Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A simple, unqualified no

I find it truly dumbfounding that the initial shock over the revelations of abuse and torture in US-run Iraqi prisons, followed by allegations of similar torture in Guantanamo Bay, and that the US is using secret prisons in Europe, has settled to a level of acquiescence that borders on acceptance. I'm grateful to Peter Brooks on Slate for reminding us of Camus' reaction to similar practices by the French government in Algeria.

As for Camus, in an essay published in the newspaper Combat in 1946, he summed up the moral ground he was seeking in an arresting phrase: "Ni victimes ni bourreaux." In Dwight MacDonald's translation for the review Politics, Camus' phrase is "neither victims nor executioners." The word bourreau means torturer as well as executioner. "Neither victims nor torturers." From the one—from the legitimate American sense of victimization following 9/11—we have passed to the other. To the complicity with torture proposed by Bush and his rationalizers, there seems to me only one response: an absolute "no." As to Clamence's wily insinuations, so to our administration's renditions, secret prisons, and enhanced interrogations: no.

The one argument I hear again and again in favor of torture is the necessary intelligence in the face of a direct and immediate threat scenario: what if a prisoner knows the location of a nuclear weapon, and torture is the only way to get him to talk? The immediate follow-up to this question is that the situation described is precisely our situation. The enemy, so it is said, is real, and will use any means at his disposal to harm us.

Once again, the only word left to me to descibe such an argument is mendacity. Certainly, there are people who would like to harm American citizens, with whatever weapons they can get their hands on. This, however, does not give us carte blanche. Not every terrorist is carrying a nuclear weapon, and not every person suspected or detained is actually a terrorist.

Furthermore, even necessity does not give civil society the right to torture. The brave answer to the question is yes, if I were responsible for a suspect who knew the location of a nuclear weapon, I would torture him or her to find out the location. I would do it, and then I should go to prison for it. There are certain things that even when morally necessary can neither be ethical or legal.

Let us also keep in mind that there are dozens if not hundreds of detainees, and no credible evidence that there has ever been an actual nuclear threat. The threat of a nuclear terrorist strike and a meteor hitting the planet are both real. They are possibilities that we can never completely escape. We cannot, however, let the president or anyone else tell us that the sky is falling, and that we need a human sacrifice to hold it up.

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