Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
It takes a pretty sick twist of the social scalpel to arrive at Memorial Day 2009 and still be debating the definitions and uses of torture in America, and yet, here we are again, Dick Cheney on a media junket to extol the virtues of the practice, propped up as some kind of “duelist” for Obama to skillfully parry. It made us safer, Cheney asserts. It saved American lives. It is not torture, and it was therefore not illegal, but even if it were, it was necessary for us to do it to preserve the survival of the nation.
Let’s start with the first thing, the distraction in this debate, the relatively minor semantic quibble of whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture.
End of discussion.
A dear friend of mine recently underwent a difficult and painful set of medical procedures. She described how the doctor asked her to assign a quantitative measurement of her pain, on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest. She described the moments when the suffering was so unbearable that she found herself unable to do anything but repeat that terminal number. Her husband, speaking with me afterwards, told me that the experience of watching his wife’s pain made him understand in a profoundly personal manner that the idea of pain threshold was not a universal concept…you cannot assess another human being’s suffering from outside of their body. The doctor could not look down at my friend and say “Ten? What I’m doing shouldn’t hurt more than five.”
It takes either blind ignorance or monstrous arrogance to state that your perception of another’s suffering trumps their own. The people who continue to claim that the act of simulating the physical and psychological terror of drowning does not meet the standard for torture are the same sort of people who, despite all evidence to the contrary, would insist in vicious shrieks that fire is cool and pleasant to the touch. You cannot argue with these people. You cannot take them seriously. They are to be dismissed outright. Their reasons are all self-serving to one degree or another…either they continue to argue because they can’t stand the possibility of being wrong or because, as in the case of Cheney and the architects of Bush war policies, to call it torture is to admit that they are war criminals.
The more complicated issue, rather, is whether or not America should engage in the practice at all. On this matter, beyond the arguments about legality and effectiveness, is the question of our national character, of our soul.
If we can decide that waterboarding is a necessary tool with which to combat our enemy, then the dilemma we are now in is one of limits. Waterboarding produces information quickly during those moments that every second counts, during the moments that we know a time bomb is ticking somewhere. The obvious question, then: How far are you willing to go?
If simulated drowning allegedly gets you the information in a matter of minutes, then surely we could go even harsher to get that information more quickly. Surely we may gouge out eyes, cut off fingers, kidnap and brutalize the suspect’s children before their very eyes and the actionable intelligence will flow like the wine at a Roman wedding.
Don’t be absurd. We’d never do such horrific things as that.
Oh? Why wouldn’t you? What stops you? AMERICAN LIVES ARE AT STAKE!!!
On Memorial Day we honor the sacrifices of those who chose, either of their own impetus or of their refusal to ignore the call, to fight for an ideal of America. They rushed into battle under the impression that Americans were inherently noble and wanted to do the right thing. They imagined themselves as heroes in white hats, and under this self-actualization they were able to justify their participation in war.
(And yes, we also honor the sacrifices of those who were just bloodthirsty brutes. But war makes illusionists of us all.)
We can be the noble version of America that is supposed to be worthy of these sacrifices. Or we can be the cornered animal, ready to do whatever it takes to survive. We cannot be both.
The choice of whether or not to torture is that choice writ small and specific.
And I’d suggest that if we choose the latter, we forever lose the right to have a Memorial Day, save to remember the country we used to be.