Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Taking torture philosophically

This evening I attended a presentation on extraordinary rendition and US-sponsored torture at the university where I work. The speakers were two of our philosophy professors. They were clearly against the use of torture, but I really have to admire their calm manner, their logical arguments, and the way they responded to questions from the audience. Especially in contrast to whatever it was I managed to blurt out when I stood up to comment. I pointed out that they hadn't covered the idea of torture as a way to intimidate and control populations -- including our own. I also brought out a few items they hadn't mentioned, such as the Military Commissions Act and the fact that it allows for anyone, even a US citizen, to be declared an "illegal enemy combatant," and that it give retroactive immunity to interrogators and others who may have ordered or practiced torture.

After I made my comments, a young man just a few seats away in my row asked a question featuring a variation of the ticking time bomb scenario. In asking his question, he mentioned that his father had been killed. I felt really bad for him. The professor who responded to his question handled it really well. The young man probably thought I was one of those liberals who didn't know how it feels to lose a family member to a terrorist attack...in which case he's absolutely right. Although I did mourn when Tom Fox was killed and still get a twinge in my heart whenever I see Mike Berg, I don't know the never ending pain felt by a family member. But I also think of the 9/11 wives who call for an end to violence and vengeance, and of Mike who is able to forgive...

One of the professors had shown a photo of the prisoner who was tortured to death at Abu Ghraib, wrapped in plastic like leftovers. The professor who gave the second presentation showed a lot of other photos from Abu Ghraib: a naked prisoner smeared with feces, a prisoner lying on the floor, next to him a splat of his own blood, the infamous photo of the man on the leash, photos of the young woman grinning as she points to the prisoners' privates, and of course, the world-renowned pyramid of naked bodies.

I hadn't seen those photos in quite awhile. I was crying on my way home. I guess I just cannot imagine a context that justifies putting a human being on a leash or stripping and sexually humiliating him. Whatever terrorists have done to us --or threaten to do-- does not give us license to do anything we want to suspects.

The faculty members also touched on the dehumanization of whole groups that makes torture possible. They also mentioned how our society is steeped in the conviction that violence and use of force are the only way to accomplish its ends ... what a theologian like Walter Wink calls belief in the redemptive power of violence.

Practicing and modeling nonviolence sure isn't easy.

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