Monday, October 24, 2005

Problematizing "the new normal"

Rick Salutin has a written a particularly good column on the subject, Torture and the new normal. First he poses the question:
Can you justify torture under "the new normal"? This is sometimes done in the name of the ticking bomb. What if you know one is set to go off in a subway etc., wouldn't that validate torturing a terrorist who has details?
Then Salutin concedes that we're all capable of committing acts of violence if the provocation is sufficient:
Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents. You don't have to be Jack Bauer on 24.

Personally, I can imagine anyone doing almost anything, under certain conditions. If you get tossed into that blender, you have to achingly do what seems right or required, and live with the consequences. That's what having a conscience is all about:  lonely individual choice and responsibility.
This is a provocative point in its own right. My inclination is to agree. Occasionally — though I don't know why I should daydream about such a topic — I imagine how I would respond if someone broke into our house and threatened my sweetie. I don't have any trouble believing that I could resort to violence, and be pretty pleased with myself about it, too.

As Salutin says, the scenario necessarily involves kids or loved ones. If the only person at risk was me, I'd be more likely to passively cooperate with the intruder and hope he only wanted my valuables. (An amusing thought, because I have no valuables.)

Salutin asserts, "having a conscience is all about lonely individual choice and responsibility". That's an interesting image:  when it comes to moral choices, Salutin pictures each individual as alone in the universe, just her and her conscience.

As a theist, I don't quite see it that way. I believe that moral direction comes from outside of ourselves. And not only that, I also believe that God provides support to help us do what is right:  at least an inner nudge in the right direction. It's a partnership, not a lone individual grappling with a grave and difficult decision in an indifferent universe.

But I admit, even from the perspective of a theist, there's truth in Salutin's way of expressing things. When I am confronted with a moral decision, ultimately only I determine which path I take. It helps if there's someone watching. A little social pressure often tips the scales in favour of the good. But ultimately I am responsible for my moral decisions:  not God, and not society.

But we still haven't gotten to the issue Salutin set out to address. Here it is:
U.S. law prof and human-rights buff Alan Dershowitz thinks torture should be legalized under clear conditions in these harsh times, so as to control and regulate its negative effects. He says this precisely because, he claims, he is opposed to torture. There's a fine legal mind at work. …

I'm against legalizing acts like torture. … They should remain crimes, to be punished or — very rarely — treated as exceptions, full of moral ambiguity.

But perhaps it doesn't seem so ambiguous to you. Isn't it just a matter of the end justifying the means, even if that means is torture? I'd say the problem with means-ends arguments lies usually not in the means, where attention mainly focuses, but in the ends, which tend to go unexamined.
I have set the last sentence in bold type because this is the point upon which the discussion pivots.

We need to pause here to consider what "means" and what "ends" Salutin has in mind. Torture is proposed, by people like Alan Dershowitz, as a means to a noble end. The end is, the victory of good (Western ideals like democracy, individual freedom, the separation of church and state, equality for women, and the like) over evil (terrorism, Islamo-fascism and the like).

That's the logic that is being thrust upon us, and we're not supposed to examine it too closely. But Salutin deconstructs it. He doesn't just want us to reject the means — torture — he wants us to reject the end:
The "war on terror" is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.

It makes me respect the power in that phrase, the new normal. It normalizes what is absurd, objectionable and entirely questionable (and not so new, either). Instead of challenging this absurd and disastrous "new" version of reality — clash of civilizations, war on terror and their like — you end up agonizing over issues like torture, as a response to it. You don't seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11. Instead, you fall in line with the war mentality, though you might be for or against a particular tactic.

Means and ends reverse:  The end of fighting a successful war on terror becomes the means to multiply practices such as torture and moods such as fear. I'd say this applies as much to Osama bin Laden's jihad as to George Bush's "war." All the intensity would be far better invested in rejecting their versions of reality, which jibe minimally with actual conditions in places such as the Middle East and offer no hope for a better future.
There are all kinds of provocative remarks here:
  • the "war on terror," is no real war, more an endless state of tension;
  • we should vigorously reject this absurd and disastrous "new" version of reality;
  • we should not even consider torture as a legitimate means to achieve victory in the "war on terror";
  • neither "George Bush's 'war'" nor Osama bin Laden's jihad — the two worldviews are depicted as parallel — offers any hope of a better future.
Well! You are cordially invited to offer your thoughts in response to Salutin's provocative point of view.

16 Comments:

At 5:06 PM, October 24, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Rick Salutin appears to be a very clever thinker. He gets my vote.

 
At 9:36 PM, October 24, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

I'd vote for him too. Seriously, I'm not sure there's anything that you attribute to him with which I disagree.

BTW, I like how you verbed the noun in the title. It provides an example of the absurdity of "the (grammatical) new normal." :)

 
At 3:25 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger chosha said...

Torture is wrong. It doesn't become right because we're the ones doing it.

The ends are not only not noble, but uncertain. Pain makes people talk. It doesn't make them tell the truth. Whether they know and say something else, or don't know and blurt out anything to make the torture stop - either way you can't rely on torture to get truth.

And even if you could, it would still be wrong. All it does is demolish the very values we claim to fighting for.

 
At 9:50 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Aaron:
"Problematize" is a word I picked up in university, and I find it expresses a useful concept. People assume so many things uncritically. To "problematize" a subject is to make people stop and reflect on something they have previously assumed to be assured and straightforward.

In short, the words speaks of a subversive activity … which is no doubt why it appeals to me.

As for the more substantive comments from all of you, I'm going to let the thread continue to develop before I respond.
Q

 
At 10:26 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

It is interesting and something that I need to think about further.

I really am torn by this. There is a part of me that is very strongly against using torture under any circumstances and then there is the part that says there are times and places in which you may need to do it.

I think that one of the things that needs to be done is we need to define what torture is because to a large extent that can be subjected.

There is a distinction between forced sleep deprivation and bamboo beneath the fingernails.

 
At 11:47 AM, October 25, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Does it really matter how torture is defined? Whether electric shock or electro pop is used to get a person to answer your questions...?

It's still torture.

Rick Salutin also had some far more 'interesting' points to make. For example:

The "war on terror" is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.

Is it actually possible to have a "war on Terror"? What does that actually mean? Isn't like having a "war on War"....?

How do you know when you've won? How, indeed, do you know when your winning (or losing)?

Does the idea make any sense?

 
At 3:15 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Does it really matter how torture is defined? Whether electric shock or electro pop is used to get a person to answer your questions...?

It's still torture.


It is of the utmost importance to define what is torture and what is not because without a definition there is no way to have a proper discussion about it.

Right now it remains a subjective conversation. If we expect our courts/governments to be able to legislate on our behalf there needs to be an understanding of where the boundaries are located.

 
At 4:21 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

So... You wanna have a 'go' @ a definition?

 
At 4:27 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Just found this:

The Convention against Torture defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession…." (Art. 1). It may be "inflicted by or at the instigation of or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity."

The prohibition against torture under international law applies to many measures—e.g. beating on the soles of the feet; electric shock applied to genitals and nipples; rape; near drowning through submersion in water; near suffocation by plastic bags tied around the head; burning; whipping; needles inserted under fingernails; mutilation; hanging by feet or hands for prolonged periods.

International law also prohibits mistreatment that does not meet the definition of torture, either because less severe physical or mental pain is inflicted, or because the necessary purpose of the ill-treatment is not present. It affirms the right of every person not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Examples of such prohibited mistreatment include being forced to stand spread eagled against the wall; being subjected to bright lights or blindfolding; being subjected to continuous loud noise; being deprived of sleep, food or drink; being subjected to forced constant standing or crouching; or violent shaking. In essence, any form of physical treatment used to intimidate, coerce or "break" a person during an interrogation constitutes prohibited ill-treatment. If these practices are intense enough, prolonged in duration, or combined with other measures that result in severe pain or suffering, they can qualify as torture.

The prohibition against torture as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is not limited to acts causing physical pain or injury. It includes acts that cause mental suffering—e.g. through threats against family or loved ones. As the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, "coercion can be mental as well as physical…the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition" Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 448, (1966) citing Blackburn v. State of Alabama, 361 U.S. 199 (1960).

 
At 5:17 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Cyberkitten:
You would probably enjoy Salutin's columns consistently. He is a Canadian journalist who writes weekly for the Globe and Mail; but the columns are also published online at Rabble.ca every Friday. They offer a whole stable of leftie journalists there!

• Chosha:
I like your first point — Torture doesn't become right because we're the ones doing it. Well said.

But are there any circumstances which might make it — if not right, at least morally tolerable? (You'll probably hate that equivocation!) The hypothetical ticking bomb scenario Salutin mentions, for example. What if we knew there was a bomb planted on a plane that is already up in the air — but we don't know which plane.

You're right that torture might lead to false information, but wouldn't we try it, if it might prevent hundreds of deaths? And if we were certain that the individual in our custody was a terrorist who already had the blood of civilians on his hands?

• Jack:
I agree with you, I would distinguish between sleep deprivation (to reduce someone's capacity to lie under interrogation, for example), and inflicting physical pain. And you're right, we'd have to define what is torture and what isn't, or "soft" torture vs. "hard" torture, or something like that.

• Cyberkitten (again):
You make a good point. How do we know if we're winning the "war on terror": since terror is, after all, an abstraction.

But I don't travel all the way with Salutin, as you might have gathered from my comment to Jack. In particular, when Salutin talks about a different interpretation of 9/11, I get suspicious of what he might be driving at.

9/11 was an act of war against the USA and the economy of the Western world. Let's not equivocate on that point.

But I think Salutin's column is thought provoking. I intend to follow up on it in my next post — maybe later tonight.

Good thoughts, all!
Q

 
At 5:34 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

Q said: 9/11 was an act of war against the USA and the economy of the Western world. Let's not equivocate on that point.

Sorry to be pedantic about this - and I know how sensitive the subject is (understandably) but 9/11 wasn't an Act of War. Only States can go to War with each other.

9/11 was a well co-ordinated, well executed & brutal attack on innocent civilians by an extreamist group that would use any method at its disposal to inflict damage on the USA & its Allies.

How you fight people like that is going to be very difficult. The so-called War on Terror is probably the worst way to do it.

 
At 6:16 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Sorry to be pedantic about this - and I know how sensitive the subject is (understandably) but 9/11 wasn't an Act of War. Only States can go to War with each other.

It may not be a traditional war but it is war. Osama said as much in his fatwa.


The so-called War on Terror is probably the worst way to do it.

Sorry, don't mean to pick on you but I need specifics and this doesn't offer any. What don't you like about this?

IMO this requires a combination of force and diplomacy. One of the things to remember is to look at this through their eyes and not allow Western bias to prevent understanding how they operate.

The see force as a tool that should be wielded and have at times in the past interpreted restraint as weakness.

There needs to be an effort to destroy the infrastructure and to do what we can to encourage those that support them to stop.

I see this as a war of ideology and the real question in my mind is how to change theirs so that it no longer threatens ours.

 
At 6:37 PM, October 25, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

JS said: Sorry, don't mean to pick on you but I need specifics and this doesn't offer any. What don't you like about this?


I can understand and, to an extent, go along with the initial attacks on the training grounds in Afganistan (though the attacks themselves were rather botched). But I fail to understand how the attack on Iraq actually moves the process forward. Gulf War 2 is (IMO) probably the most counter-productive action the American's could have taken. Rather than weaken Al-Q it's actually strengthened them. Not only was it an attempt (supposedly) to kill a wasp with a bazooka... the bazooka was aimed at the wrong target.

Governments need to be seen to be doing something - especially after they are attacked. However, this enemy isn't easily picked out... but they need to attack SOMEONE...

What I would've done is first do a bit of research (not very sexy I know). Find out who was involved. Find out who planned it. Find out who financed it & who was involved in the attack in any way... and then I would've targetted them for assassination using Special Ops people. Personally I would've made the executions public & messy as an example to others... but that's just me.

Clinical, precise retribution. It doesn't play very well on the Six O'Clock News... but I think it would've produced far better results than the fiasco that is Iraq.

 
At 12:56 AM, October 26, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Gulf War 2 is (IMO) probably the most counter-productive action the American's could have taken. Rather than weaken Al-Q it's actually strengthened them.

I'd like to see more than speculation about how it has strengthened them. As I said earlier I maintain that this is really a war of ideology.

We could make the argument that this war was launched back in 1979 when the Shah was overthrown and the Iranian Hostage crisis began.

It continued with the car bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut and various other attacks during the 1980s.

In the '90s there was the first attack on the World Trade Center, there were attacks on the USS Cole, the African Embassies, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and then later 911.

That doesn't include any other Islamist attacks on countries other than the US.

The point of that list is that there is plenty of empirical evidence that the war pre-existed the second Gulf War and that these attacks would have been launched regardless of whether GW2 had happened or not.

Clinical, precise retribution. It doesn't play very well on the Six O'Clock News... but I think it would've produced far better results than the fiasco that is Iraq.

Clinical and precise are good and something that I support, but I am not sure that we can call Iraq a fiasco.

What happens if in five years the coalition pulls out of a fully democratic Iraq.

Will it be considered a fiasco. It remains to be seen as to whether this becomes a reality, but time is important and for thihngs of this magnitude it is hard to measure them in such brief moments.

 
At 12:57 AM, October 26, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

BTW, some people might consider this to be conspiracy theory but I found this interesting.

 
At 8:09 AM, October 26, 2005, Blogger CyberKitten said...

This from Yesterdays New York Times:

White House Seeks Exception in Abuse Ban
by Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON - Stepping up a confrontation with the Senate over the handling of detainees, the White House is insisting that the Central Intelligence Agency be exempted from a proposed ban on abusive treatment of suspected Qaeda militants and other terrorists.

"They are explicitly saying, for the first time, that the intelligence community should have the ability to treat prisoners inhumanely," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said. "You can't tell soldiers that inhumane treatment is always morally wrong if they see with their own eyes that C.I.A. personnel are allowed to engage in it."

 

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