What country pops into your head when you think of the cruelest citizens?
If you define cruel citizens as those who support subjecting other people – for no good reason – to terrifying and excruciating pain and suffering that scars them mentally and physically for the rest of their lives, then you might have to say the United States of America. It’s true: Coming in well above the worldwide average, 58 percent of Americans support government-sponsored use of torture as part of efforts to prevent terrorist attacks.
Wait a minute, you might say, I didn’t know you meant torture; I thought you just meant random cruelty – there’s a good reason for torture: to get information. But this is where you are wrong. You might as well say there’s a good reason for eating cupcakes: to lose weight.
Torture is not an effective means of gaining information. Evidence shows it doesn’t work. In fact, through long-term effects, it is more likely to make our country less safe than more safe.
Back in 2005, Americans were not such leaders in cruelty – only 38 percent of us supported the use of torture. That was right after we saw stomach-churning photos of the sadistic treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Since then, some developments have made us more comfortable with this perverse practice.
Euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation technique” made it more palatable; black site locations outside our borders made it less tangible; claims of its indispensability from our highest officials made it more respectable; and new enemies made us more desperate.
But none of this made it right. Inhumane treatment of others is never right. Even if torture were a successful means of extracting information, are we willing to sell our souls for the illusion of safety? Surely we as a nation stand for more than self-protection – it isn’t a virtue to be proud of. But we can’t even claim self-protection because torture doesn’t work, which means we’re selling our souls only for the sadistic pleasure of dehumanizing other human beings.
Two more thoughts before you make up your mind: First, if you support our use of torture, you must also support its use on our own sons and daughters, soldiers and citizens, and neighbors and loved ones when they fall into enemy hands. We cannot insist others take a moral high road that we ourselves are unwilling to travel.
And second: Torture also destroys the perpetrators. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, “As a torturer, you are the first to be a victim because you lose all your humanity. If you had a good cause to begin with, it is lost when you torture another human being … you die as a human being because the other person’s suffering is your own suffering.”
Torture isn’t about being strong or tough; it’s cowardly, cruel and counterproductive. And you don’t have to be the one inflicting torture to lose your humanity; it’s enough to go to the polls in November and vote for it.
Hi Deborah, thanks for introducing me to Thich Naht Hanh’s quote regarding torture. I had not read that before. Both he and Bonhoeffer get right to the most distressing aspects of torture beyond the effects on the tortured, that is, that we are losing our humanity and driving ourselves further from love and justice. There can be no justice where one human being dehumanizes another, and that is precisely what torture does. Not just to the tortured, but to the torturers. In my more naive conservative years, I remember watching the first season of 24 and cheering on Jack Bauer as he got vital information from terrorists through the use of these horrific tactics, but as I began watching season 2, I couldn’t help but get a gut-wrenching feeling that it is not justice. It is not what God wants us to do. It is inhuman and inhumane. I think about that earlier time now and cringe at how willingly I went along with that narrative, even after I began having serious moral questions. I try to look on the conservative population of our country with the understanding that “they know not what they do” because for a very long time, I was one of them. Yet the more time goes on, the more frustrated I get with those who persist in these narratives, even when presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is nothing wrong with admitting you were wrong, but there’s something especially troubling about sticking to one’s “guns” even after you’ve been proven wrong. Standing for something only matters if what you are standing for is just.
Thanks for the reminder again that being complicit when torture is done in our name implicates us nonetheless.
I can’t place now where I read or heard it, but someone recently suggested to me that we know what it means to be human when we look at the word “inhumane.” Inhumane is an equivalent to cruelty, and we understand this to be true when we understand that to be human is to extend compassion. We lose our humanity when we act with cruelty.
Your fine post reminds me of a telling comment in a book on undocumented border crossers. The book is called “The Land of Open Graves” by Jason De Leon. He was speaking of the many people who die in the desert and why there isn’t an outcry over this horror, and concludes that since the desert is so secluded, almost all Americans have the luxury of remaining ignorant of this terrible situation.
De Leon writes, ” Contributing to this dehumanization is the
fact that the Sonoran Desert is remote, sparsely populated, and largely out of the American public’s view. This space can be policed in ways that would be deemed violent, cruel, or irrational in most other contexts. Just imagine how people would react if the corpses of undocumented Latinos were left to rot on the ninth hole of the local golf course or if their sun-bleached skulls were piled up in the parking lot of the neighborhood McDonald’s.”
The use of the desert to deter border crossers is not officially acknowledged. Instead it is cloaked in the language of “Prevention Through Deterrence.”
A similar process appears to cloak the USA’s use of torture: euphemistic language is employed (“enhanced interrogation technique), and an out-of-the-way place is selected. It’s just bad news.
And, common sense alert here, how on EARTH can any information obtained through causing extreme bodily pain be trusted???
Thanks for your fine, well -written and extremely thought-provoking post, especially the ‘zinger’ at the end. Makes me want to research my voting practices down to the last piece of legislation. Well done.
Kathy, Thank you for drawing this very relevant parallel. I just read this fitting quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Keeping these atrocities hidden certainly makes it easier to keep the masses from getting outraged and to keep justice from being served. Thanks for shining a light on “The Land of Open Graves.”
This was a good post. Its so sad that so many people don’t think about the consequences of our actions before we begin to judge the actions of others. America has a history of telling other nations how to be moral and humane, when America is the worst perpetrator of cruelty and inhumanity. 911 made many Americans more desirous of revenge for those who attacked the US. But how many nations has American bullied by attacking them just to protect American interests, i.e., ensure American got what America wanted. We have to remove the log from our own eyes and understand that American interests are not the only interests that require preserving. All of humanity deserves to be treated humanely. There is a reason Jesus directs us to love others as we love ourselves. This helps us recognize the humanity of the other!