Posted by: sean | June 22, 2005

Looking into the abyss

The force exerted by the moral sense of the individual is less effective than social myth would have us believe. Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty.

– Stanley Milgram
preface to Obedience to Authority

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he become a monster. And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche
Jenseits von Gut und Böse / Beyond Good and Evil

There has been much debate, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say much argument, about statements that implicitly or explicitly compare American behavior in the “war on terror” with that of the most reprehensible regimes of yesteryear. Accusations of hyperbole and “moral equivalency” have been leveled against those who have taken issue with the indefinite detainment and torture of those who are and those who are not guilty of the crime of terror. Discussion seems to have wandered from whether or not it is correct to detain and torture people who have no recourse to the law on the order of an executive directive to whether or not it is accurate to compare these acts with Soviet gulags.

The basic and most public facts are known. We have read excerpts from the reports illustrated by pictures of hooded figures in orange being beaten, berated, and hooked up with electrical wires. We know the names of some of the dead and those of the less experienced jailors.

An algebra of suffering

First, to address the claims of hyperbole and moral equivalency: State violence, and violence in general, can be discussed in qualitative or quantitative terms. Quantitatively speaking, comparisons to Soviet gulags, which claimed tens of millions of lives, are indeed exaggerated. The number of people murdered and tortured by American forces in Cuba, Iraq and Afghanistan are much, much smaller.

But is it really wise to judge violence in quantitative terms? Is evil measured by the number of its victims? Let’s take an example. Was Stalin or Hitler more evil? Pol Pot or Idi Amin? How many dead Sudanese would it take for the killings to be as evil as those in Rwanda? What weighs more, the sins of Timothy McVeigh or those of John Wayne Gacy?

So while we can all say in effective terms that a million deaths is worse than a hundred, this distinction blurs when the numbers get closer and when we start talking in terms of causes instead of effects, morality instead of consequences.

And so we’re left with qualitative distinctions. And qualitatively speaking, the person who murders 10 people is not twice as bad as the person who murders 5. So where does that leave us in terms of moral equivalence? Does that mean, as some have argued, that we’re floating around in a virtueless void where anything goes? No, it only means that in moral terms, torturing and murdering one person is as bad as torturing and murdering two. This means that while the number of people killed and tortured in Soviet gulags and in American detainment camps might be very different, the moral mechanisms at play are the same.

Patting ourselves on the back

This brings us to the larger question of whether or not a democratic nation ought to torture and murder those it takes to be its enemies. I addressed this issue last week, when I quoted the Israeli Supreme court:

This is the destiny of a democracy: She does not see all means as acceptable, and the ways of her enemies are not always open before her. A democracy must sometimes fight with one arm tied behind her back.

It seems, however, that some people are not satisfied with that answer. In today’s Times, there was a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece, entitled Guantánamo’s long shadow, in which Anthony Lewis argues that morality is not outweighed by necessity and that the rule of law should reign supreme:

To the Editor:
Anthony Lewis points to the humiliation of prisoners at Guantánamo and declares it a violation of human rights. But what rights do these prisoners have?

They are not criminals – they committed no crime on United States soil. They are not soldiers – they wear no uniform of an established government. But they are enemies of our country, captured on a faraway battlefield.

Since Mr. Lewis wants to discuss rights, let’s discuss them. What rights do these non-citizens, non-criminals, non-soldiers have? This is where the concept of human rights turns to ashes.

I can have no rights other than what I can protect myself or have a government protect for me. The prisoners held in Guantánamo are without rights because of their choice to fight without any government’s protection. Americans have no reason to protect them.

As our enemies, they are lucky even to be alive.

Bill Decker
San Diego, June 21, 2005

Mr. Decker’s expression of magnanimity immediately makes me think of the following similar self accolade given in a very different place at a very different time:

In the period of dictatorship, surrounded on all sides by enemies, we sometimes manifested unnecessary leniency and unnecessary softheartedness.

– Soviet Chief State Prosecutor, N. V. Krylenko
Speech at the Promparty trial quoted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago

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