Sunday, March 1, 2009

Torture and Terrorism

I have a confession to make: I watch 24. Though I am a damn dirty liberal who is very uncomfortable with the entire way the U.S. under George Bush handled its terror suspects, I spend my Monday evenings watching Jack Bauer commit those same illegal acts...and halfway feel he's justified. Because, after all, in every situation where he tortures someone, that person holds the one piece of information that will permit Bauer and CTU to stop whatever terrorist plot is in motion, in time to save hundreds to millions of U.S. citizens. If the terrorist is not tortured, many Americans will die.

I recently re-watched The Weather Underground, the documentary on the activities of the American youth terrorist organization the Weathermen (most recently in the news during the presidential election because Bill Ayers, one of its most active members, may or may not be a fist-bumping pal of Obama's). The first time I watched this, in a college course, I remember having the epiphany that though almost everyone else would judge the actions of this organization as reprehensible, myself included, the Weathermen thought they had the moral high ground, that they were doing what was right and what was necessary to reform our country and bring the atrocities it was committing to the attention of the complacent white middle class. They are so idealistic and full of rage, so convinced they are right, that they feel anything is justified to change the status quo. They truly thought they were right.

More importantly, I realized that despite my distaste for the terrorism they had committed, if I were ever so fully committed to a cause, so absolutely sure that what I believed in was right, I would likely be the same way. If I knew I was right, I would feel justified in doing almost anything. And why not? Isn't that attitude entrenched in our psyche? Saint Augustine wrote "an unjust law is no law at all," an idea that even Martin Luther King repeated. As humans and as Americans, we feel that there are some lines the government cannot cross, and once it does, disobedience is the only option. We applaud those who stand up for what they know is right, even when they face persecution—the loss of a job, villification, even jail. Philosophically speaking, don't most of us even accept the notion that killing one evil person to save thousands of innocent ones is overall good? (In Christianity, even the killing of one perfect person to save millions/billions/whatever of less innocent ones is found acceptable—of course, that was a voluntary sacrifice, but still, very rare is the person who finds the idea of trading one life for many inherently immoral.)

The problem is, though, how can you be sure you're on the side of the right? In 24, it's obvious. The terrorists are always bad. Even beyond that, though, the situation is crystal clear. It's an obvious trade-off between torturing and/or killing one (or a couple) and saving some much larger number. There is rarely, if ever, any doubt that the terrorist has the piece of information, that he will give it up, or that once the information is known, that the danger will be averted. It is always clear: this person has the one piece of information needed to save many American lives. Torturing this person will result in a much greater good. Thus, Jack Bauer is almost always justified in doing "whatever is necessary," as he so often says. In real life, however, it's never that clear. The circumstances aren't as simple. What the suspected terrorists actually know and whether it can be elicited via torture are unknown. Whether this information is itself the single key to protecting Americans from an imminent, specific attack is doubtful. Whether there is no more appropriate way to find out what we need to know is unlikely. Whether there is another attack in the works is even up in the air. Whether a person actually exists in the real world who, like Jack Bauer, exists solely for the better good of the citizenry, with no personal motivations or chance of corruption, is laughable.

Similarly, simply having the gut feeling that a cause is right, that it is are morally justifiable to breaking the law and even kill to achieve worthy goals, is not enough. If there were a universal good that everyone agreed on, and some violent action were seen as necessary to bring about this good (or end the evil), most of us would likely find it justified; however, this isn't the case in the real world. The same people who feel justified in bombing U.S. political buildings to protest the atrocities the U.S. was committing in Vietnam (or Iraq) would likely decry abortion clinic bombers, who feel just as unquestionably justified in their use of violence. Most of us would find both situations unjustified.

The simple truth is that being absolutely convinced of your own unassailability means nothing. The people who believe exactly opposite of you are just as sure in their beliefs.

But of course they're the wrong ones.

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