See better, Lear, and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
- Kent, King Lear, 1.1, 159-160.
If the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year is somehow special or sacred – and it is – then it seems the date 11/11/11 should hold some added significance. Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, or Veterans' Day, should be about pausing to reflect on war. More generally, it's a good time to consider how torture and wars of choice emerge on the far end of an entire spectrum of dehumanization and cruelty, and what this costs us all.
As we've explored in previous years, the choice to go to war or to inflict cruelty on another human being is rarely a snap decision. It may be, on the individual level – a single person reacting to specific circumstances right then and there – but when it comes to mobilizing an entire nation for war, or instituting an entire system of torture and abuse, the perpetrators almost always receive warnings, often strong and strenuous, against their decisions.
Reluctant warriors do exist. Typically, those who know the costs of armed conflict best insist on a high threshold for starting a war. But few of the Iraq war hawks were reluctant (nor were any but a few "warriors"). They issued grave, exaggerated threats, spoke of the glories of war, delighted in punching hippies, and screamed that any that opposed them were traitors to the country. They lied consistently and shifted their rationales constantly, which are sure signs of bullshitting. Most of all, they eagerly wanted war, and since no sane, honorable, informed person would, this was a glaring sign that they were not to be trusted. Eager dolts such as Richard Cohen and Tom Friedman were happy to prove their manhood by fiercely bellowing that others should go and die on their behalf. (Cohen was later marginally self-aware enough to admit, "In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic," but not honest enough with himself to recognize how utterly despicable this attitude was.)
Reluctant torturers do not exist. (If they do at all, they are as rare as unicorns.) They are a convenient myth, a piece of propaganda concocted to deflect investigations into torture and abuse. Liz Cheney, John Yoo and the gang would have you believe that if you dared to investigate Dick Cheney and the rest for torture, you would all die in a horrible terrorist attack. The lie is that you should be terrified, but that inflicting pain on someone with brown skin from a foreign land who speaks funny will keep you safe. (And do not dare question this.) One of the common themes of the torture "debate" is that the torture apologist and actively pro-torture crowds refuse to engage on the facts on torture historically and the Bush administration specifically. They'll speak endlessly about hypotheticals involving Jack Bauer and ticking time bombs, but they will not discuss the reality of Maher Arar, an innocent man who was tortured, or Dilawar Dilawar, an innocent man who was tortured and killed, or Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a man who was tortured until he confessed to a non-existent Iraq-Al Qaeda link that the Bush administration then flogged to justify going to war. The torture apologist will not speak of the hundreds of men the Pentagon knew to be innocent and kept imprisoned. (Stay scared, and do not ask questions. Who cares about these foreigners, anyway?)
Torture is a longer discussion, but: the more you study the facts on torture, the more likely you are to oppose it, and the more you study the Bush administration's record, the less likely you are to accept that they acted in "good faith." For now, the main point is that the "reluctant torturer" is a myth. As far back as the Romans, it was known that torture was notoriously unreliable for obtaining accurate intelligence, but was good for inflicting pain, terrorizing the populace, and producing false confessions. It's hardly a surprise that techniques known to elicit false confessions did just that. Far from being reluctant to torture, America's pro-torture crowd – just like all torturers throughout the millennia – saw inflicting pain not as an unpleasant necessity (especially given torture's inefficacy) but as a bonus, or the main point in the first place. Some may well have convinced themselves they were righteous and justified; such certainty and rationalizations are common, even in grotesquely comical circumstances. But torture was primarily driven, as always, by the desire for vengeance, by a desire to feel powerful, and by the desire to inflict pain on another human being. Some of the pro-torture crowd are honest enough to admit this; hell, they're proud of it. Let's not pretend it's otherwise.
Anyone who has experienced or inflicted violence, or perhaps simply been on the receiving or delivering end of bullying, likely has some inkling of these dynamics. There's a seduction to power, whether that power is abused, or employed in righteous fury, or whether it's the former rationalized as the latter. There's a saying that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemies to die. Many a revenge tale has explored the cost that revenge takes on a would-be hero. (Hamlet's father paradoxically tells Hamlet "Taint not thy mind" even as he begs him to seek vengeance.) Those who have participated in an act of violence, or a life of violence, have probably faced a certain moment, however subconsciously: I'll probably regret this later, but right now, I just don't give a damn. Embrace that dark side, that sadism and power, the release and satisfaction that comes from taking one's own pain and rage and inflicting it on another person... do that, and when you look in the mirror, you will see the ugliest part of yourself staring back. At these points, a person can feel shocked, and chose to step back – or chose that dark side again. And again. And again. Choosing evil is rarely something that just "happens." At some point, someone chooses to ignore the warnings, step over a terrible line onto a dark path, and chooses not to see (or perhaps care) where it leads.
Jonathan Schwarz recently wrote a thoughtful piece called "Where Does the Cruelty Come From?" Do check out his blog, and forgive me for quoting at length, but it's hard to excerpt this piece (emphasis his):
It's not news that the people who run the U.S. have created a gruesome culture of cruelty among those who have everything (or aspire to) towards those who don't. Digby runs down some vile examples here, including a foreclosure mill law firm that had a homelessness-themed Halloween party.
The interesting thing is this happens everywhere with everyone: people with money and guns and power ALWAYS hate and fear everybody else. My historian grandfather Lewis Hanke spent his whole life researching the European takeover of North and South America, and as he put it:The hostility of those who have power toward those who can be called inferior because they are different—because they are others, the strangers—has been a historical constant. Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.
So America's dumbasses with their dumbass contempt for the people they're brutalizing is about as surprising and interesting as the sun coming up every day.
But why isn't it surprising? Where does it come from? Wouldn't you expect that people with a weird compulsion to be cruel would be less effective and replaced by those who didn't have it?
Stan Goff, who used to be a U.S. Ranger and was stationed in El Salvador, once wrote about this based on his own experience:In the street [in San Salvador], I saw an old woman dragging herself down the sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shriveled in a corner, bone-skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a stick.
On the bus one day in downtown San Salvador, a blind man came begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin. These people were callused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still in their cheeks.
To the slick, manicured, round-eyed, well-to-do, the poor and the beggars were invisible, as invisible as the blackened carboneros, the worm-glutted market babies, the brooding teens with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs and red eyes glaring out of the spotty shade on street corners...They have to be subhuman so they can be killed.
I was reminded of the goats at the Special Forces Medical Lab. When I was training to be a medic, we used goats as "patient models." The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each 14-week class.
Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his antipathy for the caprine breed. "A goat is a dumb creature, hard-headed, homely," we'd say.
A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without seeking these comfortable rationalizations. A few even became attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day.
But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their activity.
Dehumanizing the victim, or in the case of the goats, shutting down all compassion, is a defense mechanism. Those performing these actions choose not to see.
An older Schwarz piece quoted the much-missed Molly Ivins (emphasis his):
Watching some dipstick the other day on Fox News carry on with great certainty about Hillary Clinton and her evil motives -- and I don't think this guy actually spends a lot of time tete a tete with Mrs. Clinton while she reveals her deepest thoughts to him -- I wondered, "Lord, when are these people going to get over it?"
I think the answer is never, because most people have a very hard time forgiving those whom they have deeply wronged. I know that's sort of counterintuitive, but think about some of the bad divorces you have known. When we have done something terrible to someone, we often need to twist it around so it's their fault, not ours.
This reminds me of some event I saw on C-Span years ago. I think it was an NAACP conference; in any case, everyone on stage and in the audience was African American. After the speeches the people on stage took questions, and a girl who looked about fourteen stood up and asked this:Why do white people seem to hate us so much? I don't understand. What is it that we did?
Unfortunately, no one gave her the right answer, which is: white Americans cannot forgive black Americans for what white people did to them. Truly confronting slavery and its continuing aftermath would be an almost unbearable experience for white America, because of what [it] would force us to confront about our capacity for evil.
Sometimes this impulse takes lesser forms. But never underestimate the power of spite, or the need to feel superior to, well, someone. A recent study shows that many people will give to those less fortunate – except if they're in the second-to-last position. This is called "last place aversion." As one of the study's authors, Ilyana Kuziemko, explained, "It's the basic human need to avoid feeling like we ourselves are in last place... Or maybe, put a bit more negatively, it's our need to feel like there's at least one person we can feel superior to or look down on."
Digby has looked at how Americans are more likely than Europeans to blame the poor for their misfortune, and how conservatives feel that they've earned their social safety net, but others haven't. (Needless to say, there's often a racial component to these attitudes.) She's also long noted how conservatives deem Democratic presidents to be inherently illegitimate. Matt Taibbi has noted the hypocrisy of the tea party, as has Steve Benen. These far-right conservatives speak of freedom, but they really mean their own privilege and power... in opposition to those they deem less worthy, or simply lesser beings altogether. One of the key conservative tenets is that, when it comes to people not-in-the-group, those who are Other, their misfortune is their own fault. Another one is that these other people aren't supposed to win. Mississippi Burning, while a flawed film, does feature a great monologue that captures these dynamics well, when Agent Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) tells the story about how a neighboring black farmer gets a mule, which makes Rupert's father terribly jealous. It does not end well.
Obviously, not all hatred is created equal in terms of intent, force, or effect. It's just that cruelty, dehumanization, and lack of compassion exist on a spectrum. The decision to see another human being as somehow lesser or subhuman is a crucial one, and it both creates problems domestically and fuels the worst excesses of our foreign policy. (In a nutshell, conservative policy is: We need to bomb brown people over there so we can deny them social services over here.) Bigotry plays a key role in the imperialist mindset.
During one of the Republican primary debates in October, Michelle Bachmann declared that "We should look to Iraq and Libya to reimburse us for part of what we have done to liberate these nations." Given how devastated Iraq has been, especially in terms of lives lost, this attitude is staggeringly arrogant and callous. Sadly, it's not uncommon. To quote an earlier post:
This is the mindset that cares little for the actual wishes of the "liberated," but obsesses that they should show gratitude. Bush in particular has been consistently fixated on this, and was frustrated and mystified [in 2006] when his clearly-deserved accolades did not pour in:"President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .
"[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd."
Similarly, on the National Review cruise in 2007, Johann Hari interviewed founding neocon Norman Podhoretz, who delivered (emphasis mine):
…the standard-issue Wolfowitz line about how, after September 11, the United States had to introduce democracy to the Middle East in order to change the political culture that produced the mass murderers. For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, he is remarkably blasé about the fact that 80 percent of Iraqis want U.S. troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. "I don't much care," he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that "nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo" and that Bush is "a hero."
They "care" about Iraqis the same way they "care" about free elections – only if they produce the results they want. This is a long-established imperalist tradition; they view others as subjects, lesser beings, servants, inferiors. Their "caring" is contingent on receiving praise, on these people playing their proscribed, subservient role. Imperialists become indignant when others don't play along. They feel it's terribly bad form to complain about that American bomb killing your grandmother, because clearly it was all in the service of a larger, nobler cause.
If imperialists do not truly care about those they seek to "liberate," torturers do not truly care about the truth. The Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side focuses on Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver arrested, tortured, and eventually beaten to death by U.S. forces at Bagram Air Force Base in 2002. He was accused of aiding a terrorist attack, but there was no evidence of this; he was an innocent man. (Guilt would not justify such treatment, however.) Among others, director Alex Gibney interviews several of the guards involved with Dilawar, and a former prisoner. The documentary and the extras are well-worth watching, and it's not pretty stuff. It captures several aspects of the abusive mindset very well. Dilwar was a slight man who weighed a mere 122 pounds at the time of his death, but after his death, some of his captors claimed he was combative. The guards were told Dilawar was guilty. Some doubted this, but they were receiving pressure from above – arresting innocent people didn't look good, but capturing dangerous terrorists did, and they were expected to produce confessions. They beat him, eventually to death. (Dilawar's legs were beaten so badly that had he lived, they would have had to have been amputated.)
It's a tragically familiar story in the annals of torture, and it goes something like this: Those in power bring in a man, convinced he's guilty. They abuse him to get him to confess. He does not. They are certain he is lying, so they become angry, redoubling their efforts and becoming more abusive. But still he does not confess. The true sadists don't care, but at a certain point, some of the guards begin to have doubts. What if he's telling the truth? What if he's innocent? They have abused this man terribly. Their treatment of him has been horrible, illegal, inexcusable – especially if he is innocent. That would make them bad people. This is a disturbing thought. And consequently, they push it away, and bury their growing shame by abusing him all the harder.
This is a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle. Decide that you can torture someone, then torture him, and then even if he is innocent, you can never let him go, otherwise the truth of your crime will be known. The justice system must then be rigged to prevent accountability for those in power. In some cases, an innocent prisoner is eventually released, but more typically, this system is a cycle that continues with perpetual imprisonment and abuse or ends with death. Three reinforcing principles drive these dynamics, and any one of them can lead to the others: These people do not deserve essential protections; these people are subhuman; we can (and should) torture and abuse these prisoners. This cycle can occur with individuals, with prisons, and with the entire system. The Bush administration ignored warnings and set up mass arrests, scant review, indefinite detention without charges, torture and abuse, and problematic military commissions. All of these feed into the others. The Obama administration has perpetuated some of these practices, most notably in holding prisoners without charges and using the military commission system. Many people were scared after 9/11, it's true, but the case to go to war and the system of torture of abuse that was implemented were crafted over months or years, with many memos and meetings, and many warnings ignored. The desire for vengeance and violence is impulsive; setting up a system of vengeance and violence is not. As an older post, the Torture Flowchart explored, the Bush administration had many, many opportunities to turn off this path:
(Click for a larger view, or go here.)
We've previously looked at how interrogators have tortured mute prisoners to get them to speak because they were certain that the men were faking. These dynamics are not a bug; they are a defining feature of torture. As we noted in the same post, former SERE instructor Malcolm Nance has described meeting a Cambodian torture victim who explained how, "in torture, he confessed to being a hermaphrodite, a CIA spy, a Buddhist Monk, a Catholic Bishop and the son of the king of Cambodia." Torture is not about getting the truth – and sometimes not even about what the torturers think the truth is. Occasionally, the torturers get so carried away they forget to ask questions at all. Soviet-era torture victim Vladimir Bukovsky has described how the decision to torture and abuse prisoners spreads throughout the entire system: "Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling?" Most strikingly, he's described how after how his captors abused him dreadfully, it changed them as well: "I had gotten my lawyer, but neither the doctor nor those guards could ever look me in the eye again."
These dynamics are well known among those who care to see. As human beings, we have enough of a conscience to feel shame, but sometimes, rather than facing it, we rationalize it, and double-down on the shameful action. While real life provides plenty of examples of this, the arts, as always, can often do as good a job or better at capturing the truth about human nature. I wanted to end with taking a brief look at three films (all based on novels), with spoilers.
In Mystic River (2003, sorry, no clips), Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) learns his daughter has been murdered. He wants to figure out who did it, and he wants vengeance. He settles on a culprit. He kidnaps him. As he grills him, it becomes evident – he doesn't even really care if this man is the one. Jimmy is angry. He's deeply wounded. He desperately wants a scapegoat, and he wants to inflict his own pain on someone else. Several scenes later, he has doubts and regrets. But then his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) comes in and interrupts his moment of conscience. It's disconcerting. Jimmy was starting to face what he had done, but she stops this, and tells him that he did the right thing. In the final, protracted scene, Annabeth goes on to blame Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), who has just suffered a great loss, for what happened. Jimmy and Annabeth find a way to blame the victim, and this is their solution for living with themselves.
Then there's the tale of two lynch mobs. The first one is in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a short but striking feature. The news goes out that a local rancher has been murdered, and a posse forms – but it's really more of a lynch mob. They catch some strangers, and there's some circumstantial evidence against them. However, the posse doesn't want to take them back to town to face justice. They don't want to investigate the strangers' claims, which wouldn't be that hard to do. They're angry, and they want to see someone hang. Some of them even think it'll be fun. They shove aside the objections of some in the posse (one played by Henry Fonda). Director William Wellman makes good use of the angry and impassive stares of the lynch mob:
The menace is palpable. As one of the men to be hanged says, "Justice? What do you care about justice? You don't even care if you've got the right men or not! All you know is that you've lost something and somebody's got to be punished."
The second lynch mob is in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). The story's set in the South during the Great Depression, and a black man, Tom Robinson, has been accused of raping a white woman. He's in prison. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is guarding the jail when he's confronted by a lynch mob. Now, Tom Robinson is already imprisoned, and will go on trial. Given the era and the region, there really isn't any serious doubt that he will be found guilty... and then executed. But that's not enough for this lynch mob. They want to do it themselves. The honor of Southern white women, and thus Southern white men, is at stake. As with Jimmy Markum, or the Ox-Bow posse, they don't want justice – they want vengeance.
The confrontation is interrupted when Scout, Jem and Dill, all children, run up and stand by Atticus. He tells them to go home, but they bravely refuse. Then Scout notices Mr. Cunningham in the mob, and says hello. She asks him about him and his son Walter, her classmate at school. As she continues to talk, Mr. Cunningham and the rest of the men shift about uncomfortably, and cannot look her in the eye.
Scout doesn't fully understand what's happening, and apologizes if she's said something wrong. Mr. Cunningham tells her there's nothing to apologize for, and he tells the mob that they should go home. They disperse. (Parts of the film may seem a bit hokey, but I'll admit it still gets to me, including this scene.) When Mr. Cunningham arrives, all he can see is his rage. But Scout talks to him, and forces him to see her... and suddenly, he's reminded of his own humanity. He sees himself, and what he's doing, and he's ashamed, rightfully so. It's a simple little scene, but it's powerful in its own way.
Sadly, the story doesn't always end that way. It takes far more courage to stand against wars of choice and act of torture than it does to support them. Most forms of outright bigotry are not socially acceptable anymore, but some, such as class snobbery or Islamophobia, are encouraged in certain circles. There are entire industries and institutions whose primary purpose is to misinform the public and interrupt any "moments of conscience." But for all that, some people struggle to be better human beings and do make hard, conscientious choices. In the words of Walt Kelly, who I quote every year:
The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.
Some tragedies in life are unavoidable. But given how inherently tough and unfair life can be on its own, it's all the more imperative that we, as human beings, don't add any unnecessary suffering if we can help it.
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest have borne most; we that we are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
- Edgar, King Lear, 5.3, 328-332.
(This post is part of The War Series. Edited slightly for typos.)