Friday, December 19, 2008

on principles and torture

In recognition of my legal and political laymanship, let me defer to others the discussion of the necessity and likelihood of prosecuting top administration officials for their participation in the war crime of torture – about which I see my feelings are well represented – and confine discussion to semantics (sigh) and human integrity (yay!), specifically regarding the concept of “Principles.”

An old friend and I used to argue about “principles” – he surprisingly in favor of them; me, maybe not so surprisingly, against. For fear of misrepresenting his position, I won’t try, but one can imagine. My position at the time was that more often than not, a person’s “principles” marked the boundary at which they have basically stopped thinking about a given topic, its potential consequences or the emerging contingencies the world might have in store. Having recognized that abortions, say, or raising taxes, or infidelity violates one’s principles, one is freed from having to consider any of the myriad circumstances, evolving technologies, or crises that might naturally cause one to reconsider that position. As such, and according to my argument, a ‘principle’ was a kind of license to be stupid, to be stubborn, to confer to others (the reverend, the judge, the pundit) the burden of having to think a topic through in the real world. (“I subscribe to the principles of the Levin diet” is another way of saying, ‘I have no idea what I’m eating or why, but Dr. Levin seems both smart and slender.”)

I think there’s still something to that. What my formulation lacked, however, was a clear recognition of why principles should have to be invoked in the first place. We don’t invoke principles in order to be stupid, after all. We invoke them first and foremost out of recognition of the temptation to violate them. No one says, “I am principally opposed to eating ear wax,” since it’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which one would ever want to. Rather, the sorts of things to which we find ourselves principally opposed are: the death penalty, infidelity, and torture. Why? Because in each case we can see the temptation. My own “principled” opposition to the death penalty, as such, is founded upon not one, but two essential ingredients: 1. the clear recognition that it is barbaric for a nation to murder its own citizens; and 2. the equally clear recognition that in certain circumstances it would be very tempting to do so. It is only when I recognize 2, the temptation, that I make it a principle never to succumb to it, and I do this for the very reason that I as a younger man so astutely pointed out: so that I don’t have to think about it and further tempt myself with crafty rationalizations; so that when the prospect of the death penalty, or torture, comes up, I can say, ‘No, this one is literally a no-brainer. I get to not have to even consider this one, as it represents a violation of my core principles. I simply do not do that, or sanction that, because I know that if I do, I cease to be myself, or the person I thought I was.’

In that context, we do well to remind ourselves that we are a nation founded not on ancestral property claims, ethnicity, culture, tradition or creed, but on a certain set of non-reducible principles, each one of which stands, like all principles everywhere, as a monument to the temptation to violate its own self.

The fact that so many of these core principles (habeas corpus, protections against warrantless search and seizure, torture, etc) were tossed aside, or redefined, in the wake of 9/11, and all precisely because of the special problem posed by terrorism, demonstrates – if nothing else – that the men and women responsible for such policies are not people of principle, which is only worth pointing out because a) they are Americans and should, as such, be bound by certain principles, and b) because they and their constituency have spent the last generation beating their chests about the inviolability of their values and berating the rest of us for having none, and for having forgotten the difference between right and wrong because we’re such a bunch of “moral relativists.” Ironic, but not surprising, then, to find that Dick “the ticking-time-bomb” Cheney should turn out to be the most powerful overt, practicing, and preaching moral relativist in the history of the country.

Granted, that’s not a newsflash. Pointing out that the champions of American torture also happen to be a bunch of hypocrites is a little bit like saying Hitler smoked cigarettes. More valuable would be recognizing that most of the anti-torture crowd, and those who would like to see the likes of Cheney prosecuted, are in fact standing on principle. True, there are vindictive, self-interested and practical elements to their arguments as well – no one knows for certain whether torture is even a particularly effective means for intelligence gathering, after all, or whether in the long run it does more harm than good, and one should remember that the Geneva Conventions were conceived primarily for the safety and well-being of our troops. Still and for the most part, those who oppose torture as an official policy of state, and who seek accountability for those who crafted such a policy, do so out of recognition of its appeal. We, all of us, know very well the compelling arguments and rationales that exist for torturing a would-be terrorist, just as we recognize that we ourselves might be tempted, in certain carefully crafted scenarios, to engage in such activity -- “for the good of the many.” That is exactly why we are forced to make it a principle to oppose torture, any torture, anywhere, for any reason: because we do not want to be tempted, because we know that if we violate such principles, or allow them to be violated in our name, we immediately cease to be the people, or the nation, we thought we were. Ipso Facto, we have lost the “war.”