May 18, 2011
This is probably my most belligerent and exasperated blog post ever. Consider yourself forewarned.
I got myself into a couple of Facebook arguments recently, in which I’m not sure how much I accomplished, and which served mainly to undermine my regard for humanity. Apparently, after Osama bin Laden’s assassination a couple weeks ago, it was said by some on the political right that information we obtained by “harsh interrogation methods,” allowed us to find him. And I don’t even know enough about the chain of events to judge whether it’s true or not, but it hardly matters to my opinion: if it is true, then it wasn’t worth it. We paid too high a price in our own humanity and national honor. I would rather never have caught him, and let him die holed up in his little fortress, than have stooped to that level, morally, to get to him.
And if it isn’t true, then the argument is even more malevolent for being a lie.
So I really don’t care whether the practice of torture allowed us to catch bin Laden.
But I’ve already learned the immensely frustrating way that apologists for torture aren’t swayed by ethical arguments, or legal ones. There is always some end that justifies the means or legal loophole or illusory ticking time bomb.
I’ve only got one more argument:
The use of torture isn’t just weak, unconstitutional, un-American, illegal, immoral, and un-Christian. (Did I miss anything?) It’s stupid. It makes us as a country look brutish, and it makes its supporters look unintelligent.
It demonstrates an utter lack of foresight, of historical memory, and of imagination. You’d have to be totally unable to imagine yourself in the place of an innocent torture victim—swept up in a dragnet in the midst of civil unrest, at the mercy of a regime desperate to quash dissent or inconvenient criticism, the resident of an invaded country whose invaders understand neither your language nor culture very well but are convinced that you must know something that they want to know. And while it’s true, practically speaking, that you’re probably fairly safe from those circumstances here in America (for the time being, anyway), that’s only by sheer accident of birth. It’s not by any virtue or deserving of your own that you were born here, and not in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent. It’s luck of the draw.
Look back—how do we regard countries and regimes which engaged in torture? As evil. They all had high ideals. They all saw their own goals as ultimately good and so justified ignoring the human implications. But it’s their actions that reveal them for what they really were. So how is the future going to look back on us and this sorry decade in our history?
Look forward—what we do to the world and to other people comes back to us, one way or another, over and over again. You have to have not been paying very much attention not to have noticed this, or not been alive for very long. Or maybe I’m just better at pattern recognition. But we do reap what we sow. What if America finds itself in some kind of serious danger in the future; what will it do for our chances of finding support or cooperation from other countries if they know that when push comes to shove, we’ll behave just as badly as our enemies?
It’s arrogant, and arrogance is always shortsighted and dumb. It pretends that we know more than we can; I’ve heard the attempted excuse that we only torture people who we know are bad guys, or who we know (feel the sarcasm) have some kind of vital information but don’t want to give it up. But our record doesn’t support this confidence. See story of Maher Arar above, or look at the US justice system’s record of having to release people who turned out to have been wrongfully convicted of major crimes. And those are people who’ve had a lawful trial in which all available and legally admissible evidence was supposed to have been presented. Most of the people we’re interrogating at GITMO have not. We’re seriously not good at realizing what we don’t know.
Anyway, sorry to sound belligerent and angry. It’s tiring and it doesn’t make me feel good. It’s just that I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this stuff, and it makes me really sad.
May 15, 2011
I took a hike a couple weekends ago to Hunter Island, which, amazingly enough, is part of the Bronx. Though now connected to Orchard Beach by landfill, it was once a true island, owned by a wealthy man named John Hunter who had a mansion and large estate there.
There’s nothing left of the house (that I could find, anyway), but the now feral ruins of his gardens remain.
Though difficult to imagine now, in another month, this entire field will explode in orange tiger lilies.
May 6, 2011
The New York Times Economix blog reports this week (Dimming Optimism for Today’s Youth) that, for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans are not optimistic that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, as they answered the question:
In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents–very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?
This isn’t exactly the post that I thought it was going to be. I was going to argue against the implicit assumption of the way the question is phrased–the conflation of greater and greater achievement of material wealth with being qualitatively “better”–as being economically unsustainable, and in the manner of a Red Queen’s Race, actually a recipe for ever-diminishing quality of life. But I wondered then if I was trying to read more into the question than was actually intended for the sake of having an argument, and a blog post.
What if we start instead by questioning what a “good” life is, before we try to quantify likelihood of whatever a “better” one is? What would I include as requisites for a good life?
To love, and be loved in return.
To leave the world a better place than you found it–kinder, safer, more beautiful.
To be able to do work you know is meaningful.
To have a rich internal life, in addition to external relationships to keep you strong.
To serve something higher than yourself.
To be fed, and to be sheltered.
To be known.
To know joy, loyalty, and faith.
To live through grief.
To be content with who you are on some basic level.
To know what it is to be alone, and what it is not to be.
To know your own history, your own narrative.
To be needed.
I can’t fathom a complete life without reading, writing, and music.
And I don’t know that happiness or comfort have much to do with it, so much as satisfaction in their pursuit.
As I look at my list, of course I hope the next generation, and my children if I ever have them, will have a better life, in terms of having more of all of these things. But I couldn’t care less about whether they’ll have more stuff or a bigger house or another advanced degree.
Am I optimistic for them? I’m not sure yet. If they’re able to start exercising some common sense when it comes to environmental protection, if they’ll abandon the suburbs and exurbs for liveable communities again, if they’re more creative, resourceful, skeptical, literate, compassionate, committed to justice and equality, less interested in war and domination, more able to teach themselves, less able, willing or entitled to take any level of material wealth or comfort for granted.
I’m not sure yet.