Bang You’re Dead!

Just when you think you’ve heard about the most absurd human behavior —  a contest to see who can eat the most worms and cockroaches in order to win a python — you read a story like the one in a recent Minneapolis Tribune article that tells about a couple in a Minneapolis suburb who are making money from having created a “simulated killing of Osama Bin Laden experience.” (Seriously, I did not make this up!) Let’s start with a couple of paragraphs from the story itself:

Six AR-15 semi-automatic rifles are loaded with paint bullets. The Kevlar vests are 25 pounds of light body armor. And the nondescript industrial park in New Hope sits 6,900 miles from Osama bin Laden’s former compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But the mixture of fear, adrenaline and smell of gunpowder was real enough to jump-start the heart rates of five mock Navy SEALs who cashed in Groupons for this simulated adventure that has transformed a firearms studio north of Minneapolis into a gung-ho war-game night out.

Eighteen months after a team of SEALs killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist, everyday folks like these guys can plunk down $150 for their own vicarious shot at Operation Geronimo.

The story attempts to make the project seem quite reasonable — giving a struggling business in a Minneapolis suburb a boost while helping people learn how to protect themselves under simulated conditions that make the adrenalin flow and the palms sweat, just like the “real thing.” Participants wear plastic body armor and use paintball rifles. But this is not Sheldon Cooper and his nerdy friends shooting paint balls at the pseudo-scientists in the geology department. This is supposed to simulate real life with real villains. The bottom line is that we have people pretending they are Navy SEALs, shooting cardboard cutouts of women who represent Bin Laden’s wives –“who might be carrying a bottle of kerosene” — or they might not. And, of course, there’s the fact that the real-life character they shoot in the end  — a former police sniper disguised to look like Bin Laden — constitutes a racial profile if there ever was one. Needless to say, there are minority groups in the Twin Cities who are deeply disturbed by reports of these goings-on.

So we have several interesting moral issues here in the name of teaching people how to protect themselves: racial profiling; acceptable “killing” of persons who might well be innocent bystanders in the name of “self-defense”; and fostering aggressive impulses in ordinary people who have a spare $150.00 to blow on playing a war game, of sorts. One of the participants was Ben Leber a former Minnesota Viking whose wife bought him a gift certificate for his birthday. Seriously?

I have blogged before about our limitless appetite for distractions, which Aldous Huxley noted many years ago. And to be sure, we need distractions in our stressful world. But isn’t there a point when these distractions start telling us something deeply disturbing about ourselves? Just when you think you have heard the most bizarre example possible you read about this newest attempt to give bored folks something to do in their spare time that will give them an adrenalin rush and make them feel like they have actually accomplished something important. Apparently, participants get so worked up they have trouble sleeping the following night. It does give one pause.

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Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”

Justifying Torture

A recent Senate study revealed that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the C.I.A. on al Qaeda did not produce measurable benefits in the war on terror. As a story explains, at the start, (Reuters) – A nearly three-year-long investigation by Senate Intelligence Committee Democrats is expected to find there is little evidence the harsh “enhanced interrogation techniques” the CIA used on high-value prisoners produced counter-terrorism breakthroughs.

Official sources insist upon using the euphemism for “torture,” which means they don’t want to call a spade a spade. It sounds better if we refer to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, not to mention making people crouch or stretch in stressful positions and slamming detainees against a flexible wall, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Some people call this “torture.” Our country chooses elaborate euphemisms. Welcome to “Newspeak.” In any event, whatever we call them, this committee has determined that they didn’t produce any benefits in the war on terror.

There are a number of interesting implications here. To begin with, that argument implies that  if there had been benefits, that is American lives had been saved or bin Laden had been captured or killed as a result of these measures (as Dick Cheney insisted at the time), it would have been justified. The end justifies the means., Machiavelli would be proud.

A second implication is that American lives are more valuable than non-American lives. All persons do not have equal moral value. This is a very serious implication, since it flies in the face of one of the very few sound moral precepts that underlies the fabric of this nation and allows us, from time to time, to claim the “moral high ground.” We can no longer do that if we insist that the lives of Americans are superior to the lives of other people. If all persons are not morally equal, then many, if not all, of the moral “advances” that have been made in recent years — equal rights of all persons regardless of race, color, gender, or creed; laws against discrimination; extension of suffrage, etc. — fall by the wayside.

I honestly do not see how we can morally justify torture, even if we call it something else. It most assuredly defies the Geneva Convention which was supposed to inject some semblance of morality in wartime — if such a thing is possible. Articles 13 to 16, for example, state that prisoners of war must be treated humanely without any adverse discrimination and that their medical needs must be met. But it also lowers us to the level of the people we fight against who also refuse to acknowledge that all persons are morally equal and none can be claimed to have moral privileges. That is the axiom that has been tested in the fires of the war on terrorism and has failed. That is a serious matter indeed.

The one bright note in this dark story is the comment by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who noted that the lack of evidence that torture benefitted this country in its war on terror is not really the issue.  Only days after the commando raid in which bin Laden was killed, Feinstein told journalists: “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and, in my view, nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.” She was right. Nothing justifies them.