The Unanticipated Consequences of Unacknowledged Ambitions
Let's try to be precise then. The word "torture" does not appear in our orders... And those who explode bombs in public places, do they perhaps respect the law? ... No, gentlemen, believe me, it is a vicious circle. And we could discuss the problem for hours without reaching any conclusions. Because the problem does not lie here. The problem is: the NLF wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain. Now, it seems to me that, despite varying shades of opinion, you all agree that we must remain... Therefore, to be precise, I would now like to ask you a question: Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
—Col. Mathieu, The Battle of Algeirs
It is mad and preposterous to bring to the standard of justice and humanity the exercise of a dominion founded upon violence and terror.
—Thomas Erskine, 1789
I fear that we would become a third-class nation after two or three years if we just sat tight.
—Hideki Tojo, Nov. 5, 1941
Any defense of torture must ultimately reduce down to two assertions that have always constituted the core defense of any such moral compromise in the enforcement of the law or the waging of war:
we can entrust our representatives with this awful device because our safety is in their hands--our motives vindicate our means; and, conversely, our enemies mean us harm and observe no comparable standard--their motives vindicate our means, negating whatever rights we would normally accord the accused before the law or prisoners of war.
However a standard made conditional and subjective is not a standard but a farce. It is nothing more than power's expedience on masquerade. Justice reserved for those presumed innocent or harmless is no justice at all, and inevitably produces an abomination: accusation equals guilt. And guilt demands punishment. We have ceded the determination of guilt, and thus punishment, to authorities acting in secret. While the Administration insists torture (while refusing even the responsibility to either acknowledge or deny its use) is keeping us safe, it has yet to produce a single instance of proof, citing a need for secrecy that is in large part a consequence of the use of this "enhanced interrogation". Fear, meticulously nurtured by a political faction, now determines our values. It is not merely rhetorical flourish to describe ours as a paranoid society.
A precious standard has been destroyed for expedience. But expedience has its price. Repercussions await; but for the moment, as we explicitly work to legitimize torture for ourselves by claiming extraordinary circumstances, we incidentally work to legitimize torture in and of itself, for us and for our enemies alike, following the presumption that our present might will hold us harmless in perpetuity.
What the argument for torture lacks in logical consistency and ethical rigor it more than makes up for in base appeal. The instinct to hate and fear our enemies is natural and necessary, but for liberty and order to coexist we are forced to adhere to a decidedly "unnatural" state, holding our impulse for self-preservation in abeyance before the sober consideration of fact, granting our enemies a measure of restraint we cannot expect in return.
Before 9/11 there was a clear demarcation between law enforcement and war. Taking advantage of the fear and confusion following 9/11, the Administration created a shadowy non-category, neither entirely criminal nor entirely combatant, for terrorist suspects, fuming at the proposition that we treat the threat as a "law enforcement issue" rather than warfare, and equally outraged at the prospect of waging this war within recognized convention. A "global war on terror" as its proponents so flexibly and vaguely define it, is war without limits or laws, everywhere without end, nominally waged against a method, but actually against the sentiment of anti-Americanism.
Even within this new definition, of "illegal enemy combatant," there is no consistency; a suspect is one moment a prisoner of war, the next a criminal suspect, depending on the need to suspend whatever rights he may claim under either category, and always outside of law or convention governing either circumstance; and all predicated on an assumption of guilt. Just as we shuttle them about the globe fleeing our own laws, as if geographic distance decreases moral responsibility, we shuttle them back and forth categorically, in a shell game to confound our own republican system of co-equal government and congressional oversight. In this purgatory our leaders have created there are no limits on the exercise of power. But now we must concede it is naive to think this hasn't been happening in secret and on a smaller scale for a long time now.
We have assented to this, taking for granted that this will all be contained somehow, evincing remarkable trust in a government that reserves unto itself the right to absolute secrecy even as it categorically rejects the right to privacy for any citizen or organization it deems.
Information, facts, events, reality, all disappear into the black hole of state power we have created, reappearing only in distorted fragments: edited, blacked out, redacted, euphemised.
And why do we consent? It is difficult to accept but impossible to deny that the 9/11 attacks were both a heinous crime against us and a consequence of our actions. These are not, contrary to popular sentiment, mutually exclusive. Just as the latter does not preclude our seeking retribution against the murderers of 9/11 and defending against their kind in the future, neither should the former preclude the frank and sober appraisal of our history and the necessary and long overdue debate attendant upon that. It awaits only the recognition of a resolute people looking beyond the hysteria created by a craven elite jealous of their power and disdainful of the truth.
But our leaders have done more than take advantage of 9/11 to draw new powers unto themselves; as well they've bound our security from terrorism to the very same military adventurism that produced it in the first place. The invasion of Iraq was not a misplaced response to 9/11, but a redoubling of the long project of which 9/11 was just the most dramatic and disastrous product. Now opposition to military adventurism, foreign entanglements and our newly acquired levels of state power is convincingly painted, by those keen to keep themselves in power and profiting from this monstrosity, as support for our enemies.
We remain unaware of how close a determined faction came to dealing the final death blow to a republican form of government they, and their predecessors, have been able to subdue but not quite kill for as long as we've had a political class. Success in Iraq as they envisioned it might have irrevocably bound up once and for all our security with our imperial ambitions. The unthinkable occurs: victory in Iraq may have been worse than the horror we are now witnessing. Even as the Iraq project foundered horribly, they still sought to advance us beyond the point of return, straining to create another fait accompli in Iran. Some work for this even now. They will not relent and they will always be with us. Some will retire, some will fall to scandal, a very few will falter in their commitment and repent, but their ranks will continually be replenished by the eager and ambitious, desperately clawing at one another even now as they mount the lower rungs of power, eyes focused upward hopefully. Republicanism is necessarily the enemy of ambition.
We have to continually remind ourselves: it is the failure of the Iraq war that has provoked widespread opposition, not the undeniable injustice of it. Even now, this opposition is thwarted, nearly irrelevant but for the advantage it grants one political party over another, nearly indistinguishable.
But if we're to be honest and thorough we have to follow this thought to its disasteful conclusion: this necessity (as the Administration would have it) for conquest, spying and torture is not a consequence of 9/11, but like 9/11, is a consequence of history, long predetermined before the towers fell. Our leaders are disingenuous, but not entirely dishonest; they truly see the invasion of Iraq, the surveillance state and torture as necessities. It's merely that they do not trust us with the whole truth.
The true cost of empire, to liberty and the law, has long been deferred. Refusing to accept this cost, to honor this debt to our principles, will eventually bankrupt us. That is what is happening to us now.
Combining a newfound acceptance of torture with an aggressive campaign of nation-building means that we are in the business of arresting and torturing people who are not threats to the security of US citizens, but threats to our ambitions abroad; the greater these ambitions, the greater their numbers.
The most damaging and damning reality of the Abu Ghraib scandal was not that we were involved in the torture of "suspected terrorists" but of suspected insurgents--rebels against an occupation we still cannot justify. But it's worse than that; in the haste compelled by Donald Rumsfeld, a man with an incomparable combination of incompetence and arrogance, we soon found ourselves imprisoning and torturing innocents caught up in our desperation.
It's not merely that we swell the ranks of the Jihadis; we've acquired a whole new class of enemies with which we have to concern ourselves. We've undeniably acquired the burdens of empire, whatever we choose to call it.
The terrorists never held it in their power to change us, our way of life, our laws, or our values. They still don't. They are still ultimately powerless. Only we have that power.
We continue to lie to ourselves about the nature of these things. But the only way to be rid of the consequences of empire is to be rid of the empire. Neither then should we lie about the inestimable costs we will incur in abandoning it. For, having railed thusly against it, I now have to concede that I cannot tell you we haven't gone too far already. We may have. But this I know: we can no longer justify it, if ever we could, and we can no longer deny it. The nation cannot behave as a child attempting to will away reality.
For all the celebration of martial heroism, that even the critics of the war immerse themselves in as if to baptize away the sin of insufficient patriotism, in our hearts we know the greater courage lies in standing down. Sending the children of the working class off to subdue the restive corners of the empire while singing paens to them takes no courage at all. Accepting the limitations of decency and the awful uncertainty of restraint, however, does, and it's required of each one of us.