Thursday, March 22, 2007

On Being Indifferent to Torture

Kerry has an excellent and haunting post up on torture, more specifically his experiences of teaching about torture. He writes:

Last semester I taught a seminar for senior philosophy majors on torture. It was a grueling experience for all of us. We combed through personal accounts from torture victims and perpetrators; we looked at UN and Amnesty International documentation on the prevalence of torture throughout the world today; we forced ourselves to explore the details of "favored" torture techniques; we read all the pertinent ethical analyses of torture, focusing especially on the "dirty hands" and "ticking bomb" justifications of it; we spent a great deal of time examining the psychological and spiritual disintegration experienced by torture victims--Elaine Scarry and Ariel Dorfman were especially helpful here; and we investigated "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition" practices in the U.S.
There were 22 students in the seminar. They all worked hard, and I know that the material we went over frequently disturbed them immensely. I liked all of them. They're all good, decent, smart, well-informed people.
In our final meeting together, I invited each of them to share, now that the seminar was over, whether they thought torture was morally justifiable. One by one, each of them spoke. And when it was over, 18 of the 22 had said "yes." For them, at least under certain circumstances, torture was justifiable. Yes, yes, torture was a horrible thing. Yes, it was shocking. But for the sake of national security, it might be morally justifiable to do unspeakable things to one person in order to save others. In fact, it might even be morally obligatory.
In nearly 25 years of teaching, I've never been so shocked.
I am with him on this. He concludes with some speculations about why knowing more about torture simply does not make you more outraged that torture exists. But, ultimately, he is at a loss over why so many of us refuse to confront what a horrific damage torture does to persons and why it is one of the most abominable things we can do.

I wonder about this too. I have often wondered about it in a more, perhaps, mundane context of pledging for Sororties or Fraternities. I am amazed by how people who have actually been tortured by these experiences just chalk it up to tom foolery. Why would you ever want your precious child subjected to this horrific treatment. And, more importantly, why do we foolishly believe that we would emerge unscathed from torture, that we could move on and put it behind us?

In general, I wonder if I am just not made for this planet. I seem to lack a thick layer of indifference that might shield me from awful truths. I am too raw. But, I find it hard to believe that our students are so well insulated. Perhaps they are able to "justify" torture, because they truly believe that it will never happen to them. It is a form of magical thinking. And, more depressingly, a profound narcissism. They can care, suffer, and wince for the horror another experiences, but only to a point, because at bottom they are perhaps young enough, lucky enough, or foolish enough to think it will never happen to them.

It is downright distrubing to think that compassion or exasperation only flows from those who have already been injured (especially because being injured does not necessarily lead to those outcomes, it can make one more callous). I hope I am wrong about this.