Torture as Taboo

Posted: May 17, 2009 in Culture, Ethics, Legal Matters, Politics, Torture

If in polite society we avoid discussions of sex, race, politics, death and dying, and other highly contentious or uncomfortable topics that might lead to hurt feelings following an excited exchange, cultural taboos raise the level of prohibition against certain topics and/or behaviors so heinous that they cause revulsion among normal people. Just don’t go there. Such taboos include incest, child pornography, and cannibalism. Sexual taboos are justified by biology, though they are usually established intuitively long before we uncover the science to understand why. Food taboos, on the other hand, are relatively arbitrary. For instance, cultures that prohibit consumption of certain types of meat, e.g., pork, beef, or horse, may have no underlying justification for the taboo, though breaking the taboo is still considered extremely ooky.

One taboo I wish we had but have to admit we don’t is torture. I’ve written about it repeatedly because it’s a sore subject that keeps cropping up in the news. For instance, Joseph Galloway puts the smackdown on the Obama Administration in this recent opinion column in the Ledger-Enquirer. This is the most relevant quote:

President Barack Obama doesn’t want or need this issue sucking all the oxygen out of the Congress and his ambitious agenda, and he just wishes it would go away. His position, if you can call it that, changes daily, if not hourly. He and his people look and sound like a hokey-pokey line on the issue.

The problem is they’re all thinking and acting like politicians, and there’s nothing in this issue for any of them except an opportunity to do the right thing. Whoever won an election by doing the right thing? Talking about doing the right thing is another matter.

Torture, however, isn’t a political problem, but a legal and moral problem.

It should come as no surprise, then, that other politicians, namely, those in Congress, are also acting like politicians by removing the funds necessary to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as kinda sorta promised by the Obama Administration. Additional revelations have been spewing forth in the weeks since these reports (my apologies for the lack of timeliness) that further indicate that the American government and the Obama Administration really have no intention of stopping the torture barbarity or prosecuting its practitioners.

Naturally, everyone who takes a position on the subject of torture frames the activity in terms of a particular perspective, whether legal, moral, strategic, or some combination. I have done that myself, especially above where I frame torture as a taboo we ought to have. It irritates me that many of those framers start with the interdiction, “it’s not about that, it’s really about this.” Well, why can’t it be about all those things? Why must they be mutually exclusive? I’ll tell you why: so that torture can be rationalized on one ground or another, i.e., within the narrow frame of reference of the apologist.

Since it’s increasingly clear that we (the U.S.) are not going to stop and are not going to prosecute anyone, it begs the question why go to the bother of it? Why are we, among other heinous acts, murdering detainees to gather questionable intelligence on terrorism? The intuitive answer is that modern civilization has evolved into a quiet, undeclared, Hobbesian state of ongoing war of all against all. Alliances may form and shift over time, but we’re all warring for resources, for political leverage, and for various other causes such as the unimpeded spread of American notions of good, including free markets, democracy, and our trash culture.

How else, then, to explain the well over 1 million Iraqi deaths attributable to the U.S. invasion (disreputably linked to the 9/11 event)? How else, then, to explain the more than 700 U.S. military bases outside the U.S.? How else, then, to explain the wildly disproportionate size of the U.S. military budget compared to those of other countries? In truth, there are lots of reasons that are plausible and/or sensible, they’re just not very honest. As Merlin Mann has famously said, “You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have to have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.” We have our priorities indeed: war-making and intimidation via torture.

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