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Torture and Politics in an Age of Anxiety



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I have sought recently to familiarize myself with the largely utilitarian claims offered for torture, but try as I might, I can find no justification for the United States, founded as it is on ringing declarations of human rights and human dignity, to ask its military and intelligence services to engage in such practices. Engaging in torture, illegal under U.S. and international law, undermines our calls for freedom, democracy and democratization, degrades our legitimacy in dealings with other nations, endangers our troops, demoralizes the personnel asked to undertake it and moves the nation down a slippery slope whose potential, and recently evidenced, perversities are too well known to recount here. Moreover, I can find no hard evidence that it “works.” Even if it were useful, in the narrow sense former Vice President Cheney has offered, I would nonetheless agree with Senator John McCain (R. AZ.), who endured terrible torture in the Vietnam conflict, and argue strongly against its use for the other reasons just enumerated. It surely represents a moral abomination in a nation otherwise purportedly dedicated to human freedom and dignity.

All of this said, the Inquisition certainly regarded waterboarding as torture and enjoined those acting for it to cease the practice as soon as it appeared to endanger the life of those enduring it. Notably, the Bush administration famously argued this end point for Inquisitors constituted what it saw as the beginning of torture. President Obama banned the practice soon after entering office and the U.S. Army Field Manual now expressly forbids it. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich stand out as the candidates still in the Republican nomination race who have refused to dub waterboarding as torture or to disavow its potential use, should they win the presidency.

I have been struggling with why these leaders have embraced the position they have adopted. One could argue it is simply a matter of appearing “tough” to appeal to the very conservative GOP members most likely to vote in primaries and caucuses. Perhaps indeed it is a way to demonstrate mettle (however perversely). Perhaps these explanations are apt in the narrow sense of political positioning for the instrumental purposes of the campaign at hand.

But I have lately been reading The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden’s masterful and dense book-length poem published soon after World War II and largely written in reaction to that conflict. In consequence, I find myself wondering if the United States’ recent use of torture reflects a deeper tendency in our nation’s and, indeed, western politics. Auden’s poem suggested that the modern world (or at least, as a practical matter, residents of its democratic nations) has lost its familiar cosmological moorings in social and faith-based hierarchy, and has therefore situated all responsibility for sensemaking of the human condition with individuals. These, accordingly, whatever their social and economic status, confront a situation of an unending, Sisyphean and existential search for purpose, security and meaning. Such a quest could have and has been assuaged, at great cost, by assigning ultimate authority to arbitrate meaning to rulers; whether Hitler, or Stalin or Mussolini, for example. But, given the individualist turn in modern philosophy and understanding, this overarching challenge cannot be avoided or set aside.

Democracies live under this continuing pall and it would be surprising indeed if their politics were not influenced, or more, shaped, by it. Thus, perhaps Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, pressed as they are by their Party’s core constituency to resolve all ambiguities about future government action amidst grave social uncertainty, and in the face of the unrelenting reality of a lack of shared moorings in philosophical terms for the citizenry they would mobilize, seize on actions that can apparently minimize such risks and guarantee certitudes. If citizens must live with existential uncertainty and that permanent state is currently symbolized by the spectral fear produced by terrorism, it could surely be tempting to provide a supposed simple palliative, rather than to present primary (and later, a general electorate far more skeptical of torture) voters with an argument concerning the irremediable character of their condition. I am reminded as I write, that politics is about power and it is both alluring and easy for would-be democratic leaders to set aside these realities in favor of “giving them what they want.” In the short-term, this stance may indeed help one of these individuals gain the Republican presidential nomination. I am therefore left to reflect on the deeper question their stand concerning waterboarding and torture raises, “At what cost?”

Publication Date

February 12, 2012