Torture: The Liberals, the Conservatives, and the Rabbit People

I, personally, am opposed to torture.  I also consider the notion that water boarding, sleep deprivation, and similar “enhanced interrogation techniques” are not torture absurd.  Whatever one cares to consider it when inflicted in a carefully controlled training situation, water boarding is most definitely torture when inflicted on an enemy not once, but 80, 90 or 100 times, by tormenters who are confident they will not be held to account for their deeds.  Resistance to torture doesn’t have to be a moral decision, just a practical one.  Nations that torture weaken themselves by playing into the hands of their enemies, handing them an effective propaganda tool.  Anyone who was following the European media at the time the Abu Ghraib story broke knows how effective and damaging such propaganda can be.  For democracies, at least, condoning torture carries a high political cost.  The damage it does to the national security of a democracy by allowing its enemies to seize the moral high ground and by eliminating its own moral authority in the world greatly outweighs any plausible advantage that could be gained by it.


Individuals who support torture live in an imaginary world in which the victims are always their enemies, persons certainly guilty of terrorism or worse, regardless of whether they have had a trial or whether there is any plausible evidence against them.  The principles embodied in the American Bill of Rights don’t matter, as long as their precious security is at stake.  In the end, though, that security is a chimera.  Those who believe that torture will only be applied to the “others,” never to themselves, live in a dream world.  In the first place, nations that torture provide their enemies with justification for torture, putting their citizens, and especially their soldiers, at risk.  In a world that condones torture, the idea that the old rule, “What goes around, comes around,” doesn’t apply is not only stupid, it is suicidal.  In a world that condones torture, every individual is a risk.


History has demonstrated that the state is the most effective terrorist, just as it is the most effective killer. It was to protect us from the state as torturer and killer that or forefathers established prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, protections against arbitrary imprisonment, and all the rest of the freedoms we treasure for ourselves, and should treasure for others.  The conservatives in the USA who cheer so loudly for “enhanced interrogation” are wringing their hands at the same time about the expansion of government power and what they perceive as the approach to socialism.  If the state is really in danger of becoming so evil, is it wise to cheer so loudly for torture?  What if the state really does become evil?  What if it occurs to the leaders of that evil state to engage in the wholesale torture of those who, after all, were torture’s most zealous defenders?  What?  You think “It can’t happen here?”  Was the history of the 20th century nothing but a bad dream?  No, it wasn’t a dream.  It was a reality that could happen here quite as well as it happened elsewhere.  In such a world, our genuine security depends on standing by the principles we never should have abandoned in the first place, including rejection of torture.  


Sometimes I can’t even believe we are having this debate. A bunch of religious fanatics gets lucky and kills 3000+ people, and we are suddenly in a “war,” and have to throw all our liberties out the window.  Going on a decade later, we are still at “war,” and anything goes, as long as we can bamboozle ourselves into believing that our precious “security” requires it.  It reminds one of the constantly warring states in Orwell’s “1984.”  I suspect Orwell would have detected a very familiar ring in the arguments being fobbed off on us today to justify this constant state of “war.”  We have over 25,000 firearm deaths every single year in the US, and over 40,000 traffic fatalities. Is anyone suggesting we throw out the Bill of Rights and introduce a police state because of that? Hundreds of thousands have died defending the liberties we are now supposed to casually discard because we are all so terribly threatened by the evil terrorists. What fine Americans we are, what brave defenders of the faith our fathers fought and died for!  One successful attack, and all we can think of is crawling under a rock and bleating about our illusory “security.” One successful attack that in no way threatens our existence as a nation and, suddenly, we are drawing dire parallels with the need to suspend habeus corpus during the Civil War. What wimps we have become, what rabbits!


The right in the US really seems to have taken leave of its collective senses on this issue.  They really seem to believe that the torturers will never turn on them, that they will somehow, against all odds, be immune to the disease they are so blithely promoting.  The idea that the people who are given the authority to apply torture will always be philosopher kings, or, for that matter, are even likely to be capable of distinguishing those in the act of carrying out a nuclear attack from innocent civilians rounded up based on no or faint evidence is nonsense. History has proved it nonsense time after time. Those who condone torture have forgotten or never learned the lessons of history.  Our founding fathers were well aware of those lessons.  They didn’t suffer from our modern delusions about the benevolence and justice of the state as torturer.  That’s why they took the stand they did.  If we abandon their stand in pursuit of a hollow security we might as well give up the fight. We will have become the mirror images of the people we are fighting.


When one looks at the ideological divide in the US today on the matter of torture, one can only shake ones head.  The right openly condones it.  They give Nathan Hale speeches defending it, as if it were some kind of a holy cause.  For them, no one can be truly “patriotic” who opposes it.  For the left, it is just an ideological bludgeon that they find a convenient tool for attacking their enemies.  One hears no reasoned arguments against torture.  Instead, in place of reason one finds nothing but the usual pious posing from the “moral high ground.”    In other words, they oppose torture more or less for the same reasons the Bolsheviks opposed it before 1917; because it is a useful political tool. 

What did she know and when did she know it? The torture Nancy Pelosi “didn’t know about,” as described in the Washington Post, November 23, 2005

The rest of us knew about it in 2005. Isn’t it funny how Nancy is only finding out about it now? An excerpt:

“The first three techniques … involve shaking or striking detainees in an effort to cause pain and fear. The fourth consists of forcing a prisoner to stand, handcuffed and with shackled feet, for up to 40 hours. Then comes the ‘cold cell’: Detainees are held naked in a cell cooled to 50 degrees, and periodically doused with cold water. Last is ‘waterboarding,’ a technique that’s already been widely reported. According to the information supplied to ABC: ‘The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner’s face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.’ ABC quoted its sources as saying that CIA officers who subjected themselves to waterboarding ‘lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.’ “

A Nurse Witnesses the Disintegration of the Armies of the Tsar; History in the Raw

Sometimes you really need to look at the source material yourself if you want to understand historical events.  The quality of historians in our day runs from the ridiculous to the sublime, with journalists at the bottom of the list.  I’ve always found their attempts to write “history” more or less worthless because they are determined to make sure the rest of us know who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.  They insist on turning history into a morality play.  Fortunately, there are good historians out there as well, but none of them are truly objective, and their personal ideologies must inevitably color their work to a greater or lesser extent.  They can point you in the right direction, but, if you really want to approach the truth, you will have to dig for it yourself. 


I had never been able to grasp how one historical event with devastating consequences actually happened.  I refer to the collapse of the Russian Army in World War I.  Historians always seem to describe it tersely.  It happened because this person did that, or the situation at the front changed in this way or that.  It seemed that similar things had happened many times over at different times and places, without setting off the train of events that led to the mass desertion of the Russian armies.  I’ve just read the diary of a simple English nurse, Florence Farmborough, who served at the front with the armies of the Tsar from 1914 through the revolution of February 1917, the collapse of the armies, and the seizure of power of the Bolsheviks.  She brings the actual events into focus better than any professional historian I have ever read.  Let her tell the story in her own words:


Early May, 1917

“Kerensky was taking it into his own hands to bring about drastic reforms in the army.  He had declared that army discipline was too rigid, that the soldiers should be treated in a more liberal, friendly manner by their officers.  As an instance of the new attitude which he desired to see he had abolished the use of the condescending, patronizing ‘thou’, employed to those of inferior rank.  An officer, when addressing the rank-and-file, would now be obliged to use the more polite ‘you’.  This order had, naturally, caused dismay among all officers, for they feared – and not without reason – that it would lessen the authority of officers over soldiers in the ranks.  …It would be the end of discipline.”


11th May, 1917

“The reforms initiated by Kerensky are meeting with little success.  They were intended to create a closer relationship, a more friendly atmosphere; they seem, however, to be doing exactly the reverse.  Strangely enough, it is the soldiers who appear disgruntled; they are moody, even morose, and often astonish their officers by pertness and effrontery.”


13th May, 1917

“And still no Orders come and army officers look at each other blankly and ask the same question:  ‘What, in God’s name, is happening?’  Criticism of Kerensky and of his ruling respecting army reforms becomes more frequent and sharp.  The majority of officers agree that he had overstepped his bounds.  Discipline is tottering in the trenches.”


25th June, 1917


“One battalion captain had sent in a report to the effect that if the Generals would not allow his men to launch an attack soon, he could not answer for the success of the Offensive in his sector of the Front.  When at last his men were told that an advance was about to begin, they had jumped out of their trenches some minutes before the given time.  In most cases, the officers would go first, leading their men.  But there were instances when the officers had met with defiance, soldiers had shown great unwillingness to leave the trenches, and officers had been obliged to beg the men to attack.”


28th June, 1917

“We were told that a komanda (body of troops) was holding a meeting and decided to go and hear what it was all about.  It was a strange, depressing experience.  The speeches of two officers were genial and optimistic; but when we saw the faces of the soldiers, we realized something had gone wrong.  They were sullen and ill-humored.”


29th June, 1917

“…We heard that many soldiers of the 91st Regiment had refused to return to the trenches; some of them had left their regiment and were making their way eastwards towards Russia.  Motors with maxim-guns were being sent after them, with orders to force them to return, or to fire at them on the road.  It was said that certain regiments had refused to take runaways back into their ranks; and one regiment, in reserve and awaiting reinforcements, had refused point blank to accept any new recruits.”


6th July, 1917

“Before dinner, one of our doctors told us that the 90th Regiment has refused to remain in the Front Line and nearly two versts of trenches are completely unguarded.  His voice was thick and unsteady.  ‘What can that mean?’ someone asked.  ‘Mean?’ he repeated heatedly.  ‘Why, any fool can see what that means!  The enemy will occupy the empty trenches, and our troops on either side will be obliged to retreat.”


11 July, 1917

“We saw the Markovtse railway-station and heard that trains were no longer running to Tarnopol.  We met a young doctor, who told us that whole regiments had withdrawn from the trenches.”


12th July, 1917

“Now and then when the soldiers saw us in our open transport-van, they called out and some of their remarks were far from agreeable.  It was the first time in three years of war work that we had met rudeness from our own men; we felt dismayed and humiliated.”


Nurse Farmborough experienced the early effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Moscow, and managed to escape via Vladivostok as the Russian she had known collapsed about her.  Her book includes a great deal more detail about the events of 1917. 



In retrospect, it is quite clear why secret police chief Beria’s men were stationed behind the Red Army’s front line units in World War II, armed with machine guns, ready to shoot deserters and stragglers.  The Communists had been careful students of the effects of Kerensky’s “reforms.”  They were determined to make sure nothing similar would happen the second time around.

Quote for the day: Florence Farmborough, a nurse with the (former) armies of the Tsar, 16th December 1917

“How can I describe all that has happened in these last tragic days?  I feel as though I have been caught up in a mighty whirlpool, battered and buffeted, and yet…I am still myself, still able to walk, talk, eat and sleep.  It is astounding how much a human being can endure without any outward sign of having been broken up into pieces.”

Edward Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam, and the Rubaiyat

I have been an admirer of the Ruba’iyat for many years, but was never aware that Edward Fitzgerald’s version was substantially different from the original verses by Omar Khayyam and others until I picked up the recent translation by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs.  The original quatrains were meant to stand on their own, whereas Fitzgerald’s poem is much more a unified statement of his own philosophy.  As often happens with poets who catch the fancy of so many lay readers, Fitzgerald has been widely panned by academics and professionals.  Unjustly, I think, because his poem is a concise, clear, and telling attack on the Judeo-Christian-Moslem religions.  In much of the poem, the author dwells on the absurdity of human existence;

      The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

      Turns Ashes – or it prospers; and anon,

      Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face

      Lighting a little Hour or two – is gone.


However, he also launches a telling, and, in my opinion, unanswerable attack on the notion of eternal punishment in Hell for the paltry sins we commit during our short existence on earth, a belief characteristic of many Christian sects, and of Moslems in general;

Oh, Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin

Beset the Road I was to wander in,

Thou wilt not with Predestination round

Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?


What!  Out of senseless Nothing to provoke

A conscious Something to resent the yoke

Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain

Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!


What!  from his helpless Creature be repaid

Pure Gold for what he lent us dross-allay’d—

Sue for a Debt we never did contract,

And cannot answer – Oh the sorry trade!


Nay, but for terror of his wrathful Face,

I swear I will not call Injustice Grace,

Not one Good Fellow of the Tavern but

Would kick so poor a Coward from the place

The poem deserves lasting fame for these quatrains, if for nothing else.  Certainly, belief in eternal punishment after death can be of great value to those who derive their livings by imposing on the credulity of their fellow mortals.  Logically, however, it is absurd.


Morality – the Nature of Good and Evil

To understand morality it is necessary to understand what it is and why it exists.  Morality is a construct of our minds.  In other words, it is subjective.  It is a part of us, in the same way that our eyes, heart, and feet are parts of us.  Being a part of us, it exists for the same reason that our other parts exist.  It promotes our survival, or at least did promote our survival at some point in our past.  It is a characteristic which evolved, in the same way that all our other characteristics evolved.  We do not yet understand how it works, or what gives rise to it, or the detailed nature of its development as our conscious selves interact with the world around us during our lives.  We cannot see it, as we can see our hands and feet, or hear it, as we hear our voices, but still, we know it’s there, and is a part of what we are.  The thinkers among us have often noted its remarkable consistency across otherwise widely divergent cultures.  For example, in response to a M. Le Beau, who claimed that, “The Christians had a morality, but the Pagans had none,” Voltaire replied in an article entitled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary,”


“Oh, M. Le Beau!  …where did you pick up this absurdity?  …There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.”   


The point I wish to make here is not that Voltaire was strictly correct in his conclusions about the absolute consistency of morality, but that he noticed that it is a part of our nature.  While it may not be exactly the same in one individual as in another, the similarities across cultures are remarkable.  We experience morality, not as relative or situational, but as an absolute.  It was this aspect of morality that Kant perceived when he associated it with a categorical, rather than hypothetical imperatives. 


It is not difficult to understand why morality evolved.  We all have desires.  However, others desire the same things.  A state of affairs in which each individual laid claim to the same scarce resources, and was willing to battle all others to the death to acquire them would not be conducive to our survival.  On the other hand, if something in the consciousness of the individuals in a group caused them to share the available resources according to rules familiar to all, derived from certain fundamental principles, it would enhance the chances that the individuals in the group would survive.  It would give them an advantage over others not possessing the same quality.  Therefore, like everything else about us, morality evolved.   Its basic framework is hard wired in our brains.  Its behavioral manifestations are moderated more or less in practice by our environment, by cultural influences.   


We experience morality as an absolute.  Why?  Because it functions best that way.  We experience good and evil as real, objective things because they are most effective in promoting our survival if we experience them that way.  In other words, we experience a subjective entity as an objective absolute because it works best that way.  The resultant conundrums and apparent logical inconsistencies in our perception of good and evil have busied philosophers through the ages.  In all likelihood, morality evolved long before our emergence as a species.  However, while other animals have moral natures, and can distinguish between “good” and “bad” actions, they were fortunate enough not to be aware of these logical difficulties.  We, with our greater mental capacity, have often run afoul of them.


The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of the difficulties.  Plato explores the problem in his “Euthyphro.”  The “hero,” Euthyphro, gives himself out as an “expert” on piety.  Socrates embarrasses him in his usual style when he is unable to provide any logical basis for distinguishing good from evil. 


In fact, morality is not really absolute, in that it is subjective, and has no independent existence outside of our own minds.  If we did not exist, one rock would not be more or less good or evil than another.  Unlike a rock, good and evil have no objective existence.  They are constructs of our minds.  How then, “ought” we to act?


As Voltaire pointed out, we all experience morality in the same way regardless of what ideological or religious dogmas we associate ourselves with.  There is no difference between atheists and the most zealous Christians in this regard.  Visit an atheist website, and you will see that professed atheists can experience righteous indignation and are quite as firmly convinced that they know the difference between good and evil as any true believer.  Neither, as Socrates pointed out long ago, can provide any logical basis for this conviction.  What “should” we do?  To the extent that there is anything that we really “should” do, we should survive.  There is nothing more immoral than failing to survive.  Morality is a part of us because it works.  It is, therefore, probably not a good idea to “overthink” the issue.  We should not try to be too coy with Mother Nature.  On the other hand, morality evolved long before the emergence of modern human societies.  It may prompt us to do things which had survival value when we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers, but would be disastrous in the context of modern civilization.  See, for example, what I have written below on the different moral standards we apply to “in-groups” and “out-groups.”  The outcome of nuclear war was not possible when morality evolved. 


Perhaps, then, we should act as enlightened moral beings, seeking to do good and avoid evil as we perceive them, but keeping in mind the reason that morality exists to begin with.  In other words, act morally, but not self-destructively.

Quote for today – Voltaire

“…There is but one morality, M. Le Beau, as there is but one geometry.  But you will tell me that the greater part of mankind are ignorant of geometry.  True; but if they apply a little to the study of it, all men draw the same conclusions.  …We cannot repeat too frequently that dogmas differ, but that morality is the same among all men who make use of their reason.” 

Voltaire, in the article titled “Morality” in his “Philosophical Dictionary.”

The Supernatural Shakespeare

Let me stand aside for a moment and allow Shakespeare to elaborate on yesterday’s post for me.  To wit, from Sonnet XIII,


“O, that you were yourself! But, love, you are

No longer yours than you yourself live here.

Against this coming end you should prepare

And your sweet semblance to some other give.


It’s hard to read Shakespeare’s first 15 sonnets with any biological insight and still conclude the man was a mere mortal.  It beggars the imagination to think he could have written something like that 250 years before Darwin.  The world is burdened with the tomes of philosophers who completely missed the point, but this man nails the essence of human existence with a few lines of poetry.