Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Talking torture

Slavov Žižek, from In Defense of Lost Causes: Those who, without outrightly advocating torture, accept it as a legitimate topic of debate, are in a way more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It only thrives it if is sustained by what Hegel called 'objective spirit,' the set of unwritten rules which form the background of every individual's activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable... 

This is why the greatest victims of publicly admitted torture are all of us, the public that is informed about it. We should all be aware that some precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably civilization's greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine: Despite the mystique that surrounds, it, and the understandable impulse to treat it as aberrant behaviour beyond politics, torture is not particularly complicated or mysterious. A tool of the crudest kind of coercion, it crops up with great predictability whenever a local despot or a foreign occupier lacks the consent needed to rule... The widespread abuse of prisoners is a virtually foolproof indication that politicians are trying to impose a system -- whether political, religious or economic -- that is rejected by large numbers of the people they are ruling.

Just as ecologists define ecosystems by the presence of certain 'indicator species' of plants and birds, torture is an indicator species of a regime that is engaged in a deeply anti-democratic project, even if that regime happens to have come to power through elections.

Paul Woodward, in "Churchill's 'we don't torture' -- except they did": The reason we should not torture isn't because we operate on a higher moral plane... but because we know that we too are as capable of descending into barbarity and moral depravity. We should not torture because we want to protect ourselves from our own demons.

Karen J. Greenberg, in "Kiss the Era of Human Rights goodbye": One casualty of the Bush torture policies... has been human rights itself. And no one seems to notice...

The United States succumbed to the exact patterns of abusive state action that the human rights movement was created to outlaw forever... Among other things, the Justice Department lawyers... were offering nothing short of a detailed manual for those about to go to work on actual human beings...

One day, perhaps soon, much of the rest of the minutiae produced by the Bush administration's torture policy bureaucracy will come to light... For now, however, we have far more than we need to know... The supposed moral exceptionalism of the most powerful nation on Earth is no more.

Bill Moyers: When you wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about your work, what do you make of that? What do you tell yourself?
William K. Black: There's a saying that we took great comfort in. It's actually by the Dutch, who were fighting this impossible war for independence against what was then the most powerful nation in the world, Spain. And their motto was, "It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere."
Žižek and Klein quotes from Briarpatch. Image source here.