Thursday, April 23, 2009

Torturing Ourselves

The continuing national debate is getting more and more self-righteous as Americans look for absolutes in a world of moral murk.

Dick Cheney emerges from his psychic cave to insist that torture works, but he has no standing after eight years of secrecy and ruthlessness. Barack Obama tells us we are not the kind of people who torture on principle but refuses to punish those who did while believing they had a legal right to do so.

Now we are rooting through the moral wreckage for evidence of whether or not vile treatment of human beings can sometimes serve a greater good. Are those who insist that it never can and insist on punishing anyone who disagrees any less rigid than Cheney?

At 19, I was given a rifle and ordered to kill for my country against all my beliefs and three years later saw an American president command the only use of nuclear weapons in history to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children to save lives like mine in what would have been a bloody invasion of Japan.

Those experiences left me with a lifelong aversion to sanctimony on questions where life and death are involved. Even if the Cheney-minded can show that torture may sometimes produce useful information, does that justify its use as a policy? Even if those who disagree can refute those claims, does it justify their moral certitude?

The dangers of living in a world where rectitude is a zero-sum game (If I'm right, you must be wrong) are the greater threat to our humanity than the issue of torture as an abstraction in a world where, while recognizing ambiguity and ambivalence, nonetheless taking a moral stand is our best hope for surviving as the kind of people we believe ourselves to be.

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