Blind Man with a Pistol


The Mote in our Conscience

US President Barack Obama has released classified memos that reveal administrative approval of waterboarding and sleep deprivation, among other tactics, in the interrogation of terror suspects by the CIA. The Obama administration has rightfully denounced such crimes as torture. I don’t know all the details about American and Canadian participation and complicity in the torture of terror suspects, but I know someone who does. For those details, read skdadl at pogge.

But this post is not about the horror we feel once we realize the inhumanity our governments have inflicted in our names—such a reaction should be quick and visceral. Besides, we’ve known about these crimes for some time. What is alarming about the memos is the legal sleight-of-hand they effect to render torture lawful. And, equally alarming, is Obama’s insistence that:

In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carrying out their duties relying in good faith upon the legal advice from the department of justice that they will not be subject to prosecution.

We’ve heard this before, of course. CIA agents who forced terror suspects to believe they were drowning, who exploited deep-seated phobias to glean unreliable information, and who caused such untold mental and physical duress to enemies of the state that they are now immune to prosecution, overrode any ethical qualms they may or may not have held simply by surrendering to the steely rule of law. Adolf Eichmann made a similar appeal in his war crimes tribunal in front of the Supreme Court of Israel:

It was my misfortune to become entangled in these atrocities. But these misdeeds did not happen according to my wishes. It was not my wish to slay people. The guilt for the mass murder is solely that of the political leaders… I would stress that I am guilty of having been obedient, having subordinated myself to my official duties and the obligations of war service and my oath of allegiance and my oath of office, and in addition, once the war started, there was also martial law….

I accuse the leaders of abusing my obedience. At that time obedience was demanded, just as in the future it will also be demanded of the subordinate. Obedience is commended as a virtue. May I therefore ask that consideration be given to the fact that I obeyed, and not whom I obeyed.

It is understandable for Eichmann to make this plea: he was fighting for his life. It is less forgiveable for Obama to do so. Essentially, Obama is condoning that actors of the state abandon their own sense of judgement for another, as if the law is a cold, literal thing, handed down to us by mystics and soothsayers who conjure truth out of an impenatrable lexicon we cannot hope to understand. Is not asking for ‘good faith’ in the ‘legal advice’ of experts not an act of theology?

There’s another man who justified his warmongering with cold literalism. When the Archbishop of Cantebury advises Prince Hal, now King Henry, to invade France based on a specious and tortuous claim to the throne (which, incidentally, has something to do with the fact that Hal’s great-great grandmother was a daughter of the King of France, and hence under English law, but not French law, Hal’s claim has legs) in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he equivocates until Cantebury assures him that if his logic is not correct, ‘The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!’  Only once he can abrogate responsibility under the guise of faith (in both literal law and in his religious advisors) will he exercise his ambition in a logic that confounds readers and audience members to this day.

Shakespeare may well support Hal and earnestly attempt to legitimize the morality of a highly questionable invasion, but his concept of the law is clear. When Hal camouflauges his royalty and infiltrates his army’s camp before the battle of Agincourt, he meets two soldiers who are troubled by the legitimacy of their actions, but take solace, like Eichmann, in obedience:

we know enough, if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.

This line would appear to suffice for Eichmann, and indeed, for Obama. But not, I think, for the King. He does not agree:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services…Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience.

The law, then, is dialectic: it is in the service of society and of ourselves. The King himself says no less in his famous exhortation at Agincourt, the climax of the play and articulation of the play’s conception of obedience and law:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;

The equalities and parallels drawn between the gentlest and vilest of our society justifies the King’s claims on his men: while the King might be culpable of reckless warmongering, the cohesion of this relationship never falters. Only a just cause validates the relationship. Justice issues from solidarity and trust. It is oceanic, and total: resolute, not absolute.

Such a relationship cannot be said to exist under Eichmann or under George W. Bush. Their ruling impeteus is clear: these are the facts, and you shall obey. Can the CIA agents who practiced waterboarding on terror suspects say that every mote has been washed out of his conscience?  Can Obama? By absolving these actors on the basis of their obedience to faulty logic and mystifying legal machinations, Obama has done nothing to restore public and international trust to a diseased system. To revitalize the law, the United States needs to resituate on principles of solidarity, communion and individual culpability. At times, it seems the law is as fragile as it is robust. Those who have committed these crimes need to face justice and those who can effect as much need to stop shielding them with the law.

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What about Hitch?

“Believe me,” Christopher Hitchens implores us. “It’s torture.

He’s talking, of course, about waterboarding. First, the chutzpah. Most of us didn’t need Hitchens to take us glibly aside and explain in grave and serious tones that torture really was torture. ‘I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,”’ as Hitchens explains this grotesque tautology. ‘Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.’ We shall ignore the casual self-comparison to Abraham Lincoln and the moral poverty needed to believe that the question was in dispute. After all, waterboarding was declared illegal by American generals fourty years ago in Vietnam. But we shall note that Lincoln never needed to be chained, whipped or raped to realize that slavery is a sinister, evil thing.

Second:  well, more chutzpah, really. Buried in this article is the implied assumption that the question is now settled because the prodigal son has come home and repented. That Hitchens should harness some particular authority with regard to waterboarding now, because he used to think it wasn’t torture. So when he changes his mind, it’s that much more puissant. Although the gleeful chorus of “no kidding, Hitch!” is fun, and it’s always nice to see a noisome bray from the other side come over to your point of view, Hitchens’ mea culpa should be more offensive than refreshing. Guess what? We have loads of testimonies saying that waterboarding is torture.  The only difference is most of them have brown skin.

And third is the most odious of all. As skdadl cynically notes on Bread n’ Roses:

What’s next — torture tourism? As we all know, there’s nothing that capitalism can’t co-opt.

“Torture tourism” indeed. Hitchens acknowledges that he ‘could stop the process at any time’ (in the same breath as he assures us that as a coward, he ‘[dies] many times before [his] death’ because he signed an indemnification contract), but motivating his doubtless insatiable desire for the truth is the sense of entitlement and supremacy that underwrites the reasons we torture in the first place.

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning.

Perhaps, Hitchens.  But this does not discount the fact that you are simulating torture (although he does distastefully joke that he might have admitted to being a hermaphrodite during his short ordeal). By simulating torture, we follow the logic of Bill Murray in What About Bob? After Richard Dreyfuss, a psychiatrist, asks Bob why he is pretending to have Tourette’s Syndrome, Bob responds: ‘Well, if I fake it—I don’t have it, right?’ Bob—and Christopher HItchens—are quite right.  As long as we have the ability—the power—to submit ourselves to torture, we never have to worry about someone else doing it against our will, however dreadful it feels. Meanwhile, governments in our names are perpetrating real torture against real bodies for nefarious purposes, with no “indeminfication” contracts. And rather than redeem them, Hitchens disgraces these victims on the pages of Vanity Fair because he reduces their pain and suffering into a spectacle for our instruction.

Where is the article in Vanity Fair—I’d even take one written by Hitchens—that visits real waterboarding victims? That visits the prisons they are tortured in? Where is the journalism that exposes the criminal practices of our governments and the inhuman abuse they inflict daily on those they call enemies? Of course, there is none, only the sombre smirk of the great thinker who has changed his mind. “Believe me, it’s torture.” Instead, Hitchens shifts our sympathies from the tragedy of the real victims to his own, puffing up his insufferable ego in the process.