Wednesday, March 10, 2010

From over by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Place

This is on the subject I was on about yesterday. It isn't Coates himself, but a commenter, who identifies himself only as Cynic. He's Comment 18 on this post; you'll have to scroll down.

Repercussions rarely prevent recurrence - banks robbers, for example, are almost always caught and face harsh punishments. There's no evidence that retributive justice is an effective deterrent for war crimes.The more effective restraint on morally repugnant behavior is moral repugnance. Even people willing to engage in criminal misconduct often balk at behavior that, while perfectly legal, is universally viewed as immoral.

That's why I find the arid legalism of the Cheneyite defense so dispiriting, and graphic descriptions like Benjamin's, although difficult to read, so important. Law is merely a codification of rules, subject to change and interpretation. Morality runs much deeper.

The real damage that the Cheneyites wrought by sanctioning torture was in breaking a taboo, and then insisting that they had not. Under the cover of secrecy, officers of our government have been doing disgraceful things since before the inception of this nation. But when these things have come out, as they often do, they've generally been shamed and penitent. Or, at the very least, acknowledged the evil of their actions even as they defend their necessity. Cheney and his minions chose another route, commissioning legal memoranda that would sanction torture. They still insist that they did nothing wrong.

And that's why this is likely to happen again. There is now a small and vocal minority that believes that there is nothing wrong with torturing our enemies. And those we suspect of being our enemies. And those we mistake for our enemies. Ten years ago, anyone advancing that view would have instantly compromised his credibility and drawn near-universal condemnation. Now, behind the thin shield of legalism, that view has become commonplace.

But although recurrence is possible, it's not inevitable. We don't need trials and jail-time to prevent a recurrence; in fact, I suspect, such measures would simply reinforce the existing and pernicious debate, encouraging the obdurate to dig in their heels. I think a better model lies in something you recently wrote. The Civil Rights era wasn't built around the demand for systematic prosecutions of those who had committed heinous crimes, though they certainly deserved as much. It relied on a two-pronged approach.

The first was education. Activists courageously laid bare to the world the depth and brutality of the oppression. It wasn't a revelation, of course - it was always there for those who cared to know it. But the activists made that knowledge unavoidable and unignorable, no matter how reluctant others were to confront it.

The second prong was shame. Over and over, the leaders of the Civil Rights movement hammered away on a single theme - that institutionalized racism betrayed the great ideals of this nation. They asked Americans to live up to those ideals, or at least to try.

If we want to make torture a thing of the past, this is the path to follow. First, education. Articles like Benjamin's are a start. But it's not Salon's readership, nor this blog's, who need to be made aware. And then, shame. We defeat the normalization of torture by reminding Americans what they purport to believe, and asking them to live up to that creed. It's no Rosewood, of course, but it just might work.

1 comment:

j0lt said...

Yesterday was crazy busy so I didn't have time for TNC's comments - thanks for highlighting this.