Not only an Iraqi problem

The NY Times published a sobering article last Sunday on the Iraqi word “sahel.” The word means “to utterly defeat and humiliate someone by dragging his corpse through the streets,” and the author speaks about the pursuit of “sahel” as the Iraqi’s curse. It is this brutal ideal which dominates the Iraqi cultural consciousness and drives a society currently spiraling into violent oblivion.

My question is whether this problem is really unique to Iraq. Certainly, the word itself is unique, but what the word signifies seems to be something that resides in the hearts of most people—even if they refuse to admit it. The Judeo-Christian tradition has its own word: “herem,” or what biblical scholars today call “the ban,” meaning “holy war” or “law of anathema.” This word from the Old Testament signifies the divine decree that a foreign people be “utterly destroyed” by the Israelites. Certainly, there is a difference between this divine command and the much more political nature of “sahel.” Nevertheless, Iraq is by no means the only country to feel a need for a “final, crushing victory.”

The point is not that there are other problematic words which have shaped the consciousnesses of various nations and cultures. My point is simply that we should not point out Iraqi bloodthirstiness without first acknowledging our own. The curse of victory is one which plagues us all, including the current American government. Just because one kind of victory looks more savage on the outside does not make our own pursuit of victory any more justifiable. I am not blaming Edward Wong for distracting us from the plank in our own eye, but I wish to offer a warning to those who might be so inclined.


Anonymous said…
The plank in the eye is getting larger. As a Pew Research Center poll discovered in late 2005, two out of three Americans believe tha torture is justified in at least some circumstances. A full 15% think that it's "often" justified. Percentages of polled Christians advocating torture--Christians who, after all, claim allegiance to a torture Survivor-- are distressingly high.

Here's a link to the poll results:
Anonymous said…
The very idea, let alone the fact, that torture is a morally contested issue, a fortiori among Christians, makes the mind boggle and the heart sick. The case can't even get off the ground in deontological, virtue, or divine command ethics, and can be shot down with a pea shooter using consequentialist criteria. We're obviously talking the Jerry Falwell "If-it-takes-ten-years-blow-them-all-away-in-the-name-of-the-Lord" school of moral discourse. Ahem.
Mykel G. Larson said…
It's my assessment that American culture is living out Machiavelli's dream. "Patriotism" is a warped virtue that revolves around bulldozing over everyone else in the world in the vain pursuit to justify our so called "morals" and "ethics." I do not believe our culture really owns the morals and ethics we so triumphantly celebrate and adhere to.
Anonymous said…
Torture is not an issue among Christians. I think a poll would show near 100% unanimity against it stated plainly like cruelty with battery acid on children.

It is law enforcement/interrogation techniques of known criminals which causes the complexity. I mean if you are going to use WWJD as your standard would police handcuff anyone? Would we place prisoners in isolated cells for years? Could we use cells at all? Could you raise your voice in anger? WWJD?

Pro-torture means within certain limits strongly coercing intelligence out of criminals or those who know and protect them. It does not sadistically seek their permanent harm or death like the TORTURE of tyrants and despotic regimes. Can we have some nuance please, Kim? No one wants to burn people alive and chuckle, ram hot iron up people rears, rape their wives in front of them, or drag their dead bodies through the streets in humiliation. We want info desperately bad. Once it is given the techniques terminate. Other torture victims are given no exit option. They are there to be tortured, disciplined. Different ends in view.

All that said mistakes in policy and practice were made. Most of the objectionable techniques are no doubt long gone.

If you can not see the difference in this episode in the "war on terror" and the inculcated cultural desire of millions to drill out your sister's eyeballs because you are "on the other side" then perhaps your mind is boggled. Moral equivalence run amok.

Anonymous said…
(1) How do we distinguish your "strong coercion of intelligence" from torture? The literature of torture clearly shows that "legal" limits to what can be done in interrogations are typically trangressed. Once one allows interrogators to get a little physical, it's hard for the action not to escalate.
(2) The literature also shows that "intelligence" obtained through torture is notoriously unreliable. After a while, torture victims say whatever interrogators want to hear.
(3) "24" scenarios are mostly contrived anyway. More and more people recognize that the real purpose of torture isn't to obtain "intelligence." It's to solidify power. You seem to acknowledge this yourself when you say (rather creepily) that torture victims are there "to be tortured, discipline."
(4) The slightest familiarity with the testimony of torture survivors would tell you that in fact the torture continues for the rest of the victim's life. PTSD is an anemic name for the emotional and psychological and somatic nightmare that torture victims find themselves in. Elaine Scarry's _Body in Pain_ or Dianna Ortiz's _The Blindfold's Eyes_ are worth taking a look at.

I'm sorry if this comes across as angry, but I get cross when I hear people justify ANY torture by appealing to abstractions on the one hand and red herrings like "nuance" on the other.
Anonymous said…

Thanks for your fair response.

I would say your first point is the best and the most difficult for "torture"-endorsers. You need manuals for procedures, other witnesses, outside authorities, ways to report abuses, lawyers for the accused etc. etc. Much like police units already have and unlike tyrants who operate with no rhyme or reason.

As for unreliable intelligence, It is also a known fact that "everyone gives in, everyone talks." So yes if you don't know what intelligence you are looking for you will get all kinds of info some true and also much made up. But more likely the techniques are used to extract info from someone like KSM. We know he knows some addresses of some guys in Karachi. He won't talk. He is put through the "creepy" process and he talks. We are not looking for something to charge him with, but for addresses. He knows them and he will tell them, everyone does. We don't want to rip out his fingernails for double crossing our country. We can jail him forever for that or even execute him. It's not confessions we are after, that's when you get bogus tales. The most severe procedures are used to get info we are quite certain they have. It is not a fishing expedition. The CIA is not nuts. I'll say that again the CIA knows what you know. Can you bring yourself to believe this?

Which leads to your 3rd point. The purpose of the torture is most certainly for info not to "solidify power". (My God has everyone read Cavanaugh and only him!) Of course despots use torture to get innocent people to confess, turn in loved ones, swear loyalty, etc. We are not trying to solidify power over these criminals. They are already rightfully imprisoned mostly for murderous acts or complicity in them. So to be clear I didn't "creepily acknowledge" that we were torturing to discipline. As I said, that's what tyrants do, torturing innocents and their family members trying to sniff out secret organizations that oppose them and the like. So perhaps I didn't say that clearly enough. We give exits they don't.

Finally torture survivors. I'm not sure that anyone is traumatized by the interrogation techniques being used here. They are not arbitrary cruelty, but completely controlled techniques which end when you talk. A perfectly cooperative suspect is under no fear of any of these procedures ever occuring. What tyrant ever offered such a deal. None! As I said before their entire point is torture to discipline or control. Ours is not. Different ends. Again nuance please.

I will admit that being isolated for years on end is traumatic just like our own guys in Supermax prisons. It is inhumane and prisons need reform. But for now this is what happens to maniacal murderers, foreign and domestic.

This issue is difficult and hopefully mostly theoretical at this point with all the attention directed at it. I agree that the "24" scenario is unrealistic, but I also think their is much romanticization of the detainees by those who view them as Pinochet's pro-democracy victims.

I have no intention of getting into a full debate with you on these matter, because it is clear that we come from radically different presuppositions about the role of the state and the relation between church and state. That said, I want to identify certain aspects of your thinking that are deeply problematic.

You are convinced that the U.S. employs torture for purely pragmatic reasons (e.g., to get information that we need to save lives, etc.). If that is indeed the case, then perhaps you can explain Guantanamo Bay to the rest of us who have read the books, the articles, and the exposes which definitively show that the people held there serve no practical purpose whatsoever. I assume you know the facts. One story in particular is striking. A British aid group submitted criticized the U.S. for holding a particular person whom many argued was innocent. The U.S. government responded by saying they could find (after nearly a year) no conclusive evidence that he was innocent. The British NGO went out and in less than three days found a rock-solid alibi. The man was then released on the basis of their evidence.

The obvious question presents itself: Why hold this person for so long, knowing that he had no information to provide (the U.S. had interrogated him repeatedly) and even possibly knowing (or not caring) that was innocent? You say that the U.S. "gives exits" whereas terrorist regimes do not. But what proof do you have besides your own ideological loyalty to the United States, in blind trust that this government values individual human persons more than power and control?

I have an alternative suggestion: The U.S., as many (including Cavanaugh) have noted, is a regime, pure and simple. Certainly, there are better and worse empires, but the U.S. is one whether we like it or not. And that means the U.S. government is not altruistic but self-interested. It seeks what is in its (read "its" as the abstract entity of the U.S., a kind of reified abstraction) own best interest, which is quite often not in the best interest of its citizens. The U.S. is a secular deity of sorts, one that seeks power and dominion, one that demands loyalty and allegiance, one that seeks to have a kind of omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient presence in the world, and (most especially) one that sees itself as a savior. "We are the city on a hill, the New Jerusalem" -- that kind of stuff.

We certainly need not paint the U.S. in such dismally dark colors so as to obscure the things it does right. We certainly should not fall into a dualistic mindset which paints the U.S. as entirely evil and the rest of the world as its victims. But we must also avoid the opposite error, which I am afraid I find in your comments Stan, in which the rest of the world is evil and the U.S. is the innocent victim of ignorant people's criticisms. Both views are mistaken and oversimplify matters (despite your call for nuance!).

Let's just be honest with ourselves: The U.S. is a power-hungry war machine. President Eisenhower was entirely right to warn us about the U.S.'s "military-industrial complex." Today, it should go without saying that torture is part of this complex. Why even bother trying to wiggle around this? The reality will only come to bite you in the ass if you try to justify the U.S.'s policies. It's much better to simply recognize that the U.S. is not a morally superior nation; this is just one selfish nation among other selfish nations. Machiavelli was a prophet of sorts, and the world today is living out his (though maybe not actually "his") political program. That of course does not mean terrorists are somehow equal with the CIA, just as a serial killer is not the same as a state executioner. But it doesn't do us any good to deny the fact that both the CIA and the state executioners are truly murderers. They are not morally superior, though their actions may have less dire consequences.

It seems that we need to remember the plank in our own eye. Or as with the woman caught in adultery, to remember that we cannot cast the stone. The U.S. may employ torture for marginally more practical ends, but that does not mean the U.S. is not still a war-mongering machine that seeks power, wealth, and comfort. Let's get past the bullshit and realize that the U.S. is not pure evil but neither is it pure good. Its practices often have practical ends in mind, but they are not thereby free from the impulse to establish power and conscript others into a violent narrative of national security. We need to get past the black-and-white dualism which views the Other as the Enemy. Or as you call them: "maniacal murderers." This is far too simplistic, and completely lacks the nuance that you yourself claim is lacking in your ideological opponents. But you are wrong. Nuance should certainly silence the rhetoric of those who think the U.S. is evil incarnate, but it should also silence the rhetoric that claims the U.S. is a nation in service to God, seeking the best for all humanity, and victimized by liberals.
Anonymous said…
I can agree with much of that.

I don't like the indefinite lack of trials. I just don't object to the interrogation (within limits) of those (the majority) rightfully in our custody.

Just for clarification the "maniacal murderers" I was referring to are certain confirmed terrorists (and our own friends in Supermax) not all Muslims, Iraqis, or all "insurgents" even. We who disagree are not really all bigoted idiots, thanks.

I don't see the "war-mongering machine" bit. I view the sphere of worldwide trade as the only (mostly benign) empire, not so much the U.S. The charge itself seems straight out of your own fantastic apocalyptic ecclesiology. A certain school of thought (been there, done that) needs it to be true for its own professional/theological reasons. In my opinion too many theologians are nostalgic and yearning for their "Barmen declaration moment".

I'll go away,
a. steward said…
For me, there is no question of whether or not torture is acceptable. A question that I think needs more attention is how our ministry of reconciliation can begin to bring the love of God the "godless and the godforsaken," as Moltmann puts it? How do we speak to the torturers, to Sayid? What does the pastor say when a member of his church comes home from Guantanamo and confesses that he has violated the humanity of one of his prisoners? At any rate, this sort of question has been on my mind alot lately, as I'm reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace with a group of friends this summer. It's all about finding a way as Christians to both name horrendous evils and evil-doers as such, and yet also extend the life-giving love with which we ourselves were loved to them. was thinking about this today while listening to a discussion on talk of the nation about the issue. The guest was a man who had worked as an interrogator in Guantanamo, and he talked alot about his process of coming to realize that what he had done was wrong. You can listen to it here. Maybe in a similar way to how interrogators (maybe any soldier, for that matter) have to see their enemies as sub-human in order to be able to do the kinds of things they do to them, my temptation is to see the interrogators as sub-human to have been able to do what they did. Hearing this man tell his story was a help for me to at least be aware that as a Christian I can't view a fellow human like that, no matter what he has done.
Anonymous said…
a. steward's wise remarks remind me of the famous interview with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh entitled "What I Would Say to Osama bin Ladin," published shortly after 9/11.