Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Torture to Watch

I just read this Michael Kinsley article on Slate this morning. I think it addresses skilfully and substantively many of the legal and ethical questions surrounding torture and the ethics of the law in general, except for two of the most substantive arguments against torture: a) suicide bombers and b) whether torture works.

Spoiler is The Santa Abductions.

Firstly, I like very much what Kinsley has to say about law and how laws are made and enforced, and also the bland honesty with which he deals with our social ethics. It leads up to a larger question, of local and national control and social structures, that I want to write about later this month, but he doesn't pretend that we're currently anything we're not as a society, and I appreciate that. In a society where it's not considered to be the hand of the divine, law is intended to keep society functioning as best it can. Law is a system for social living. Therefore at some level it must, as Kinsley says, play to the median, play to the most likely scenarios--again, those might be different with more local control, but I'm not really certain. "[C]riminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it." The system of innocent-until-proven-guilty protects us from some of the least communally useful aspects of American human behavior, such as the desire for quick solutions (e.g., it's more important to have someone in custody than to know the truth, see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and snap judgments, and the fact that anger can blind us to reason. Currently American society is painfully angry, and not tremendously reasonable. And that's exactly what law is there for, it's to have reason set out when you don't have any, and that's why things like the Patriot Act are scary (particularly the thought of *renewing* these provisions, which is now seeming inevitable). The Patriot Act is, essentially, an attempt to counter the legal reasoning behind the above citation. It was a bunch of lawmakers panicking. Lawmakers that I no longer trust in a crisis (it pained me to vote for John Kerry), but their panic is understandable. But the very reason we have a document like the Constitution is to render as concrete as we can our values and principles, the system that keeps our society functioning. And here I will cite again my high school history teacher with regards to the American system of constitutional law: "A balloon! Raised in 1798! That's still floating! That's some balloon! And don't tell me it's hot air."

That said. Law is for keeping society functioning. Law is to enhance the functionality of society as best we can. So how does the McCain provision do that? Absolutes, again, as Kinsley says, are legally necessary even if not empirically practical. Everybody knows that under extreme duress people don't behave rationally or legally; that's not the question. The question is whether we would like them too, whether it would be more helpful to us if they did. Would we be better off if people didn't torture, even to gain information from somebody who might be about to blow up millions of people?

Yes, because--and this is the part I feel Kinsley skips--torture is not much more reliable at gaining information than any other method. Multiple organizations, including the Innocence Project, discuss the possibility of violence and coercion leading to false confession. Novelists, including my beloved Orwell, have chronicled it: people attempting physical self-preservation will do whatever is required to get them out of it. If I were accused of setting a nuclear bomb, whether I had done so or not, I would offer the first location I could possibly describe in detail, simply to stop the pain. Terrified and threatened people will aim to please those who threaten them, imagining it would make them stop.

Also, at this point, someone setting a bomb to destroy thousands, in the United States or elsewhere, is as likely as not to be a suicide bomber, and a suicide bomber has obviously been prepared for pain and physical sacrifice. Physical anguish would not be any kind of deterrent, at that level of fervent belief. Therefore, the only people setting bombs who might have been psychologically prepared to maintain integrity in the face of torture probably would willingly maintain it, on the assumption that they were bound to suffer as they left this world anyway.

Torture is reliable as a punishment. Torture, as I said earlier this year in this post, is a defensive reaction. Not to defend your nation, but to defend yourself, the torturer, le bourrure. It is a flailing out at the world, it is a way to make sure you inflict pain and cripple an opponent--even a potential opponent--before it can be done to you. And--who knows--maybe there's psychological research within the CIA that might suggest such officers can benefit from that release. That, too, is hardly the point.

I'm currently working on The Santa Abductions, a show in which a man became deeply deranged upon learning there was no Santa Claus; he has since that time taken it upon himself to abduct department-store Santas in order to make them into the real Santa Claus by means of torture--electrocution, violent beatings. A reviewer panned the show, claiming that it called to mind images of Abu Ghraib. While the show's light fare in some ways, and I think Ms. Metz is deeply exaggerating the resonance of the torture scenes (it's on a sleigh and everyone's in Santa suits, for fuck's sake), there are dystopic undertones that I wouldn't mind our government thinking about. At the end of the play, torture works. A man is worn down by physical torture and psychological confusion and is transformed into Santa Claus. He has big, bold, creepy, terrifying ideas, but as long as he's Santa Claus, everyone thinks they're for the best. It's not that torture won't provide answers, it's that the answers will take us in directions we should not go; it's that every ostensible success will be at the very least tainted and at the most destructive.

We already know, as Kinsley kindly points out, that we live in a world where people torture. We always will. So, next question: do we want to live in a world where such people and such actions are a legally supported norm?


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