Torture and Justifications: The Lie of the ‘Bad World’


This blog has remained fairly apolitical for the last couple years (relative to its early years). I believe in being a citizen of the world, engaged in the issues of the day, but at some point it becomes clear that you’re just ranting into the wind. If the internet is the ultimate town hall meeting, letting the world air its grievances, it’s being held in the largest school auditorium in the universe, a chasm of noise.

So I don’t really want to expend much energy on debating the topic of torture and America’s use or non-use of it. For the record, I don’t believe it’s right for us to torture, I do believe some of the tactics that the CIA used were torture and I do believe that the report needed to come out. Those are my stances on this issue, that’s enough to be said on it.

What I’m writing about is a very common refrain, one that in the light of this report is being trotted out quite frequently. I heard it just the other night while I was at work, and I’m sure a good 50% of the pundits on television are regurgitating it as well:

“The world is a bad place; sometimes you have to do bad things to survive.”

That sentiment can be restated a thousand different ways in a million different contexts. Here is Dick Cheney’s version, stated just a few days after the attacks on 9/11:

“We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will.”

Dick Cheney is a central figure in this debate both because he was the acting vice president during the period covered by the so-called Torture Report and because he’s now hitting the press circuit to defend those tactics. I have no interest in debating Cheney’s fine line between what does and does not constitute torture, nor do I have much interest in whether our national policy should be answering terrorist attacks with equal or more severe retribution (I’ll say this: The next time someone says this is a ‘Christian Nation,’ ask them what Jesus said about ‘Eye for an Eye’ style justice).

I actually want to peel back the debate even further and contend with the most fundamental assumption in the argument: Is the world really a bad place?

I’ve written at length on this subject before, so this won’t be a rehash of those statistics or that argument. This argument assumes those details are a foregone conclusion.

Our culture thrives on fear. From the 24-hour news cycle to political elections, from anti-GMO activism to anti-vaccination “awareness,” from Hollywood’s explosive, summertime disaster blockbusters to reality TV that presents us with “real” encounters with ghosts and horribly deformed monsters, we live in the age of fear.

Yet, by all statistical, practical and logical measures, we have the least to fear than any other generation before us. Maybe it’s because I was 6 when the Berlin Wall came down or because I was 18 when the Twin Towers fell, but I’ve never been afraid of the outside world. The creeping dread that festered in the minds of Cold War-raised children, or the existential anxiety that rests over the population post-9/11 has never infected me. I wanted us to kill Bin Laden (and celebrated when we finally did) and punish the people responsible, but I never left my housing thinking I would become another causality in an unexpected World War.

I’m not saying I don’t ever have fear, but it’s the day-to-day worries associated with a life that has, for the last 10 years at least, been topsy-turvy, to put it mildly. Global crises don’t tickle my amygdala.

I realize I’m lucky to be able to say that. There are many places in this world where true, horrific terror is a daily – hourly – threat. Saying, as I do, that the world is a pretty great place might seem like a slap in the face to the people on this planet who live in constant terror due to some government or military force. Hell, there are people in this country whose lives are the stuff of nightmares. There are horrors in this world to be sure.

Some would claim that for me to call this world a ‘great place’ when such atrocities exist is, at best, naive, and at worst, willful ignorance in the face of suffering.

I say that to claim we all live in a bad world is an opportunistic lie built out of fear or the desire to make others afraid. It’s a lie that allows bad people to justify their actions and scared people to look the other way. It’s a lie that ignores reality in favor of attention-grabbing headlines. And, worst of all, it’s a lie that belittles those people whose suffering is real.

Beyond that, it’s also a selfish lie. It allows us to feel pity for ourselves. It allows us to always be the victim. It allows us to despise real victims when they falter under the weight of their pain, believing they are weaker than us.

Terrorists attacks and wars are horrific events, but most of our lives, especially in America (even in New York City) are relatively untouched by them, except in general ways. ‘Most’ does not mean ‘all.’ Lots of lives were lost, and many loved ones live on with that emptiness ever present. From a purely statistical point of view, though, it is completely accurate to say that most people in this country have no personal link with any terrorist attack. That’s a good thing. It should be celebrated, not ignored in the name of political expediency or television ratings.

No other country on earth has the power, money and influence of the United States. If only there was a pithy, famous quote about the correlation of power and responsibility.

The world is not a bad place. It is not a perfect place, either, but Utopia is a fool’s dream and justifying evil in its absence is, itself, an act of evil.

We make the world a bad place when we decide that our standards need only be technically higher than the worst people on earth. Saying, “We’re better than ISIS and that’s enough” is like saying “Ebola isn’t as bad as AIDS so why worry about it?” If our goal is true and global social justice, then we must rise above shallow aspirations and actively live by a higher standard.

If, on the other hand, our only goal is to rule from atop a crap heap, then I can think of no better man for the job of Shit King than Dick Cheney.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney

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