Saturday, April 25, 2009

Conscience and Community, II

In Torture We Trust

Though I posted Conscience and Community just yesterday, I'm not entirely sure why I did so. After all, there are always issues requiring some moral judgment. Why bring it up, at all? And in such an abstract way?

Torture is a hot issue right now (read "Military Agency Warned Against Torture" in the Washington Post). Supporters of "enhanced interrogation techniques"--a sterilized term for a dirty business--argue that our use of torture has prevented terrorist attacks on Americans and American interests.

Of course, because torture occurs mostly in secret, we have no real way of knowing whether or not that is the case. Or, why, in a discussion of the ethics of torture, we ought to concern ourselves with the claim of effectiveness.

Dick Cheney (remember him?) claims that torturing prisoners has helped protect the U.S. The debate about the merits and legality of torture, Cheney says, would be greatly advanced by releasing all the government memos on the subject, "including those that show success."

This must be disingenuous. After his eight years of leadership in creating opacity in government, one can't help but greet his call for openness with a bit of skepticism.

As the most influential vice-president in history, Cheney specialized in obstructing the free flow of accurate information, beginning with his closed meetings with oil company lobbyists and others in the early days of the Bush administration. Cheney and his colleagues went on to manipulate the news in the Valerie Plame affair, oppose disclosure and public discussion of Abu Ghraib (this entry about Abu Ghraib includes some details about WMDs, another Cheney obsession) and oppose the closing of Guantanamo.

In all probability, Cheney is reasoning that there will never be full disclosure of classified documents related to the torture question and that his call for transparency gives him a claim to some sort of high ground in the debate. But my goodness, with his history, who could possibly entertain the notion that Cheney ought to be part of the discussion about torture, too?

Still, in the interests of maintaining dialogue and community, I'm going with Mark Danner's smart piece in the Post.

"Beginning more than a half-dozen years ago," Danner writes, "Bush administration officials broke the law and did repugnant things to detainees under their control." But, he reminds us, that is not the only important element of this scandal.

"The dirty little secret of the torture scandal and of all the loud expressions of outrage now clogging the nation's airwaves is that, until very recently, the politics of torture cut in the opposite direction. This is why, although we have known the general narrative of torture since summer of 2004, most politicians have been loathe to do anything about it."

Danner has more to say, but the fact is that it would have taken far more courage to speak out against torture five years ago than it does to day. Personally, I was appalled. But I took no action and did not speak out.

The controversy about torture provides something of an example for discussing conscience and community, but it is not an act of conscience to speak loudly now. Everybody in the debate, regardless of their position, has allies and cover. Perhaps, one day supporters of torture will run huge political and social risks bucking an established ethical consensus, but they don't now. And calling for a truth commission is hardly a big risk these days, either.

So--I'm still asking myself--where ought a discussion of conscience and community be headed? And what else is there to say?

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