Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Torture Light

For a number of years, I have felt that two issues should predominate in any political debate. In no order, they have been: How are we doing in the department of getting and keeping peace? and How are we doing at keeping the economy running smoothly? Your answers to these two questions, I have felt, should determine your vote, whether to vote change or no change.
I'm not sure why, but now I seem to be rethinking these two criteria. The first question assumes that peace is even possible. As I look over the past 40 years or so, it's starting to look more and more like a period of continuous conflict. When we're not at war, someone, you can be sure, is clamoring for it, almost always those with little or no personal stake in actual combat. Perhaps future historians will be more inclined to label the peaceful periods between wars as a way of marking different time epochs.
As for our economy, well, cycles happen, and nothing has kept them from recurring every few years, though we've thus far avoided anything like The Great Depression for over 70 years. That doesn't mean it couldn't happen again. But the cycles themselves seem less connected to political ideology, and more simply to overreaching greed, a temptation we'll never lose.
If we can't change these two great determinants of our lives' quality, then what are the small changes left for us to make in order to measure progress?
I believe right now that we should renounce torture in all its forms, by us or anyone else performing nasty things on our behalf, as a way of showing the world that we have not sunk to the level of past empires, hanging on to their top spot in desperation. Some things, we tell our children, are always wrong, and we are correct. My generation (at least a part of it) rose up vocally and took a modest risk to oppose the War in Vietnam. That, I believe, was correct.
We now have our turn at wielding authority, but cannot quite get ourselves to renounce things we have known to be barbaric and cruel for a century or more. A judge described as "principled" is nominated as Attorney General, then, safely in office, is sickened by torture, though not enough to renounce his powerful employer (the President) and give up a spot in the Cabinet. The soon to be Republican nominee, a one-time victim of torture in North Vietnam, makes a faustian bargain whereby prisoners scream in pain somewhere under the authority of the CIA, but it's all legal and the "base is secured" politically when he is seen as "strong" enough to do The USA's dirty work, personal or religious convictions notwithstanding. Those most anxious to identify themselves as "Christians" are first in line with their support, because they had had their doubts - about McCain, not about torture.
The civilized world looks on, and cannot decide - should they be repulsed at this course taken by the world's self-appointed moral leader or relieved that someone is willing to take on the fanatic Muslims on their own terms?
The more complex the situation seems, the easier it gets to make decisions that just seem to be part of the context of war. But I am sickened by it. The torture light is still green, and the grim orders come from members of my generation, who were supposed to have learned better, but, in the American tradition, seem to have no historical memory at all. Trouble is, the folks on the other side have a tradition, too. They don't forget anything.


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