Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Hm. I know there's something I want to say about it. And my usual snotty tone just won't do. I suppose it has to do with the kind of people we are, or think we are, or want others to think we are. But it may have to do with the kind of people we need to be. So who are we? I suggest that we are people who will do whatever it takes to survive. Or we should be.

I'm not talking about personal survival. Every individual has the right to throw away, or nobly sacrifice, his own life. This is a matter of conscience, and our conscience can be held hostage to no one. Not even to God. We have the right -- because we have the ability -- to rebel. God made us that way, and so must want us to be that way ... not rebellious, but able to rebel. Free will. We have the right, but of course rights have costs as well as rewards: God has the right to judge our rebellion. Complicated, but not a contradiction. We have the right to follow our conscience, even if our conscience misleads us.

I've made the argument before, that I have the right to sacrifice myself, but not to sacrifice my family. My conscience is bound by the obligation to protect my children. I can turn my own cheek to be slapped, but I must protect my son from injustice. It's not a license to do anything, but it's a serious duty. This is obvious. We don't have the right to sacrifice our tribe, or society, or culture or nation. These constructs have the force of a contract. We derive benefits from them, and have obligations. It sustains us, we sustain it. So what means are legitimate, in protecting our civilization?

Well, most of us have the maturity to understand that there are justified wars. But war is such a horror, and we certainly know that innocents -- many women and children and noncombatants -- will be killed, maimed, bereft. Yet even at this high cost, wars can be justified. It seems that the infliction of suffering, even upon the innocent, is not a deterrent. We avoid it with all reasonable diligence, because we are civilized, but we know it happens and we accept it. Not with a shrug of the shoulders, not with indifference -- perhaps with agonizing and self-torment. But we did it and we would do it again, if survival is the issue.

What then? The chaos and tumult of warfare is acceptable? -- because the innocent suffer only as a byproduct? -- because the anguish of dead children is an unsought and unavoidable happenstance, all for a greater good?


We don't do it on purpose. We do it, the way hurricanes or fires or earthquakes do what they do. People die, sometimes, just because they were in the way. This is called "reality." It has very little resemblance to theory, and very little to do with ideals. "Should be" and "is" have the same relationship that unicorns have to horses.

So what about torture? Is deliberately inflicting pain permissible, to save the innocent? Is torturing the guilty (and I'll not debate the term) to save the innocent legitimate? A ticking-timebomb scenario. A buried-alive baby scenario. The question revolves around pain, doesn't it. Is it allowed to cause deliberate pain -- the kind that brings no benefit whatsoever to the recipient? Not surgery pain, not spanking pain -- torture pain. Planned, and as bad as my not inconsiderable imagination can make it.

Consider prison. Wasted lives, right? Removed from civil society, infantalized, illegitimized, condemned, reviled -- yes, it is all that. But heaven forefend that somebody be given pain? Solitary confinement. Lockdown. Removed privileges. But no flogging? Because it hurts? Hey, it's only pain. We don't like it. We avoid it. We fear it. But how about some perspective? It lasts for only as long as it lasts. We don't like it, because it's ugly. But what if they deserve it?

Enemies (and I will not debate the term) who have information that could save lives, need to give up that information. Period. I would gladly trade the life of a terrorist for the life of my son. Quite gladly. Eagerly, even. I am a tenderhearted guy (I will not debate it) but I suppose I could steel myself to flay someone alive, or far worse, to prevent a nuke from taking out New York City. I really, honestly, would. I'd puke. I'd cry. I'd have tormenting nightmares. But I'd keep the blade sharp. And me, Mr. Vegetarian. But I'd eat an animal too, if the alternative was starvation. With or without ketchup.

The objection is made that torture doesn't work -- information extracted under such conditions is unreliable. That may very well be true. Who knows? But I know Special Ops men are taught that they will give up intel, under torture. So who knows. But then again, we only have to save New York once from being nuked, for all the false alarms to be paid for, in full, a few times over. Let's see. A terrorist has some pain, and millions of people live. Yeah, I guess that's at least a 100% return on your investment.

Any one of us can imagine complicated hypotheticals, whatifs, to prove any scenario we might wish to prove. But for all the wild goose chases that tortured al-Qaeda terrorists would send us on, none of those chases would be worse than if we let real information go unextracted, and lost New York. It seems obvious to me.

The objection is made that we are diminished, if we commit or countenance such acts. We would be as bad as the enemy. It's a stupid argument. More delicately, it's a false analogy. We don't target the innocent, so how could we be as bad as the enemy? Oh, we'd be as bad as they are because they torture and we torture? That doesn't make us as bad. That makes us as determined. The very obvious difference is, obviously, that we would do it only to save lives. They do it for, um, uh, well, I don't know why they do it. They like it? They hate us? The demons that animate their cause command them? But the surgeon is not the same as the slasher, for all that they both cut flesh.

When my son was little he had a pet rat. Little white pet rat. It got a tumor, which grew to the size of its own body and then became ulcerated. But I was against putting the little rat down. It would be cruel. Idiot. So I let it die in agony. Stupid. I am no longer against ending the tormented lives of fatally ill animals. My lofty idealism has been tempered by experience. Senseless suffering should be relieved. Pain with a purpose, however, even though it is bad, is justified. There are worse things than pain.

The grotesque idea that a terrorist would achieve his aim of unlimited destruction, because we balk at the hard job -- we're too refined to break egg shells ... why, the idea is grotesque. If the power lies in our hands to prevent mass destruction, and we let it go forward because we imagine we're being ethical -- well, how are we not terrorists, the dupes of terrorists? If we will kill them, how can we justify avoiding some lesser response? Lesser? Do the math.

As I say, and despite any superficial reading of this little essay, I am a tenderhearted guy. But I might even enjoy torturing a bad guy. Scary, isn't it. Or is it love of justice? Barbaric? Sadistic? Maybe it's just being like our Father in Heaven. He most certainly is not against torture. He's arranged for it. An eternity of it. For the guilty, of course. God is not only merciful. He is brutal. But you don't have to think about it, if it makes you uncomfortable. Our knowledge, unlike God's, is not certain. We make mistakes. We commit injustices. This is a surprise? But we have courts, we have judges, we have prisons. In these things we act as gods. And gods, it appears, don't have a problem with torture. Consider the Cross. It wasn't only about Jesus' death. It was about his pain.

God made us to feel pain. Pain must have a purpose.

So what's the objection again about torture? It hurts? Hey, it's only pain. I'd get married again.


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