The release of the torture memos by Obama yesterday was a heroic act in terms of the president’s desire to restore our country’s democracy. It may be the case that torture is democratically acceptable to most Americans – that in fact this country wants to go the way of the Romans, into increased violence and inhumanity in the name of power and efficiency, and out the exit door of history. But now at least the moral character of this nation will not just be determined by a handful of bureaucrats in some back room.
My opinions on things of this nature are known to all who know me. “Without justice, what are kingdoms but organized theft on a large scale?” is the dictum of St. Augustine: Ablata iustitia, quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?. America can win any war it wants if victory means the disabling or even annihilation of its opponents and nothing else. The American president has the power to kill every single human being in Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan. But the point is to maintain our principles – there is no victory without them.
I cannot see how torture can accord with these principles. If an American soldier with knowledge that would be useful to the Taliban were placed in a box with insects, how could he not think that their treatment of him was barbarism and darkness and opposed to what his mother taught him and what his father said was honorable and right? But perhaps this is not the country we have – perhaps he would merely think, “When I get out of this box, I’ll do something a thousand times worse to you gunjis.” When I hear women calling up Sean Hannity to defend “the people who did what was necessary to defend our country,” I get terrible Dantesque visions of all of us – all three hundred million of us – immobilized in our own personal boxes with all of God’s insects for all eternity. And this may not be the working of a vengeful God – but merely the natural contrapasso operation of justice in our own psyches. But that’s just a peek into the thoughts of someone who for better or worse shares a lot of brain chemistry with people like Dante and Jeremiah.
I think there is real reason to show up at the homes of these lawyers with pitchfork and torch. At some point, those people with something human left in them will rebel against these comfortable law professors and professionals who have nothing in their lives they would not prostitute – in a way acceptable to others like them, of course.
And let there be no doubt that these policies were predetermined by the politicians and the legal rationale developed later. Someone well known to me served on a military legal commission which reviewed U.S. policy regarding treatment of prisoners. Their conclusion was that the U.S. should for its own interests abide by the Geneva Convention. The commission was dissolved and another created which would reach a conclusion more amenable to the people in charge.
All in all, the question is whether or not this country really believes that “war crimes” exist, or if that is a contradiction in terms. If we are at war, some say, then all is fair. Here is a Roman take on the phenomenon.
When Camillus was besieging Veii – a siege which lasted for months – a certain schoolmaster was accustomed to bringing his students outside the walls of the city so they could exercise in the fields. When the schoolmaster saw that the Romans were not going to lift the siege and were going to take the city sooner or later, he led his students outside the walls as usual, but this time brought them to the Roman camp. He offered to hand them all over to Camillus, in exchange for his own personal safety. Many of the children of the city’s leading citizens were in the group, he told Camillus, and if they saw that Camillus had them, they would be willing to surrender. Camillus put the man in chains, gave all of the children a whip, and told them to bring him back to their parents and tell them what their teacher had done, whipping him along the way if he gave them trouble. That was not the way, Camillus said, Romans won wars.
I want to know what the people who support torture would be unwilling to do for the information they want. Would they torture the detainee’s children? Why not? That is probably more effective at eliciting information than just torturing him, and isn’t that the point – getting the information you need to defend your country?