Sorry about the duplication; I’d already been writing about the Durbin thing when Patrick finished and posted his piece about it. I’ll skip the part where I rehearse the news story, and cut to the part where I’m disagreeing with Charles Bird at Obsidian Wings. He said:
Can we agree that … putting American in the same sentence with Nazis, gulags and the Khmer Rouge has no place in civil political discourse?
All humans have moral agency—call it free will—and we have it all the time. The circumstances in which we find ourselves may contrain our choices, but we do make them.
Free will has a lot of implications. One of the biggest is that we can always screw up. That’s why it can never be right for us to give ourselves permission to stop making moral judgements. If we let ourselves become so certain we’re the good guys that we no longer have to question whether we’re acting like the good guys, we’re already deeply in the wrong and getting wronger by the minute.
So very sorry, Charles Bird. Americans have the same ability to do evil as anyone else. There’s no magic fuse box that’ll save us from our own excesses. Arguably, as Americans we have greater ability to do evil—it goes along with having more power, more resources, and more freedom of action. That makes us the last people on this planet who ought to be excused from having to think about whether there isn’t some resemblance between our own recent actions and those of the other regimes you’ve mentioned.
Good is always good, no matter who does it. That’s one of the really swell things about good: it’s a universally available option. Likewise, evil is evil, whether or not you reassure yourself that you’re one of the good guys while you’re doing it. Nobody gets to hand out white hats and black hats, then stop thinking.
What excuse do we have for the treatment of prisoners at Gitmo? Torture doesn’t yield worthwhile intelligence; everybody knows that. Also, many of these guys have been there for years. Whatever intelligence could be gotten out of them has long since been got. And yet, there they are, being tortured. What remaining reasons can there be? If it’s being done to send a message of intimidation to various persons and populations around the world, then we have met the terrorists, and they are us. And if even that very bad reason doesn’t stand up, the one that remains is that they’re being tortured for the amusement of their jailors.
What in all this disqualifies comparisons to other regimes? We’re less systematic and explicitly ideological about it than the Nazis? We’re not coming anywhere near the Khmer Rouge’s record-setting score for total percentage of population slain? Gitmo’s generated fewer notable works of literature than the Gulag Archipelago? That’s like saying you can’t be called an alcoholic because you drink less than Shane MacGowan.
On torture: Keeping someone chained up in a strained and unnatural position for 18-24 hours qualifies as torture, even if you don’t do anything further to them. Also, as I’m sure some of your office mates or neighbors could tell you if only you knew which ones to ask, prolonged restraint can cause permanent injury or death: impaired circulation, tissue damage, nerve damage, death or brain damage due to positional asphxia, heart attacks, et cetera.
(Here’s the challenge: try to find a “safer BDSM” site that doesn’t say that you should never, ever leave someone unattended, even for a minute, when they’re in restraints.)
We are behaving very badly indeed. There is no defense for it. Bridling at an accurate description of the situation is not going to get us off the hook.Actually, it’s just now occurred to me what our Guantanamo policy adds up to. To summarize our positions:
We can do anything we please with our prisoners, and keep them as long as we like—for the rest of their lives, if it comes to that.
We may transfer ownership of our prisoners to other parties.
We are not answerable for these actions to any tribunal. We owe no compensation to our prisoners, their families, or anyone else.
Our prisoners have no rights we are bound to respect.