Friday, February 17, 2006

Confronting Tortured Faces

Helmut from Phronesisaical has weighed in on why torture, except the "ticking-bomb" analogy, is morally indefensible. I want to focus on what the newly released photographs of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses should do, but I fear won't do. First of all, if you haven't seen these photos, you will find them here and here. My colleague in the Philosophy department sent out email as widely as possible yesterday with a link to the first site, with this comment: "I wish that they could be viewed by the entire country, because I really believe that if people saw what was going on, the public outcry would be immediate."

I hope he is right, but some of my discussions with those who support torture inside and outside the classroom has made me rather pessimistic. In my experience, the students who stridently support torture make two different sorts of arguments. The first move is not really an argument at all, but the newly empowered PC: patriotic correctness, that is. I first experienced this last semester, while teaching different moral theories and then proceeded to get my students to evaluate practices from within a moral theory. We pulled up the NYTimes in class that day, the front page story reported 26 Iraqi and Afghani prisoner deaths, 16 of which were homicides. I asked my students to evaluate the morality of killing a prisoner of war.

One "true believer" argued that these prisoners were terrorists, they flew the planes into the twin towers, they are the enemey, and they should die. Another student started to cry, and explain that she was from NYC, saw the twin towers collapse and now has a brother over in Iraq. Finally, one of my smarter students wanted to point out how trivial this report was. 26 deaths since 2002, he reasoned, is not that big of a deal. When I pushed him to explain why the number of deaths made the act less morally problematic, he replied: "Isn't it the case that most professors are liberal and just want to "hug" the terrorists, rather than deal with this serious threat."

The second pro-torture strategy that the more sophisticated students take (as well as the wingnuts out there) is to clarify what we mean when we are talking about torture. One student said the other day, after impassioned arguments for/against torture, that he believed it was important that we take a sober approach to this matter, bracket out all emotional claims (read: irrational), and settle on a definition of torture.

I am not sure which strategy I hate more. I am leaning towards hating the latter more, because it is so pompous and cold. If you were to show this student the photos now circulating of the prisoner abuses, he would remain detached and demand that we better clarify what we find objectionable before reacting.

This is one of those moments where being a philosopher seems like an obstacle to being human. Of course, I cannot stand to look at those photos. I also am ashamed that we have directly or indirectly sanctioned this behavior. Moreover, I am horrified by what sort of people those soldiers--smiling over degraded bodies with thumbs up--have become. To perform such abuse, you either have to be a socio-path, or have been trained to dehumanize, objectify and hate the other. Neither option is very good.

I realize that my colleague wants these pictures to get out to persuade not the pro-torture enthusiasts, but the sort of ill-informed masses. Of course, my fear in this case, is that these images are so reminiscient of any CSI show or video game, that the public is inured to such haunting images.

What do you think?

Cross-Posted at Majikthise.