October 17, 2006

The Road to Depravity and Dictatorship

As I noted below, Our Supreme Leader signed the Military Commissions Act today. Jim Bovard, author of several invaluable books on the Bush administration's countless crimes (Terrorism and Tyranny, The Bush Betrayal, Attention Deficit Democracy) has labeled this legislation "the torture/dictatorship law." It is a measure of the impenetrable and forbidding depths to which we have descended that Bovard's descriptive label is entirely accurate. If they genuinely understand the fundamentality of the right of habeas corpus and how profoundly destructive of that right -- and therefore of all our freedoms -- this bill is, the Democrats will make the repeal of this abomination their first order of business, should they take over both the House and Senate. Nothing else is of greater significance. Nothing. We shall see.

Yesterday, I discussed Stan Goff's analysis of the factors that make up the growing, particularly American form of fascism. I mentioned the normalization of torture: the belief that unimaginable cruelty and barbarity are "justified" in the name of self-defense. My series On Torture demolishes every major aspect of this lie; see Part IV in particular, and the Darius Rejali article excerpted there.

In connection with these issues, I remembered this article by Slavoj Zizek from the beginning of this year. In several parts of my torture series (see here, here and here especially), I focused on the irreparable damage that torture does to both the person who is tortured and, which is often overlooked, to the torturer. Yesterday I also noted some of the reprehensible messages conveyed by the television series 24; Zizek is eloquent on the subject.

Zizek makes clear how frequently the storylines in 24 utilize torture, which is always presented as "necessary," "justified" -- and effective:
The [Counter Terrorist Unit] agents, as well as their terrorist opponents, live and act in a shadowy space not covered by the law, doing things that "simply have to be done" to save our societies from the threat of terrorism. This includes not only torturing terrorists when they are caught, but even torturing members of CTU or their closest relatives if they are suspected of terrorist links.

In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of "ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is just about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).
Nothing reveals more starkly the boundless and unforgivable stupidity of our national debate about torture -- except for the monstrous fact that we have had such a debate in the first place -- than the fact that the "ticking-bomb" fiction is still regularly deployed. And as I mentioned earlier, I draw your attention to the fact that it is this entirely false scenario that Hillary Clinton uses to "justify" her "limited" endorsement of torture (note her recourse to the scene of "imminent" danger -- which she, like everyone else, gets from movies and television, and not from life). Nothing about this screenwriter's fantasy conforms to what actually happens in reality, as I discussed in detail here and here. Moreover, as pointed out in the second of those posts, it is precisely when time is very short that torture is of least conceivable value. I continue to be astonished that these points must be made repeatedly. Our appetite for vengeance and violence is now so insatiable that we insist on brutalizing others, and ourselves as well -- even when such violence is entirely futile and pointless, and when it achieves nothing other than the destruction of our humanity, of liberty, and of civilization itself.

Here is the critical passage from Zizek:
24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the system's excess and threatened the system itself.

The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.

There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.

Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

But what if such a distance is possible? What if people do commit terrible acts as part of their job while being loving husbands, good parents and close friends? As Arendt says, the fact that they are able to retain any normality while committing such acts is the ultimate confirmation of moral depravity.

So what about the response to this hair-splitting? Some argue that at least the US is now more open and less hypocritical about its behaviour towards terrorist suspects. To this, one should reply: "If US representatives mean only this, why are they telling us? Why don't they silently go on doing it, as they did it until now?" What is proper to human speech is the gap between the enunciated content and its act of enunciation. Imagine a couple who have a tacit agreement that they can have discreet extramarital affairs; if, all of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an affair, she would have good reason to wonder why he was telling her. The act of publicly revealing something is never neutral; it affects the reported content itself.

The same goes for the US's recent admission that it is using torture. When we hear people such as Dick Cheney making statements about the necessity of torture, we should ask ourselves why he has decided to make a public statement about it. The question to be raised is: what is there in this statement that made the speaker decide to enunciate it? This is 24's real problem: not the content itself but the fact that we are being told openly about it. And that is a sad indication of a deep change in our ethical and political standards.
With Bush's signing of this bill today, the worst kind of barbarism is made "legitimate" and consecrated in our laws.

We commit horrors, our government sanctifies the acts, and we speak of them openly -- and even with pride and righteousness. In terms of the moral principles that are implicated, there is not much lower to go.

Now we simply wait to see to what extent the powers in this new law are implemented, and who the particular targets will be. And we wait to see just how lightless, how evil, and how endless our nightmare will be.