Saturday, March 24, 2007

When torture becomes normal

Few things have made me as ashamed of my country as the recent release of the confession of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Sure, I was tortured, but since then I've had a chance to think it over, and now I am really confessing -- since when do we accept confessions like this in our country? It sounds like something from the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, writes about this in today's NYT.
If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.
"The U. S. went medieval on Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," read the callout quote in the print edition. Zizek writes:
Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.
Dick Cheney and his enablers -- including Harvard law prof and occasional theorist of the legal niceties of torture Alan Dershowitz -- have a hell of a lot to answer for.

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