Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Rare Political Statement

In which I make a rare political statement


I don't do a lot of political blogging. Part of it is because I would rather not be super-public about my beliefs till I have tenure -- not that they are particularly noteworthy. But it's like blogging about my sex life or even too many details about my personal life. I just prefer a bit of separation between the public, private, and really public.

Having said that, I do want to point you to today's Cliopatria, where Oscar Chamberlain tells us about the death by torture of an Iraqi general. The points that stand out for me are these:
Generals are clearly subject to the Geneva Convention. Generals don’t “fall through the cracks” and then get beat up by accident by out of control guards. While he might have had information that would have helped locate some resistance units, this was no “ticking bomb case. “ Instead this was standard operating procedure.

and

There was a system in place that did this. Our political and military leaders ordered the creation of this system. We the taxpayers paid for it. There is no reason to assume that this is not still going on and that we are not still paying for such actions.

To the extent that a US citizen knows this and does not try to stop it, he or she is an accomplice to it. There is blood on millions of hands. Our hands.

I've said relatively little about the war. I do believe we went in under false pretences. I'm not happy that we're spending appalling amounts of money on the war, but have been asked to make no sacrifices (the lives of soldiers don't work into this for me -- it's their jobs and their choice -- the morality is another issue).

When a country decides to go to war, it should hurt, because war is a serious business. Every citizen should be aware of the costs -- especially if he or she has no loved one at risk. And yes, part of why I believe this has to do with the fact that I think too many of us are cavalier about going to war. It makes me ill to hear that there is not enough money for adequate care for returning vets -- some of these people are in my classes. They suffer from PTSD. They've seen horrible things, they've had to do horrible things, and that's a far greater cost that most of us will never know.

The money/tax issue pisses me off, but the moral issue is the one that really upsets me. When the war started, there were protests about sending our people to die. I'm not a great Christian, but I like to think I'm a pretty moral person. Much of that morality is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, although I accept anything that promotes a greater good. For me, the question is not one of sending people to die, although that is truly horrible. The greater issue is that of sending people to kill. Because killing is wrong. Yes, it's justifiable in some cases, but it still is wrong. And as citizens, we are asking our fellows, often people quite young, people we don't really consider old enough to be responsible parents, to take on that enormous burden.

In the case of torture -- and people are being tortured -- to death, sometimes -- how much more of a burden will those people feel? I do not understand how anyone can justify it. I don't wish to exaggerate or draw ridiculous comparisons that will confuse the situation. But from a purely human sense, torture is torture is torture. It damages the victim and the torturer. This must be especially true in a Christian context -- and like it or no, USAmerican society exists in a Judeo-Christian context, for the most part. It's not a new issue -- a couple of years ago, I heard a wonderful paper by Gillian Clark, an Augustine scholar, on Augustine's justification of torture. There's a reason we should care. We should care on moral grounds (and I can't think offhand of any religion that supports torture, pax to the atheists among us, whose beliefs I've included). We should also care on civic grounds. We should care on human grounds. Oscar is right. We are responsible -- we, as a society, sent them there.* We are, to a certain extent, our brothers' keepers.


*and for those people who wish to remind me that we did not strike the first blow, I'll just suggest reading the Sermon on the Mount again -- you know, the part where we're supposed to turn the other cheek?

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

I'm right there with you ADM. :)

Jonathan Dresner said...

I was in the middle of the annual atomic angst when we went on vacation: I was having a discussion with someone who was baiting me with hypothetical designed to force me to choose between killing more of "the enemy" or allowing more "innocents" to die, and it was only during our short sojourn that I realized what the problem with the discussion is. There are lots of people who argue the merits or demerits of atomic bombs and torture from a utilitarian standpoint: does it work (i.e., does it result in a visible short-term decline in nice people dying). But that's a fool's game because we historians should know better: there is no such thing as a cost-free short-term shortcut. "The only problems money can solve are money problems. [corrolary: the only problems military force can solve are military problems] Many of the problems the world faces today are the eventual result of short-term measures taken last century." -- Jay W. Forrester. Torture, like the atomic bombs, is a fantastically attractive shortcut to a desirable end, but it corrupts and reverberates and creates new and different problems along the way, probably wiping out in the long term all the "savings" of the present.

More importantly, I think civilization means sacrifice. It means recognizing that our values, not just our lifestyles, must be upheld even if it costs us in money, lives, etc. If our principles mean anything, they must have a bright line at the edge of all the gray areas which is the absolute end of what we will compromise, and there's hardly any definition of civilization worth protecting that doesn't put mass murder and torture beyond that line.

When the Baghdad museum looting debates were hot and heavy, someone asked if we scholars would really be willing to sacrifice American lives for mere things, and some were taken aback by that, but not me. The treaties we've signed, the principles we've promised to uphold, require that we put cultural treasures on at least as high a plane as strategic checkpoints, and I'm proud of the fact that, at least on paper, we're committed to cultural preservation even in the midst of war against a despised enemy. I would consider American forces who died in the defense of libraries and temples and archaeological sites to be true heroes, martyrs to the advancement of human knowledge and, yes, civilization.

Similarly, I do not wish my government to defend me by means which will demean my values and our shared principles. If abjuring torture means running a higher short-term risk of death for me, for my family (and my family in London were not far from some of the sites targetted), then I will accept it. Because the torture will ultimately damn us, not save us.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Nicely said. Sadly, I think there is far more evidence to show that, even from a utilitarian POV, torture is unsupportable. But I prefer to oppose it on moral grounds.