March 31, 2007

The New Barbarians of the Middle Ages, and the Living Dead

In some of my entries about torture, and also concerning the enormous popularity of the television series, 24, I excerpted an unusually enlightening article by Slavoj Zizek about the moral and cultural significance of the acceptance of torture, even as a topic of "respectable" debate: see "The Road to Depravity and Dictatorship," and "At the Bottom of the Abyss: 24 as the Basis of National Policy" (the concluding part of which is "The Torturers Take Over").

A week ago, another article by Zizek was published in The New York Times, and then reprinted at Truthout: "Knight of the Living Dead." Here are some key excerpts:
Since the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's dramatic confessions, moral outrage at the extent of his crimes has been mixed with doubts. Can his claims be trusted? What if he confessed to more than he really did, either because of a vain desire to be remembered as the big terrorist mastermind, or because he was ready to confess anything in order to stop the water boarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques"?

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.

While the scope of Mr. Mohammed's crimes is clear and horrifying, it is worth noting that the United States seems incapable of treating him even as it would the hardest criminal - in the civilized Western world, even the most depraved child murderer gets judged and punished. But any legal trial and punishment of Mr. Mohammed is now impossible - no court that operates within the frames of Western legal systems can deal with illegal detentions, confessions obtained by torture and the like. (And this conforms, perversely, to Mr. Mohammed's desire to be treated as an enemy rather than a criminal.)

It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto "legal" and "illegal" criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls "homo sacer": a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he's not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law.


Reality has now surpassed TV. What "24" still had the decency to present as Jack Bauer's disturbing and desperate choice is now rendered business as usual.

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called "objective spirit," the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual's activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is "dogmatically" clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

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?
Yes, dear reader: we are the New Barbarians of my title.

Related essays: Lies in the Service of Evil

On Torture