Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama, Democracy, and Torture

I’m not the sort of person who expects a whole lot out of democratic processes.

For instance, I’m not a guy who votes for somebody for President and then expects him (or, perhaps someday, her) to fulfill his fondest dreams of what the country should be or expects every item on some idealistic checklist* to be crossed off within four or eight years.

I have idealistic aspirations, yet, I think, realistic expectations.

But it strikes me as basically wrong that the nation (its government and its people) should entertain the defense of torture.

Torture is the most conspicuous violation of our traditional and moral concepts of liberty and human rights. All by itself, torture has been widely regarded as sufficient cause for declaring nations and individuals to be enemies of the people of the United States.

Until recently, torture marked the dividing line between civilization and barbarity—between enlightened modernity and the dark ages.

Until recently, nobody—not individual citizens, not ranking members of government—needed a working definition of “torture,” no more so than they needed a working definition of “pain” or “inhumanity.” Even in the definitions that were needed—as for “cruel and unusual punishment”—torture was understood to be the line that should not be crossed.

Besides that, torture is widely recognized to be ineffective. Our soldiers have been trained to resist torture—so no doubt other combatants are similarly trained. Those who have suffered torture in the past have often admitted to giving false and deliberately misleading information, just to stop the torture.

Nowadays, psychologists tell us that the inclination to torture even non-human animals is symptomatic of sociopathic and psychotic tendencies.

What is it, then, about our nation today that causes its Democratic and Republican governmental office-holders to sanction torture or to contort the English language to redefine torture as something other than torture? Are we now a nation of sociopaths?

To speak of fear as a justification is to forget that most of us don’t accept fear as justification for any other premeditated crime. It is also to ignore that, based on the evidence, most of the controversial acts of torture occurred in 2003, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, not in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The American government evidently used torture to justify the war in Iraq, not to safeguard frightened citizens at home.

Now President Obama wants to suppress evidence of this torture and to exonerate high-level officials who formally approved and pushed for torture. Why would the democratically elected representative of a free and humane democracy do this? Have we all seen just too many episodes of 24, too many sequels to Saw, too many dogfights?

In fact, the President’s very effort to suppress the evidence strongly suggests that it is persuasive and incriminating.

This and this alone is the one action that Obama pursues that I cannot imagine a justification for.

Sure, maybe nobody—not even he—can put the humpty-dumpty economy back together. Maybe adequate health care for all is pie-in-the-sky fantasy (I don’t think so, but I can certainly understand why many others do). Maybe, despite his campaign promises to the gay and lesbian communities, the timing is not yet right for equality in marriage and the military (but if not now, then when?) Maybe top-secret documents to which only the President has access affirm that we should open a third-front war in Iran.

These are issues of great importance to me, yet I can at least imagine justifications that, though unconvincing to me, might satisfy somebody else, particularly someone with marginally different values and interests.

But not to stand up to terror? What could justify that? Our fear? (Can we show our faces and claim that we torture human beings out of fear?) Its effectiveness? (The overwhelming evidence refutes its effectiveness.) Politics? (Can any of us proudly stand behind the use of torture just because it’s bipartisan?)

What good is a democracy if that democracy decides to go ahead and do what the overwhelming majority recognize intuitively to be wrong?


* I fully understand that the American people have widely variant values and interests and would compose widely different versions of such a checklist. In my case, the checklist would entail (for starters)

1. baseline health care, housing, and education for every legal denizen of the U.S.A.;

2. compulsory education in civics, economics, and ethics, respectfully reflecting myriad points of view and encouraging independent critical thinking regarding currently accepted practices in government, wealth distribution, and morality;

3. equal rights and access to privileges for every citizen, regardless of race, ideology, social status, or life style;

4. open and egalitarian justice system—where plaintiffs and defendants are received and heard on a level playing field, regardless of race, ideology, social status, or life style, where surveillance and torture are not used to pursue political ends or to expedite governance;

5. equitable and fair distribution of the responsibilities of maintaining order and governance of rights and liberties—in areas of revenue/taxation, military service, access to public office, and voting;

6. the proprietary interests of the American people in all technologies, therapies, and inventions funded or largely funded by taxpayers’ money—without relinquishing these patents or the profits from them to private interests without fair and adequate compensation;

7. compulsory justification of any governmental or large corporate use of force or abridgement of human rights and liberties, with clear stipulations that such use and abridgement always have definite benchmarks or time limits;

8. absolute freedom of expression, so that every denizen of the country can express any impression or notion he or she can articulate and any opinion he or she can back up with reason and data—entailing all due responsibilities for such freedom;

9. ensured adequate care (of all types) for children, the infirm elderly, and anyone who, without care, would be hopelessly incapacitated, e.g., by poverty, mental or physical illness or impairment, violence, natural disaster, membership of maligned minorities, etc.

10. active protection and conservation of natural resources and engineered infrastructure of demonstrable importance to the American people;

11. strict preservation of liberty and recognized human rights (as enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Human Rights) and active expansion of that liberty and those rights, as needed and recognized as the culture changes;

12. absolute intellectual freedom of the press, science, religion, educational institutions, and the arts—entailing all due responsibilities for such freedom;

13. elimination of all laws and regulations whose contributions to the common good of the people cannot be demonstrated and proved; and

14. diligent yet reasonable protection of national borders and maintenance of a military for national defense, under civil (but never private) control.

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