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June 29, 2010

On American Torture

My friend Tom got me started on this when he said, apropos my letter to Obama about torture, that "I only wish we had done to them what they did to Nick Berg and Daniel Pearl." You may recall that both of these men were beheaded.

Before I get to torture, let me take a short digression to fanaticism. Fanaticism is the kind of thing that permits a mind to split in half, functionally, and yet to seem to operate as one. On the one hand, you have a decent man, a father, who takes his kids out riding bikes and to Disneyland (Disney critics, hold your fire; this is not about Disney). The same man can then look at an action which he reacts to viscerally as a heinous, evil with a capital E, crime deserving of the strongest conceivable retribution, and then recommend that this assault on all things good and lovely be duplicated – but NOT on the perpetrators. That part is essential to understanding how deeply and quickly this evil can infect its new hosts. Tom equates the ones who decapitated Berg and Pearl with the men who are in our prisons, and regretted that we had not decapitated these men, who were not the criminals who killed Berg and Pearl.

This is exactly like going into a jail, finding prisoners with Irish surnames, and torturing them because of what Tim McVeigh did.

To recommend such an act is, without equivocation or qualification, itself evil.

THIS is what torture does. Fanatics tortured Berg and Pearl, though they had done their captors no wrong. In response, decent people who did not know Berg or Pearl, but who identify with them because of belonging to a group to which they belong, recommend, with vigor, even after deliberation, that the United States, as a matter of policy, perpetrate the same heinous act, NOT on the ones who killed Berg and Pearl, but on anyone who belongs to the group to which the fanatic executioners belong.

Given this logic, anyone belonging to the same – or a similar – group to the one whose members killed Berg and Pearl can be killed by torture as a means of balancing the scales. Were the men who killed Pearl and Berg Sunni? Shia? It doesn't matter to the fanatical vigilante seeking to avenge their death. Any Arab or Muslim held helpless in custody will suffice.

When Malcolm X was talking about the murder of a black Korean war vet by an LA cop, he said (I paraphrase, but this is close to the original) "If a snake bites your child, you don't go out looking for the one snake with blood on its jaws; any snake will do." This is fanaticism. (To be clear, I have immense respect for Malcolm's later speeches.) When black men were lynched, it wasn't necessary that it be the particular black man who had offended the racist sensibilities of the white bigots: any black man they could get their hands on would do. Malcolm, in his visceral response to such heinous crimes, proved himself (at ne time) to be cut from the same cloth as the criminals he hated.

This is what torture does. Or can do. If what was done to Berg and Pearl can reach across oceans and infect a family man with a pernicious hatred of anyone remotely like the killers, so that the killers have, by their violence in a secluded room, created clones of themselves ten thousand miles away . . . if a family man who is not a member of a fundamentalist, fanatical religious group can be so infected, we have to ask what we mean by the pragmatism of torture.

When we defend torture by saying that it worked, regardless of whether a less criminal method might also have worked, or worked better, we are defending a crime because of its results. But not all of its results.

Here are the potential results of torturing a Muslim man:

1) the terrorizing of that man
2) his desire to answer interrogators' questions to forestall further terror
3) the creation of hundreds, maybe thousands of men who would kill for the chance to torture anyone vaguely akin to that man's torturers.

That, of course, presupposes that the torture becomes known.

And then there's this to consider: once you have tortured a man, can you ever let him be free again? Let him go home and tell his relatives, his childhood friends, his government, what was done to him? No. Once you torture a man, I think you have to kill him or imprison him for life, regardless of whether he was guilty in the first place. You break him, you buy him.

Torture is wrong. This is not complicated. When they do it, it is wrong. When we do it, therefore, it must also be wrong. But clearly, it is terrifying, sending shock waves internationally. But not just shock waves. It is seductive. Infectious, like a laugh, or a yawn. We want justice, and we don't care what manner of injustice we must commit to get it.

We must not torture. Ever. Because it turns everyone it touches, even at a distance, into madmen. And they will dishonor themselves, their tribe, and all of humanity if they have a chance to act on their fanaticism. How does one recover from the fanaticism brought on by torture? Is there a way out? I think the best way of dealing with it is to prevent it. Like whooping cough, this fanaticism, once contracted, must run its course. Who knows what son of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo – or Daniel Pearl– will mete out what kind of havoc ten or twenty years from now? The only other way is to ask the victims and their friends and relatives not to retaliate: and who has that kind of self-control?

In my opinion, we need to hold the perpetrators of torture accountable, no matter how high or low they are in the hierarchy. Not to serve the more civilized urge for revenge, but to serve as a catharsis. We have not only permitted this behavior: some have cheered it on. We all have need to give and receive forgiveness and to show remorse for this, as a nation. No scapegoats, but a public, communal penitence is required.

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