

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      • The Afghans are frustrated and seem to tell us to our face they’re perfectly willing to side with us and the Afghan government against the Taliban, but we won’t hang around to provide the security.

        They tell that to us to our face in broken English.

        Then at mosque, the Imams are screaming about the “occupiers from the Great Satan, sons of pigs and apes” and how we need to be “driven from their lands.”

        Sort of like when Arafat was talking up the Oslo Accords in English, and the next day was back on Paleostinian radio calling it his “greatest deception”, part of the “phased plan”, and based on the Treaty of Khudaibiya which was a treaty solely to buy time to build up an army, which Mohammed broke the moment he thought he had enough soldiers to pull off his genocide plan (and succeeded in).

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        • And the sky is blue, too. The imams consider themselves ethical authorities. Their red-faced bloviations are not backed with military or economic power. Their propaganda isn’t working so well, all things considered: most of the Muslims in the world look at these bearded wonders as the reason they’re riding donkeys and not Isuzu pickup trucks.

          And oh, ordinary Muslims are kinda down on the austere chic of Osama bin Ladin; they like satellite dishes and the occasional snort of good single malt and their wives are all ’bout what they see in the Dubai malls. The revolutions currently in progress are mostly an reaction to the Secret Ingredients in Bearded Wonder Brand Islamic Sauce. It’s a few centuries past its sell date.

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            • Yeah there’s no group the Islamic fundamentalists hate and fear more than Bollywood. There are stars there who’re Islamic you know, women and men who embrace their faith and liberal values at the same time and affirm that the two are compatible. Hollywood is too alien to the people in the Middle East but Bollywood knows how to speak to them. If I were betting on it I’d say the true undoing of OBL’s philosophies is being forged there.

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          • Their propaganda isn’t working so well, all things considered: most of the Muslims in the world look at these bearded wonders as the reason they’re riding donkeys and not Isuzu pickup trucks.

            Right up until the point where their daughter starts dating a non-Muslim boy, then it’s Honor Killing Time.

            Of course, boy dating a non-Muslim girl? Not a problem. Just ship the two of them off to KSA after a couple years where she has no rights and can be “taught her proper place.” And while he’s there, hook him up with one of his cousins as a second wife. After all, the Koran says “so marry one for the religion.”

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            • Most of the ARAMCO weenies I’ve known can barely get beyond sabah al kheer and shukhran. They can’t read Arabic, they live in the Dhahran Camp and they have no respect for the Arabs. For every practical purpose they might as well be wearing a space suit on Mars for all the contact they have with the people and the places they live in.

              And you sound an awful lot like them. For all your time in the sandbox, you’re exhibiting that same cold sneer I’ve seen in those people. The Saudis are remarkable people. Here’s something I wrote about them some while back. A bit long, but some of you might get a feel for the other side of the KSA story.

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              • And then there’s people like you, who would rather deflect the issues than deal with the truthful point made.

                I take your pitiful attempt at deflection as proof I hit a little too close to home for you.

                Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, seeing as the US State Department has repeatedly issued warnings to American women about marrying Saudi men for the very reason I mentioned.

                Here you go. Get some education.

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                • Loves me some League, and I like the disagreement that is encouraged – I do learn a lot coming here, especially from those with differing viewpoints. But what is it with the common use of phrases like: “I take your pitiful attempt at deflection as proof I hit a little too close to home for you?” These things pop up in almost every thread, this sort of self declaration of victory with a 19th-century style version of “Good day, Sir!”

                  I get the sense that when people do this they are thinking in their heads: “Game, set, match! You poor man, you never really stood a chance.” But really, this just makes good smart people sound like the Wallace Shawn character from Princess Bride.

                  http://movieclips.com/FXbZ-the-princess-bride-movie-never-go-in-against-a-sicilian-when-death-is-on-the-line/

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              • Aaaand after finishing reading what you wrote, a few things tip me off to what you really are.

                I’m done here, Blaise. Enjoy venting your taqiyya at other credulous fools, I won’t be bothered any more.

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                • “Get some education… Enjoy venting your taqiyya at other credulous fools, I won’t be bothered any more.”

                  Also, people who want to convince others that they are right would do well by not being total assholes.

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      • Also:

        but we won’t hang around to provide the security.

        Didn’t you hear?

        We aren’t supposed to be in Iraq or Afghanistan for 40+ years like we were in Japan and Germany. That’d be “nation building” and a “waste of our resources” given that we’re not being paid any reparations from the losing side.

        This despite the fact that, as you state, “winning” involves actually leaving a stable state behind.

        But that’s the problem with the US of ADD these days. The retardicans and dumbassicrats all want everything right now, perfectly done, with no long-term work.

        Iraq should have been a simple premise. We go in, we take over. We run the place. Within a year or two, they start holding elections for local office – mayor, city council, etc. Within 5 years, they’re electing their regional governments. Within 10 years, they’re electing their parliament and national representation. Within 20 years, or longer depending whether the transitions go well or not and how much interference the Islamic Fascist Theocracy of Iran throws into the mix, we finally pull back.

        But remember, we’re “not in for nation building”, we’re “not there to be occupiers”, and we sure as hell “aren’t wanted there.” So instead, we finish off Saddam, put in place the first puppet government, tell them they have 3 months to write a constitution and hold elections for every fucking office – national, local, and otherwise – at once.

        And all this the first exercise in “democracy” for a people whose previous idea of an “election” was stuffing the ballot box with fake ballots a fistful at a time under the watchful eyes of Saddam’s armed Baathist guards.

        And we wonder why it didn’t work?

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        • We will be in Iraq for many decades. We’ve built a space age fort in Baghdad at the most strategic bend in the Tigris River. The Kurds put up a big statue to their liberator Bush43: we’ll be up there for the foreseeable future. We’ll be in Kabul till the sun burns down to a cinder.

          And don’t kid yourself about our capabilities. We stayed in West Germany and Japan for the same reasons we’re going to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan: it’s just a different sort of Cold War. We’ve sandwiched Iran and we have a fleet in Bahrain. This geometry keeps those Shiite sphincters in a permanent state of puckertude.

          Political will may seem to be a ship without a rudder. Read Imperial Life: Inside the Emerald City to see what happens when political morons are turned loose on a country in the middle of a civil war. Now that the grownups are in charge, that’s no longer as true as it was, but Iraq will have to work out its own problems: America’s role in their government has been attenuated. Iraq’s still a sad sack and I don’t know how the Iraqis will make things work, but that’s up to them, not us.

          Did it work?

          Which of you to gain me, tell, will risk uncertain pains of hell?
          I will not forgive you if you will not take the chance.
          The sailor gave at least a try, the soldier being much too wise,
          Strategy was his strength, and not disaster.

          The sailor, coming out again, the lady fairly leapt at him.
          That’s how it stands today.
          You decide if he was wise.
          The story teller makes no choice.
          Soon you will not hear his voice.
          His job is to shed light, and not to master.

          Since the end is never told, we pay the teller off in gold,
          In hopes he will return, but he cannot be bought or sold.

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  2. Sorry, but I have to state that there are “humans” in this world who are “wholly evil.”

    Those who order genocide, on the basis of imposing the superiority of their genetic ideal of the world, are wholly evil.
    Those who do the same on the basis of wiping an entire religion from their borders, or in the name of conquest of some resource they desire.

    Those who personally kill or injure others, with no remorse or justification, solely for the sick pleasure they experience of it. I leave off those who would derive pleasure from it, but choose not to do it because they have decided it would be morally wrong – they have some element of the monster in them, as do likely all humans to some degree, but they are not completely consumed by it.

    What makes Islam particularly odious in it – created by a monster named Mohammed, and so easily adopted by further monsters such as Bin Laden, the Iranian Ayatollahs, Yasser Arafat, Haj-Amin Al-Hussaini, and so on – is that it deliberately separates the human race into “elements of worth.” Only a Muslim male is deemed of “full worth.” Muslim females and non-Muslim males “of the book” are deemed worth “one half” of a Muslim male. Non-muslim females “of the book” are deemed 1/4 the worth of a Muslim Male. “Pagans” are deemed to have no worth at all, not being even worth letting stay alive in conquered lands, not even offered the slavery-status of dhimmi, only tolerated as visitors or trading partners for the belief that they may eventually be converted to Islam or forcefully overrun in any event.

    By this merit, Islam itself is evil – it deliberately, and systematically, dehumanizes even its adherents. Are all its adherents evil? Of course not. Most followers either have not experienced any other system, or do not have the brianpower necessary to see this for what it is and reject it. Some do reject it, and are branded as heretics by the “Fred Phelps Factory” that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (as it was described in a previous thread).

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  3. J.L., I can’t tell you who’s evil. My wife’s said that in her experience (as a psychotherapist), the only clients who are basically untreatable are sociopaths (or any Anti-Social Personality Disorders). As she put it, “you can’t treat them; you can just keep an eye on them”. But her opinion is also that they’re born and not made. Cultures can be pathological, of course, but they also shift and change and sociopaths don’t usually change. Also, the existence of a culture requires a level of empathy beyond the capabilities of a sociopath. Torture is pretty much worthless when dealing with sociopaths, but so is everything else. Interestingly enough, clinical trials have found some success in treating ASPD with medical marijuana, although I’m guessing my wife would be pretty skeptical about that.

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    • If ASPD is the result of a neurochemical imbalance, it’d make sense that something which alters brain chemistry might have some treatment success.

      Or as an alternate theory, based on the theory that marijuana makes you ok with being bored, perhaps the sociopaths do things they do because their mind finds most other things un-stimulating.

      Want to know how a society of sociopaths would perform? Read The Lord of the Flies. Or go see it reenacted in a public school today in the US of ADD.

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        • Like any unformed intellect, they need to be educated.

          Have you ever seen public schools? The bullying epidemic? The rise of “don’t know, don’t care, zero tolerance and don’t you dare involve the adults nyah” administration?

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          • I have two boys in the public school system. They are, in fact, pretty far away from being sociopaths. (Though admittedly, the younger one has fallen into a crowd that listens to a lot of Journey, so there are still things to worry about.) Their friends, too, are pretty much great kids.

            But perhaps I, having not gone to private schools either, am too sociopathic to recognize the obvious?

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    • Actually, I know a bit about how the educational system deals with them as well (my wife works mostly with the private schools, but about 2/3rds of her clients are teenagers and she’s familiar with the educational system). They have basically three types of schools for teenagers who are more emotionally troubled than normal: the first are satellite programs in ordinary high schools in which the ED kids take about half their classes with the other kids; the second are high schools dedicated solely to the emotionally disturbed; the third are basically schools for the anti-social personality disorders in which they’re highly monitored. She told me that the kids who wind up there can’t be left alone or they’ll go release the parking brakes of any unlocked car in the parking lot, set fire to anything they can find, etc. Also, they don’t tend to work well in the ED schools. Sociopaths can, of course, be highly functioning, but there’s a lot of skepticism that they can actually be reformed.

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  4. People do evil, certainly. Of this, they are guilty.

    Was Hitler “evil?” Hard to say, I guess. Close enough for rock’n’roll, by most measures.

    There is certainly a live point here. Noted awhile back was a Middle Easterner [iirc] noticing how enemies call each other “dogs.” Once a man is a dog, an animal, anything is permitted. And Allied war poster propaganda pictured “the Huns” as caricatures of pure evil.

    http://rlv.zcache.com/propaganda_poster_beat_back_the_hun_wwi_postcard-p239223400567228087trdg_400.jpg

    As for Bush-era rhetoric speaking against evil-the-act or evil persons, I’m not inclined to search it out. Nothing good comes of discussing Bush in fora like these anyway.

    I do recall the Atlantic article on bin Laden’s hard drive that said they’d set the upper limit at 4 million or so was to what was just and theological permissible to kill in the West. In his own mind, bin Laden was quite a moral man.

    As for what justified what they did to Danny Pearl, I’m at a loss.

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    • I had always assumed that the monickers of “evil” and “like Hitler” – at least when bandied about during times of military action – are done so because of the way we want to feel about ourselves.

      If I am a citizen of the world’s dominant military force, and am in someone’s backyard even though they want me gone, it’s hard to get everyone excited about cheering for me. (And I’m not arguing here that we should or shouldn’t be in anyone’s backyard. It may or may not well be necessary.)

      Painting the picture of some third-world tinpot as The Next Hitler, bent on global domination – *can no one stop him?* – is never accurate, and I don’y think any of us ever buy into the narrative very deeply. But no one wants to be the 300 pound gorilla forcing their will. We want to be plucky young underdog hero that – in a James Bond vs. Dr. No’s army against-the-odds way – somehow manages to find a way to save the World.

      Painting our opponents broadly as evil incarnate or like Hitler says little about how we want to engage with them. It speaks volumes about how we want to think about ourselves when we do engage them.

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        • And Sadaam, Kim, Marcos, Ortega, et al, they all declared that they were going to finish the work Hitler started when? And, not to get all high-school sophomore, but for any one of these guys isn’t there at least one other tinpot doing the same stuff that we call “friend?”

          Look, I’m not trying to say these were nice people, or even that they didn’t have to go. I’m just saying that when we tell ourselves that if we don’t act now they may succeed in their plan of taking over the world we’re all contributing in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge we know is a lie but helps us sleep better. Bonus: we don’t have to reevaluate the pros and cons of our foreign policies and do a risk analysis of the risk/rewards of our actions going forward, because Hitlers are just power mad maniacs who are just born villains.

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