Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Post #35 - Fashioning Serviceable Realities

Clausevitz said, “War is inconceivable without a clearly defined image of the enemy.” Chris Hedges, in his important book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, outlines the ways language is used to shape our world-view – most especially when we are on a path to war. Hedges (who, as a journalist, has covered more battles at close quarters than most of us would ever want to think about) helps us to understand why the phrase “Axis of Evil” was so essential. Hedges quotes George Orwell: “though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war...The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil.” As Daniel Perlmutter put it, “Human beings have often created elaborate justifications for killing, but the simplest is that the enemy was 'less than human.'” Coupled with the fact that “the limits of our language are the limits of our world” (as expressed in Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s axiom), one can say: take over our language, and you take over our minds.

But it is not just “the other” whose face must change as we move toward war. Hedges says, “In wartime the state seeks to destroy its own culture.” An America founded on diversity is suddenly deaf to any but officially-approved views. To the powers that be, Orwell said, “dissidents are the most dangerous. They give us an alternative language, one that refuses to define the other as ‘barbarian’ or ‘evil,’ one that recognizes the humanity of the enemy...” We see this today in the rowdy CodePink demonstrators, the intellectuals who point to every instance of "the emperor's new clothes" and the determinedly unruly blogosphere. A country of cherished civil liberties starts cutting corners on privacy, access to official information and freedom of association. A “compassionate conservative” justifies indefinite detention and torture, while even some religious leaders defend it. A country of democratic ideals is ready to ally itself with despots, if they can help the immediately urgent cause -- for, as Hedges writes, “war forms its own culture…it distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it.”

A book called Oath Betrayed was published (2007?) by Steven Miles, MD, a researcher with the University of Minnesota Medical Center. It gives the results of Miles' study of some 60,000 pages of official documents, released by the government (the lag for declassification is on the order of two years), on the involvement of medical personnel in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. His focus was solely on those cases where doctors and other medical professionals were directly complicit in instances of beatings, asphyxiation, sodomy, abuse of children, the pouring and igniting of lighter fluid on the backs of prisoners' hands and other forms of torture. Miles said, in a recent Minnesota magazine article:

"This is easily the saddest and most disappointing academic project I've ever done. Not just because docs were involved, but also because this is not a U.S. military that I recognize and it's also not U.S. intelligence services that I recognize. I've had experience with both, and this is just outside of our history."
"[I don't see] the type of pressure that is brought to bear against health professionals who have protested torture in countries like Chile or Uruguay or the Soviet Union or Turkey, and risk being disappeared or tortured or killed or having their family members killed for that resistance. The pressure that was brought to bear was peer pressure, in some cases the threat of a transfer. But when I look at my colleagues in other torturing countries, I see them taking absolutely heroic and in some cases suicidal risks to protest torture. So I don't accept -- I simply do not accept -- the notion that the pressure was of a degree that should have caused them to be silent or complicit.

An interviewer asked the question, "Is torture ever justified if it could save lives?" Dr. Miles, who has obviously wrestled with this question for years in the course of his research, said:

"Every time a nation has decided that torture can be justified, it's wound up misusing it. They've taken a singular case and they've gone to a general practice. So I don't think that the technology of torture works. It doesn't produce reliable information. And we don't have a way of using that information in real time. And so I'd answer the question no.
"...since the end of World War II, the United States led the way on constructing and then piece by piece adding to international law designed to prevent the mistreatment of prisoners. First it was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written by Eleanor Roosevelt. Then it was the Geneva Conventions. Then it was the Convention Against Torture. Then it was the U.S. War Crimes Act. Then it was the Torture Victims Relief Act...We have to figure out as a nation how to fix this new wound to civil society which we've inflicted by going down this path.
"...the real problem here is that torture is used generally by countries to suppress the emergence of civil society...[W]hen we say that a chief executive can appeal to national emergency and national sovereignty to justify torture, we've essentially given a green light for the suppression of civil societies around the world."

John F. Kennedy said, "We cannot, as a free nation, compete with our adversaries in tactics of terror, assassination, false promises, counterfeit mobs and crises." Recognizing the pernicious effect these techniques can have, and are having, the American Psychologists Association ruled in August that a psychologist cannot be a party to the kinds of interrogation techniques that have been used at U.S. facilities. The director of Physicians for Human Rights said, "You cannot practice ethical psychology in...the context of pervasive violation of human rights."

Shane Claiborne, founding partner of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, wrote in the Sojourners Magazine of June 2007:

Shane Claiborne
"Violence is suicidal. Suicide rates of folks in the military and those working the chambers of death row execution are astronomical; they kill themselves as they feel the image of God dying in them...even as we see the horror of death, may we be reminded that in the end love wins. Mercy triumphs. Life is more powerful than death. And even those who have committed great violence can have the image of God come to life again within them as they hear the whisper of love. May the whisper of love grow louder than the thunder of violence. May we love loudly."

And, now, the most ironic element in this agonizing debate about the infliction of agony: it probably does not work. A new book, by Ali H. Soufan and Daniel Freedman gives the lie to the idea that torture is a necessary part of the interrogator's box of tools. From a review of the book by Dina Temple-Raston (counterrorism correspondent for NPR) in the Washington Post (October 30, 2011): "Soufan, a fluent Arabic speaker, was the [FBI's] go-to interrogator...he testified from behind a black curtain in the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing room [in 2009] and said that 'enhanced interrogation techniques'...were 'harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda.'" The old adage that "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" still has some mileage left on it, according to Soufan and other experts on interrogation. [Full disclosure: I am a member of the board of directors of the National Religious Coalition against Torture.]

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