Tuesday, December 16, 2008
I have long admired Andrew Sullivan's dogged and conscientious insistence that the endorsement of torture destroyed the legitimacy of the American right. There can be no doubt that the Bush administration permitted and encouraged the use of torture. The justification was that, though they said the fight against terrorism was, indeed, a war, it was a war unlike others. Asymmetric wars require unconventional tactics. The example always given was a captured terrorist who knew where a ticking bomb was located. He could and should be tortured into giving up the information. The obvious problem with this kind of argument is that it is so open-ended - the term 'ticking bomb' could be expanded to mean anything, maybe even the location of a man who might, in the future, plant such a bomb. At that point, control is lost. Furthermore, the idea of official torture creates a climate in which appalling abuses like Abu Ghraib occur. (It's cultural also - I notice the BBC series Spooks seems to have internalised the zeitgeisty view that torture is okay; in fact, rather fine in a manly kind of way.) Whatever the actual chain of command that led to this, the moral chain of command is clear. Intellectual legitimacy was given to this view by arguments like those of Alan Dershowitz who admitted torture was a step backwards but, sometimes, civilisation has to take two steps backward to move three steps forward and it is better to have formally regulated torture than unacknowledged backroom torture. John Gray, however, used the legitimation of torture as evidence of his conviction that there is no such thing as progress. This makes more sense as it rests on a more persuasive definition of civilisation, not as an absolute progression, but as temporary respite from at least some aspects of our fallen condition. To Gray, torture is an inevitable human crime that, with luck, we can periodically suppress. I take this to be a validation of Sullivan's view that torture must be absolutely forbidden. The reason is that civilisations can only exist on the basis of absolutes. These may be delusory, they may be brutal, but their role is vital - the sustenance of a civilisation's self-belief. Via Christanity and the Enlightenment, our civilisation is based on the irreducibility of the individual, on restraint and on the quality of mercy, on, in fact, the absolute wrong of torture. Maybe we can fight a war better with torture, but only by sacrificing our civilisation, which is what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld chose to do. And it is the fact that they, not their underlings, did it that raises the stakes so high. Politics will decide what will be done about this sad episode of American history, but, for the moment, go, Andrew, and have a good one.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 10:04 am